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Celebrating Columbus III: Inadvertent Evil?

This year's Columbus Day Parade Grand Marshal Alberto Cribiore makes a fitting avatar for Christopher Columbus—both men escaped responsibility.

Alberto Cribiore, the Grand Marshal of this year’s Columbus Day Parade, disappeared about $50 billion of other people’s money without apparent personal inconvenience, since he decamped Merrill Lynch just before it crashed. From reporting in 2010 in Fortune and later on the blog for retail investors, The Motley Fool, it appeared that he at least created the appearance of using a position of trust (outside director) for his own benefit (job hunting at other firms).

In addition, Cribiore reportedly used his board position to sink the last minute efforts by his (then) friend Stan O’Neal, to whom he owed the position. O’Neal would have been justified in thinking he was double crossed, but even a charitable view of the actions attributed to Cribiore show a colossal case of poor judgment.

Columbus Citizens Foundation

This year’s Grand Marshal for the Columbus Day parade is Alberto Cribiore left). Honorees include Guy Chiarello, President of First Data, and Aldo Verrelli, President & Owner of A. Verrelli & Associates.

Still, as I tell this story, I realize that it’s not just the absence of torture and murder that makes Cribiore less of a bad actor than Christopher Columbus. While just thinking of $50 billion makes my nose bleed, it’s a trivial sum beside what Columbus took from American Indians, directly and indirectly.

Still, his voyages did not turn a profit. He recovered thousands of maravedes in gold but the bills for the expeditions were in the millions. Within about three years, Columbus took away all the gold the Caribbean Indians had accumulated over a thousand years. There were not and are not substantial deposits of gold on the Caribbean islands. Most of the gold the Indians could hand over to save their lives was acquired by trade.

Anyone who doubts Columbus’s motivations should read his diaries. He mentioned God 26 times. He mentioned gold 114 times. The conquistadores who followed were just as ruthless at killing Indians and separating them from their property. They had better success on the mainland, where there actually were gold and silver deposits.

Exquisite Aztec art objects rendered in gold—the patrimony of an empire—were melted down to ingots for shipment to Spain. With Indian slave labor, the Spanish carted away an entire mountain of silver and Spain wound up with 80 percent of the world supply.

In a way, the Indians got the last laugh as the precious metals first made Spain a world power and then destroyed it, a destruction that lasted longer than the power. Historians estimate 10-15 percent of the loot was pirated from the Spanish pirates or stolen by other thieves or put on the bottom of the ocean by storms before arrival in Spain. Still, the booty that did get to Spain created a society with more money than wealth.

There was too much money chasing too few goods and the result was world-class inflation that drove up the price of Spanish goods, pricing Spain out of world trade. Spain got a spending spree on domestic and foreign markets while England got the Industrial Revolution. Spanish booty blew up an economic bubble that lasted 400 years, but when it popped England was an industrial powerhouse and Spain was an economic backwater.

What about the South American Indians? They died in such numbers that the farmlands they left fallow sucked up enough CO2 to change the climate. In our time, we’ve coined the word “genocide” and defenders of the Spanish defend the charge of genocide by saying there was no intent.

RELATED: Did the Deaths of 50 Million Indians Cause Climate Change?

The Indians didn’t intend to blow up the Spanish economy, either, but given how it happened they could be excused for cracking a smile. Given how they were treated by the Spanish, the Indians are entitled to some schadenfreude.

Cribiore did not intend to destroy $50 billion that didn’t belong to him. Still, Grand Marshal Cribiore makes a fitting avatar for Christopher Columbus. The harm Cribiore did was tiny by comparison, but both men escaped responsibility for the damage they caused in blind pursuit of the main chance.

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