Stock stupidity

By KARA BASKIN  |  October 3, 2008

Who’s in charge here?
I have faith (I guess) that the American financial system will right itself once more. People will probably stop panicking and eventually forget all about this. But even if the acute pain of financial misery fades with time, the memory of seeing America tremble on the brink of economic disaster is a gigantic downer, kind of like watching Britney perform at the 2007 VMAs. You cringe; you shake your head; you yearn for what might have been.

That’s why, beneath the initial feeling of schadenfreude, is a twinge of terror realizing that Wall Street is essentially an elaborate Ponzi scheme. These financiers have reputations as wizards — gods! — when really they are just overly aggressive and obnoxious sales weasels, with bigger portfolios. I might be an investing novice, but even I realize that Wall Street is a testosterone-fueled playground: deals done over enormous slabs of steak, big red wines, unbridled egos, and astronomical paychecks. How disappointing to learn that these so-called Masters of the Universe are really just the financial equivalent of Barry Bonds: steroid-fueled Ron Popeils. And now Wall Street has been rendered helplessly impotent.

So while on an Aesop’s-fable level I’m glad that certain greedy, overpaid, egomaniac CEOs are being rendered as contemptible as they truly are, I’m also sad about America’s relegation to just-behind Ghana and Bolivia on the countries-that-matter list. I might have scoffed at the woebegone couples in Money magazine and recoiled in horror whenever my friendly, toupee-wearing 401(k) representative sauntered into my office. But there’s a reason I cling to my little Sharebuilder account. There’s a reason I became choked by envy every time some random acquaintance slapped down money to buy a house in the suburbs. I’m not ashamed to say it: I craved that life too.

And now the dream is dead, the myth is shattered. And that’s what hurts. I don’t kid myself that my meager stock portfolio is anywhere large enough to feel the aftershocks of this disaster. I don’t have a mortgage, so foreclosure isn’t exactly a worry. I’m probably not going to lose my job (unless this column does me in). My pain is this: I never really got to play the game. And now I know it’s all a lie. The excitement, the recklessness, the notion of sheer unadulterated possibility has been sucked out of the equation. It’s like having the lights turned on at a party and realizing the guy you’ve been flirting with all night has an oozing herpes sore as big as a Kennedy half-dollar — er, don’t call me, I’ll call you.

Now the coast is somewhat clear, the guys with the big, swinging dicks are being castrated and I’m hiding in my womb of ignorance (also known as my humble two-by-four apartment), keeping an eye on things from a safe, expense-less distance. I’ll go about my boring business, investing modestly in my IRA, obsessively checking my online bank balance, monitoring my good ol’ HOG shares. But it’s disheartening. The calendar may have told us that the go-go ’80s ended almost 20 years ago, but spiritually they kicked the bucket this month.

At the risk of sounding like a Pontiac commercial, money is what drives us. It’s what drives America. When we’re running scared and lacking confidence, we crumble. In high school, I made sure to dress up each day that I had a class with the guy I liked. When I didn’t, it was sweatpants all the way. A nation in sweatpants is a dangerous thing.

Kara Baskin, who maintains offshore accounts all over the British West Indies, can be reached at kbaskin@phx.com.

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