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Why I Don't Invest

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
06.12.2000 | CULTURE

I was an investor once. A major player, in fact. For five years every dime I made raking leaves and flipping burgers, every twenty-spot from grandma on every birthday was plowed back into diversifying and reinforcing my portfolio. During the mid-1980s, my baseball card collection was the envy of the neighborhood. Had their been adolescent equivalents to Wall Street clichés, I would have been blowing Big League Chew sized bags of pop rocks, holding hands with the cutest virginal nymphs money could rent.

Unlike some of the rich kids, whose parents bought them just-add-water collections, I was self-made. I had cards from the early eighties in shoeboxes from before they were worth anything: quadruples of Boggs rookies, Gwynn rookies, Ripken Rookies, about six Don Mattingly rookies. When the baseball card boomlet started, I was quick on it, buying cards for pennies to their future dollar. I would raid the ignored collections of older kids saving busily for cars or drugs. When on trips with my folks, I would seek out small town antique shops, which sometimes had dusty stacks of vintage gems and kindly whitehairs behind the counter who sold them like old postcards. The antique shop window started to close around 1987, but before it did I scored more than a few soft brownies, including a mint condition 1948 Warren Spahn rookie that touched $500 before I sold. I think I paid a quarter for it.

By the time the market hit full speed, I had accumulated, on a shoestring, a collection worth about three thousand dollars. My first job at McDonald's paid the then minimum wage of $4.75 an hour, so three grand in the sock drawer made me a mini Donald. I was high on the money, even if it was 'tied up.'

The absurdity of the situation is only clear to me now. What was a pre-teen supposed to do with three grand? I only cared about buying baseball cards. I wanted my cards to be worth a lot so I could buy more and thus fuel the cycle. My love for baseball originally ignited the interest in cards, but was slowly ground out of the mix like bone dust from an old Roman mincer. Before I started liking girls I had the mindset of a brainwashed greedster with no conception of what mattered or why. I had become an investor.

Adolescent Reagan-era baseball card tycoons even had their own trade publications. The king was Beckett's Baseball Card Monthly. When the new issue of Beckett'scame out, we'd make a dash to check our stocks. There was even a hot/cold list, which often set off runs on certain players. Used at card conventions and in bedroom trading sessions across the country, Beckett's was de rigueur for serious traders. It was our Wall Street Journal.

And we had our daily fix: the box score. Waiting for the school bus, we would pour over the box lines for who did what: who was injured, who pitched a complete game, who broke a streak. If you were amassing cards of a particular rookie, a 4 for 4 game with two homers was equivalent to a twenty cent increase in a hundred shares of stock. Or so it seemed. Just like adults who nervously check their stocks every hour, we saw every game as effecting the direction of our investments. If a player was ice cold for too long, we got nervous and sold.

Then I started masturbating. Constant absorption with cards and baseball could not be sustained amongst the hormonal fireworks of early puberty. As biochemistry bubbled, my prize collection became an anachronism. More, by the early 1990's the bottom started to fall out of the market, just as in real estate. Faced with training bras and falling value, I packed my collection into a couple of large boxes and went to the local card shop one winter morning, where, after a two-hour medical analysis of the goods, I was offered 60 per cent market value for everything. I swallowed hard, took the money, and bought a stereo and my first compact discs. It was stupid, of course. Not because of the money--the cards have since lost most of their worth--but because many of them were truly beautiful; like tropical fish. That 1965 Roberto Clemente haunts me to this day.

As an investor, this was lost on me at the time. After seeing the cards through the prism of market value for so long, I was incapable of knowing them for what they were: gorgeous and in some cases priceless cultural artifacts from a game that I loved. In Heideggerian terms, their being had been sucked out of them by the worldview of the investor--of the capitalist. My father used to hint at this when he told us about his generation's experience with baseball cards, how they used to play games with them in the alley without regard for their 'condition', how they traded for their hometown heroes. The idea of looking in a book to see how much they were worth--and keeping them behind glass with a price sticker--would have been science fiction to them. The Twilight Zone.

But not for us Gordon Gekkos on training wheels. Even though brought up as a hard-core Red Sox fan in Boston, I would occasionally find myself rooting for players on opposing teams because I had an financial stake in their statistics. And this felt perfectly natural, just as it does for the millions currently playing 'fantasy' baseball. It has even been said that fantasy baseball actually saved the game, allowing a modus vivendi for people to participate in a way that matches the frenzied pace of free agency, postmodern professional sport. Free agency, as both a cause and a symptom, is merely the player equivalent of the contemporary sports fan experience. Whether it be the collecting of 'memorabilia' or the trading of fantasy players off make-believe rosters, the geographical and historical importance of teamness is diminished.

Clearly this is not universal, and a Yankee World Series parade shows just how far most people are from this mindset. But for those deeply involved in the many sub-industries of professional sports--as I was--this is the letterboxed reality in which they live.

It is also reality for people who have invested in stock markets. Non-market values that they once held, or might have held in the future, have been replaced or blocked by a total obsession with the value of their holdings. One must merely read the mainstream press--or watch CNN--to see just how total the takeover has become, both of the individual and of society. The very same neurosis that made me occasionally root for a Yankee outfielder to smack a triple against the Red Sox is keeping millions of people from caring about the Amazon rainforest or child labor in Thailand or prison labor in Arizona. Once you enter the stock value mindset you are soon running full speed; everything else is subordinate, if it exists at all.

It becomes a game that sets the maximum co-ordinates for reality. Keeping track of your worth becomes its own end. What begins as a side-project inevitably constructs itself into a self-reinforcing intellectual prison. You start reading the trade journals, talking to other people who have gotten the virus, and positive feedback loops ricochet within the community of wealth seekers, until everything in sight has dollar signs on it. One thinks of the forest industry executive James Watt, who once said that trees are nothing but stumps with hundred dollar bills on them, and that old growth trees were nothing but old stumps with hundred dollar bills on them. This is the kind of thinking that spreads with the 'democratization' of the stock market. Soccer moms and teenagers are in on the act, the newsweeklies uncritically inform us, and soon, if GOP visionaries succeed, the elderly will spend their final days in front of the television watching MSNBC, hoping that Unilever doesn't dip too much, and halve their Social Security check.

But don't fear a new generation gap; the very old are to be joined by the very young. Many firms now offer "starter stock kits" geared to children aged 7-12. The idea is to get children interested in the market early by buying them stocks in companies they "care about," such as those that make their favorite toys and breakfast cereals. What could be more fun for little Billy than to have Sugar Smacks demystified by the General Mills quarterly report? And of course we mustn't waste time in teaching young Sally the importance of shareholder value uber alles, just in case she gets one of those hippie teachers who propagandize about the environment.

I look around this world increasingly darkened by the shadow of stocks and markets and profit, and I remember my own days as a trader of sorts. I wince, and remember why I don't invest. Saddened, I lean back against the firm certainty that I never will.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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