The man in the overalls had changed the oil in my car. Now, wiping his hands preparatory to writing out the work slip, he looked at The Wall Street Journal I was carrying. It apparently conveyed an impression of business knowledge I don’t have.
“About six weeks ago, I got outta the market,” the mechanic said. “I’ve put it in money market funds. Did I do the right thing?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“I couldn’t sleep at night.”
“Then you did the right thing.”
“But the market’s gone up about 400 points since I got out. What do you think it’s going to do now?”
“It’ll fluctuate,” I predicted with the authoritative sagacity of a man with a copy of The Wall Street Journal under his arm.
Are the mechanics, the bakers, the intranet operators, the farmers, the office managers, the medical technicians and the cooks to spend their off hours studying the stock market so there will be something there when they retire or send their children off to school? Is that it? Are there not enough uncertainties in life without creating a gigantic, market-based social insecurity system?
We have drifted into a state whereby people’s funds, rainy day money laid aside for a time of adversity, are held hostage to chance. We’d be better off returning to gold ducats in strongboxes than the chancy game being played with the life savings of millions. Everybody is pushed into playing speculation. Our cupidity and our fears are used on us until we pony up and drop our pittance in the market. Fools alone put their money in a savings account. Wall Street or die, is the motto.
Don’t be a chump. Invest, let your money grow, you can’t lose. Well, time will tell about that. The risks of what we are doing aside, making people consecrate their waking hours and their sleepless nights to guessing the vagaries of the stock market is changing the national life into one of commercial barbarism. We are the new Phoenicians. Everybody has the jitters, everybody worries about a penurious old age, nobody talks about anything else. We are becoming a monoculture of money, a nation of nut cases vacillating between thinking we’re going to win this game of chemin de fer or tossing in bed till dawn wondering if a Wall Street mongoose has run off with our nest eggs. We have been lured, trapped and baited into becoming financial fanatics, monomaniacally covetous trackers of gain and avaricious prospectors for paper money.
We have shrunk our hopes, lessened our ambitions, cast away religion, art and philosophy. Don’t teach children truth, teach them how to invest their money. Don’t study the stars, learn the movements of the markets. Let the old virtues lapse. For truth, substitute cunning; for courage, shiftiness; for candor, shrewd silence; for integrity, a love of fine print. Bad movies and the Dow Jones average, is that it?
Yea, that’s about it in Empire City. Whenever the markets are propelled off the pads up through the clouds into the wilder altitudes of blue, the city engorges. The streets grow thick and ecchymotic with wealth. Taxis grow scarce and blondes more plentiful on Madison Avenue. Imported with the better wines and the pricier objets d’art, high-cheekboned young women, slim of figure and itchy of mind, lunch together by day and give head to young bull marketeers by night. Eight-wheeled, white limos slither around corners and the prissy beadles who tend the auction houses say they couldn’t possibly entertain bids so low. Every night, there are three new restaurants and two new causes.
The biz-buzz is on and New York is in full pride. The wise alone are wealthy, or is it the other way around? That must be it. Only the wealthy are wise and we are very, very wealthy. So, now, mind you, America, listen to New York. We know because we are rich and we are rich because we know. The rules of life and the laws of human conduct have been entrusted to New York, city of deals, city of deceit, city of market masters and men who make it happen. If we are not exactly the light of the world, we are the shining of gold and the flashing of treasure, we are New York, we are the Empire City.
If stocks and bonds are to be the be-all and end-all of our daily life in America, we will become a savage nullity. With our ferocious free market dogmatics, we resemble the Papuans, those appalling people in New Guinea whose culture teaches them bloodlust and cannibalism. With us, it’s money lust and capitalism.
Boom, boom, boom, on the hour, on the half-hour, on the minute, on the very second, from every loudspeaker and television set, it’s compete, compete, compete. Competition, fella, that’s what’s good for you, dude, better than fresh air and orange juice. Make it or break it, that’s the real deal, the highest high is the peaks on those graphs, man. Yo! Girls and boys, to the computers, fix on the flashing numbers. My God! We’re losing money. Make the deal, don’t make that deal, dumb ass, the earnings stink, Dow Jones up, Nasdaq down, the P/E ratio sucks, you can shove those projections up your ass, buddy boy, hedge fund, REIT, bundle and trench, strip that interest, lemme see the numbers, I wanna see the goddamn numbers right now, bottom line, top o’ the line, little white lines on glass tables.
Like angry Papuans, our frightened imaginations paint every place and people as hostile, commercial enemies out to cheat us, rob us, thwart us and take our markets and money away. It used to be the Free World versus the slave world, now it’s our economy versus theirs. The age of Econo-struggle, every man’s hand in another’s pocket.
The American dream may never have been more than a code for the materialism which made other nations scorn us. Ever since we jettisoned the sumptuary restraints of the Puritans, we have been bingeing on wealth. We have always had a fitful case of money bulimia, but has it ever been quite like this before? Once compelled and lured into the markets and infected by the hope of getting rich by manipulating signs, symbols and numbers, by the desire of amassing the paper hoard, by making telephone calls, begging for tips, studying the tout sheets of Wall Street, there is a new limitlessness to striving for wealth.
Once when net worth was tied to what one earned, to what one saved from the pay envelope and put in the strongbox, that was that. If one put aside a certain sum, there would be enough for dignity, for schools, for a house, for old age. Enough was enough and then a man or a woman might go on to other things in the garden of life.
Now enough is not enough. We are enough-less. Every man a Vanderbilt, every man a Gates. There is not enough, not enough money, not enough zeros for the monthly statements, no figure short of infinity will do.