SO BERNIE MADOFF got the max: 150 years in prison. Whatever.
The fact that the thief will very likely die in prison means little to the people whose lives and livelihoods he destroyed. They're still missing their money and any prospect of getting it back.
At least Madoff's victims got a sliver of gratification Monday watching him whine in court about the "torment" he will live with "the rest of my life." (For this reason, we wish him good health.)
But what about the millions of other Americans whose lives have been upended by the fraudsters who caused the global economic crisis?
Yes, we mean fraud, not innocent mistakes or incompetent miscalculations, or even weak government regulations. There's evidence that the subprime-mortgage boom, the ensuing housing bubble and the financial catastrophe that followed were built on deceit. And the perpetrators and their co-conspirators are laughing all the way to the - you should pardon the expression - banks.
(Hmmm . . . would the big shots at Goldman Sachs, who just got the biggest bonuses in company history, and at Citicorp, who are getting 50 percent raises, actually trust their money to their own banks, knowing how they really operate?
William K. Black, the outspoken economics professor who was a regulator during the savings- and-loan crisis, says that executives at financial institutions consciously made bad loans - they even called them "liars' loans" - to increase profits. Then they hauled away their loot in the form of executive compensation, leaving no fingerprints. They make Madoff look like an amateur.
Black is telling anyone who will listen - darn few people in power, unfortunately - that, unless the extent of the fraud is recognized and punished, the economy won't be truly fixed. President Obama's recently unveiled financial regulatory plan, which studiously avoids looking at past wrongdoing, isn't going to do it, he says.
IMAGINE IF, on Monday, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin had told Madoff that he wanted to "look forward" and focus on making sure that monstrous frauds like Madoff's don't happen again - and so would let him off with a stern lecture and no punishment. That's pretty much the Obama administration's message to Wall Street.
One possibility remains for exposing some of what really happened: The creation by Congress of an investigative commission modeled on the 1932 Pecora Commission that investigated the causes of the Wall Street crash in 1929. Its findings led to tough regulations that protected the nation's financial structure for decades.
The new commission's success depends on the courage and savvy of its 10 members - who will be appointed soon, six by Democratic congressional leaders and four by Republicans - as well as the skill of its staff. But a recent report by Reuters listed possible appointees who mostly included the "usual suspects," many of whom looked the other way when the crisis was unfolding.
Instead, it's time for a new Warren Commission - that is, one headed by Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard professor appointed by Congress to oversee the bank bailout. She has been a tenacious watchdog for the public interest.
We need her, or someone like her, to investigate whether the charges by Black (and others) are true, to expose any fraud and to recommend strong action. We don't need a commission that falls for "single-bullet" theories about who's to blame and what to do about it.
Sen. Al Franken
He's good enough, he's smart enough and, doggone it, 312 more people like him than they do Norm Coleman. *