Chump change

Thursday, January 8th, 2004

Mad cows and agribusiness, Halliburton’s price-gouging orgy in Iraq, mind-numbing CEO salaries, employee benefit cutbacks, Wal-Mart’s “dead peasant” insurance policies on underpaid janitors.

Christmas overkill. Orange alert.

Sorry, but I’m losing confidence in the American economic infrastructure. Freaking out is what I mean. I’m doubting its very rationality, let alone its self-governing moral capacity.

Free speech is suspended in Miami while fat cats secretly carve up the Americas for profit? (This was in November, at the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting, a.k.a. NAFTA on steroids.) Do we think a permanently impoverished Third World is in our best interests?

Pardon me while I write naively, as a schlub everyman with a small chunk of chump change that counts as my nest egg.

I’m not smart about money, but I’ve stayed solvent and pretty much clung to the piggybank maxims of my childhood: Save your pennies, balance your checkbook, pay your bills, stay within your means, give to those in need. This is the level at which I understand money, and I say this with no pretense of virtue in my relative ignorance.

Beyond that, I’m afraid of money — I fear it as a force, a bottom-line moral arbiter. Mammon giveth, Mammon taketh away. Post-GM Flint, Mich., as Michael Moore has pointed out, takes on the look of post-McVeigh Oklahoma City. A nature preserve on a piece of prime suburban real estate has no choice but to morph into a shopping mall.

Well, what else is new? I’ve known this for a long time, but mostly as an abstraction. You can complain about the economy just like you can complain about fatty foods, but you can’t give up eating. You can’t give up playing the only game in town.

And in spite of my best efforts at staying as naïve as possible, I am not one of life’s economic losers. Hence, my little stash of aforementioned chump change. Because of it, I decided at one point that I needed an accountant. It’s all his fault. Thanks to him, I can no longer avoid feeling troubled at a deep, participatory level.

Flashback to 2002, when the mutual fund into which he suggested I tuck my stash started hemorrhaging. Only after a quarter of its value had disappeared did I realize that, all along, I’d been gambling, and only with that realization did a sense of shame sink in, not at the gambling, but at the eyes-closed, genteel greed — my own — that permitted it.

I just wanted a nice bang for the buck. I didn’t want to look at where it came from – you know, whether I’d helped capitalize Rape, Pillage and Burn Inc., or maybe a subsidiary of Enron, in the process. If you want to draw a blank look, try talking to an investor about such matters.

I did try, actually. After I dumped the bleeding mutual fund I came clean about my conscience, so he suggested a socially screened fund. Fine, I said, but first – temporarily, for safe keeping – we threw what was left of my nest egg into a money market account. It’s my little piggybank.

It’s still there a year and a quarter later, generating wimp interest and the occasional pained e-mail from my money guy informing me how worried he is that the nest egg isn’t back in play yet.

I don’t quite know how to tell him that I’m waiting for hell to freeze over. Or short of that, word that Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream) and Paul Newman (the salad dressing magnate) are archetypal CEOs, and that businessmen’s eyes have begun to light up at the prospect of being socially responsible. I’m also waiting for something other than money to fuel the electoral process, and for something other than oil to fuel our machinery.

I know I’m nuts. I know I wasn’t making a difference before and I’m not making one now. Nor do I know how long I’ll hold out. Money talks, after
all, and my small stash is screaming at me.

Shut up, I tell it. I’m thinking.