IF STOCKS ARE IN CLOVER, THEN WHY AREN’T WE?

These days, there are only a few things in life you can count on. Death, taxes, Dennis Rodman getting ejected — and a new high in the stock market.

Rarely a day goes by without an excited radio report saying “the Dow Jones set a record today, breaking (fill in blank) for the very first time!”

And if you are like a lot of people, you figure this is good news. After all, when things were bad, the market crashed. Remember 1929, when people were on the street corners, selling pencils?

So, applying caveman logic, you figure, “crash bad — boom, good.” And considering the market was below 2,500 at the start of this decade, and it is now at 7,500 — wait a second, make that 7,600, no wait, 7,700 — you have to figure this is not only a good time for America, it must be a grrrrrreat time.

So where’s your new car? Where’s your vacation home? How come your kids’ college education isn’t paid for?

After all, if the Dow Jones can triple its worth in seven years, you personally ought to be worth at least double, right?

Wrong. And here is where this all comes apart. The stock market used to reflect the economy, jobs, people.

Now the stock market reflects . . . stocks.

Just make it up

Oh, this isn’t what the analysts will say. They’ll say “the economy caused the market to jump.” Unless they say “the economy caused the market to slump.”

(Honest to goodness, I think these stock market experts sit in a smoky room playing cards until four o’clock, when one of them says, “Hey. Frank. It’s your turn. Go out and tell the reporters somethin’.”

“What should I tell ’em?”

“I dunno. Use the inflation thing.”)

The fact is, the market has gone haywire — it took 15 years to go from 1,000 to 2,000 and 10 years to go from 2,000 to 7,000 — but all the analysis in the world can’t change a simple fact: American workers are not doing nearly as well in life as their companies are doing on Wall Street.

How can this be?

Simple. For stocks to go up, investors have to buy them. For investors to buy them, they have to be “attractive.” Being “attractive” means showing “good numbers.” And “good numbers” means one thing: high profits, low costs.

Of course, the fastest way to lower your costs is to get rid of things, including people. Trim the fat. Downsize. Make your company lean and mean. I now have worked for a number of companies who care less about how much money you bring in than they do about how much you cost.

In other words, if you cost $10, but bring in $20, you are less desirable than if you cost $1 and bring in $5.

Go figure.

Just raid it

As a result, even companies doing well are not necessarily raising salaries, or hiring new, talented workers, or expanding products or increasing quality.

No, these companies are in competition with other companies to show “good numbers,” in order to woo the dollars from outside investors and raise their stock price, raise their stock price! And why is this so important?

1) People at the very top tend to get much richer from rising stock prices than they do from salaries. One out of every 15 companies in the Fortune 500 gave their CEOs at least $1 million stock options last year. That means every time the stock rises $1, those guys are worth $1 million more.

2) If the stock price goes high enough, the company can take all that money and buy up another company. And then it can shave that one down.

It’s a pretty vicious cycle, one that suggests that soon the whole world will be owned by five corporations. Meanwhile, the average American works longer, harder and is more exhausted at the end of the day than ever.

Now it’s true, if workers own stock, they can benefit from the surging market. But most Americans don’t own but a thimble’s worth of shares, or maybe a dollop of pension fund. And you need to keep your job to earn that pension.

Meanwhile, companies keep slashing workers and benefits, saying “We have an obligation to our stockholders.” How about the obligation to their employees?

So don’t be fooled by the booming Dow Jones. The market has become a game of smoke and mirrors, a bunch of bathing beauties parading in front of investors, trying to get their money. What matters most is the figures, the figures.

The problem is most of us don’t live in the land of figures. We live in the land of jobs, shoes for the kids, and trying to get home before our families are asleep.

Every time I hear another stock market record, it reminds me of the movie
“Wall Street,” where Michael Douglas’ character, Gordon Gekko, delivers his credo: “Greed is good.”

I don’t know if it’s good, but it sure is busy.

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