If you've ever heard of a Ponzi scheme -- and almost every American has -- you will surely assume that Charles Ponzi, the man after whom the scam was named, was a bad man. He, like everyone else who ever started the scheme, cheated people out of their money. But a fascinating new biography of Charles Ponzi by Mitchell Zuckoff, "Ponzi's Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend," reveals that a few years before inventing his scheme, Ponzi had given a fair amount of his skin so it could be grafted onto a woman who he learned was dying of severe burns. He suffered pain from this act of incredible generosity, which saved a person's life. Yet, were it not for this biography, who would ever associate Ponzi with anything except scamming people out of their money?
I note this because it brings home a point that is often lost on most people -- religious or secular, conservative or liberal -- that human beings all have what I call moral bank accounts. Just like a real bank account into which we make monetary deposits and from which we make monetary withdrawals, we make moral deposits into and moral withdrawals from our moral bank accounts based on the actions we engage in during our lifetime.
Now, of course, some people make so many withdrawals -- Hitler, for example -- that no imaginable good act they can do will seriously change the balance from extremely negative to positive. But most people need to be assessed based on this bank account analogy. I first came up with this idea when Clarence Thomas was accused by Anita Hill and the Democratic Party of sexual harassment. Needless to say, no one knew for sure which party was telling the truth. But I made the argument on my radio show that given all the good Thomas had done, given the absence of indications of him ever acting indecently toward women employees, his moral bank account was, to the best our knowledge, quite in the black. Whether or not he said the words "pubic hair" in a conversation with Anita Hill 10 years earlier was of absolutely no concern to me in assessing his moral character -- i.e., the balance in his moral bank account.
Similarly, I wrote in this column and argued on radio that the dismissals of William Bennett made by people, conservatives and liberals alike, over revelations that he had gambled large sums of money were unfair even if one is opposed to gambling. Why? Because the gambling paled in comparison to how much good Mr. Bennett had done with his talks and books on moral character.