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Finding Joy In Other People's Misery

Good news for people looking to pin at least some of the blame on somebody for the subprime mortgage meltdown. With last Thursday's indictment of two former Bear Stearns hedge fund managers, the American Public can point their collective fingers squarely at Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin, who are charged with mail and wire fraud as well as conspiracy (the white-collar crime Trifecta). The FBI bases much of its charges on e-mail evidence, which clearly documents the two as they wheedled their way out of personal financial ruin while publicly singing the praises of their fund to investors. As they walked handcuffed into Federal Court, I couldn't help but feel good that these two idiots are being publicly humiliated.

For some reason, it feels great to see idiotic criminals get caught. Schadenfreude - taking pleasure in the pain of someone else - is a wonderful thing. The Germans historically have a knack for delighting in the misfortune of others (examples: World Wars I and II, David Hasselhoff, etc.). It makes sense that they would have a word for their unofficial national pastime. But it took America to really elevate the practice to an art form. Most cases of schadenfreude shouldn't be funny, but they are. We've all laughed watching people get splashed by huge trucks driving through puddles, seeing children's ice cream scoops plop messily on the floor, and the like. But sometimes feeling great about someone else's crappy situation is absolutely warranted. Say, for example, the Bear Stearns case.

Don't feel bad about hating these guys. They'll be spending a good chunk of time behind bars. The closest thing to Wall Street upper management in prison is the occasional freelance consulting gig regarding toilet wine and stabbing instruments. But seriously, putting away men like Cioffi and Tannin helps investors trust the market again, which is exactly the antidote the ailing mortgage sector needs. People know that a corrupted system is being righted. With time it wouldn't be surprising if more Cioffis and Tannins are caught, brought to justice, and exposed for being the frauds that they are. In situations like that, we should all feel good about someone else's pain - it means we're doing something right.

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