SPECTATORS applauded Thursday when a judge denied Bernard Madoff's request to await sentencing in his $7 million apartment and instead remanded him to jail. The judge's decision may have been emotionally satisfying to the schemer's victims, but it provided no restitution for their losses and only the barest pretense of justice.
Something similar is true for the millions of people victimized by other financial misdeeds - legal or not - that precipitated the economic implosion. Indeed, Madoff's flamboyant fraud looks petty alongside the sums lost because of shaky subprime mortgages, derivatives that bundled securitized mortgages in deceptive packages, and risk-blind credit-default swaps that capsized the world's largest insurance company.
At least the people fleeced by Madoff have had the partly cathartic experience of seeing him tell the judge he is "sorry" and "ashamed." But what about all the wage-earners who lost jobs or savings because bond-rating agencies pocketed payments from bond peddlers and produced false ratings for the peddlers' wares? What catharsis will those victims have? And what about seniors who can't retire and students who can't go to the college of their choice because regulators didn't regulate and free-market fanatics in high office preached the infallibility of unfettered markets?
No doubt, Madoff is a uniquely twisted individual. His crimes will go on causing ripples of suffering for some time to come. But his amoral shortcut to success may also be viewed as an allegory of an entire epoch: a time when people in high places decided that history is a lie, that financial bubbles would never burst, and that there is no price to pay for a complete surrender to greed.