June 25, 2009

No one can predict exactly when Bernie Madoff will die. But the date of his death, I bet, will come far later than his lawyer says it will.

The question of Madoff’s expected lifespan is extremely relevant to next Monday’s scheduled sentencing for Madoff, who has pleaded guilty to running a Ponzi scheme that cost more than 1,300 investors a total of more than $13 billion. The 71-year-old Madoff faces a maximum sentence of 150 years, and his victims want him locked up for the rest of his life. Earlier this week, Madoff’s lawyer, Ira Lee Sorkin, asked that his client be sentenced to a mere 12 years in jail.

Given that it’s hard to think of any white-collar criminal other than Madoff who has caused so much pain to so many people, Sorkin’s suggestion of that sentence to the presiding judge in the case, Denny Chin, must seem like the height of gall. But, hey — Sorkin’s a lawyer and that’s his job: To make unbelievable requests on behalf of his client.

What I find outrageous about Sorkin’s letter to Judge Chin isn’t the sentence he asks for, but some of the reasoning he uses to back it up. Citing Social Security Administration data, Sorkin says his client has an “approximate” life expectancy of 13 years. “A prison term of 12 years — just short of an effective life sentence — will sufficiently address the goals of deterrence, protecting the public, and promoting respect for the law….” writes Sorkin.

Hmmm. Is twelve years really a near-death sentence for the scammer? I don’t think so. First, let’s look at the Social Security life expectancy tables that Sorkin alludes to. Yes, according to the SSA, a 71-year-old male, on average, will live another 12.66 years. But that’s on average; one-half of Madoff’s cohort will live longer than that. And if, 12 years from now, an 83-year-old Madoff shuffled out of jail, he’d have a one-in-three chance of celebrating his 87th birthday. He’d have a one-in-five chance of making it to 90. Just short of an effective life sentence, my foot.

And the odds of Madoff making it to 90 may even be better than that. Let’s look at another document on the SSA’s web site — one that Sorkin somehow overlooked in the course of his legal research. This particular item is a 2007 paper by SSA researcher Hilary Waldron entitled “Trends in Mortality Differentials and Life Expectancy for Male Social Security-Covered Workers, by Socioeconomic Status.” The punch line of Waldron’s paper, as it applies here: Among the guys born around the year Madoff was (1938), the better-than-average earners who made it to their 70th birthday can expect to live until age 87. The lower-than-average earners likely have to settle for 83. Rich guys, in other words, live longer than poor ones. And guess what that means for Madoff.

Now, it may be true that the life-enhancing effects of Madoff’s wealth will wear off once he spends a few years behind bars. (Unfortunately, the SSA doesn’t provide longevity stats for wealthy crooks who are sent to prison at age 71.) And it could be argued (in fact, Sorkin does) that Madoff deserves some leniency for his recent apparent assistance in recovering for his victims some of the money he stole from them over the years. But don’t believe that Madoff, a dozen years from now, will be at death’s door. A healthy skepticism about the state of his future health is in order.

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