The Stock Market and Matters of State

When the Dow put its toe over the (arbitrary) 12,000 line I was reminded of how much I valued the wisdom I found some thirty-odd years ago in Mamis and Mamis’s When to Sell. Their subtitle is Inside Strategies for Stock Market Profits, but I thought then, and see even more clearly now, that what they had to say should be proclaimed no less on Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue than on Wall Street.

The authors’ main point is that amateur investors are most comfortable sitting with losses because they cling to the hope that the stock they bought would go up rather than see its decline for what it is, evidence that the stock is not doing what they supposed it would do. Hope is not a strategy. “By not selling,” they write, “by tightly holding on to his stocks, the investor never has to face reality.”NYSE's bull from behind

This is not to say that the wise investor must realize every small loss that comes his way, or that he should cash in every small gain—only that he must acknowledge that the changes are real. The price of my stock or my soybeans may go up this afternoon, or it may go down, but right now it is what it is, and that’s all I can get for it, and it might be better to take that than to lose more. The past is gone and the future doesn’t exist. You have to decide without being certain, and sometimes you will be wrong.

I read When to Sell for the first time during an unhappy year toward the end of a marriage. Waist-deep in unhappiness, shame and lawyers, my commitment to the idea of (permanent) marriage remained deeper and wider than the commitment anyone would make to a stock, which should be no more than the money one paid for it. But wishing and hoping had not made things better, so I moved on.

Beyond the personal, the authors recognize the application of their idea to the political. With regard to Viet Nam, they quote Peter Bourne to the effect that

“The overwhelming desire for the success of policies to which a strong emotional attachment has been made also leads to an attempt to alter those facts over which one has control, making them consistent with the outcome that is desired. It is as though there is an expectation at a magical level that events over which one has no control will then also fall into the desired pattern.”

More precisely, it is not the facts, but the selection and report of the facts that a public figure may control. George W. Bush and Hamid KarzaiWhen the audience is the nation, when the motive to control morphs from a hapless hope for magic through passivity before the momentum of past decisions to a wicked wish to impose a personal goal on everyone else, decisions get made that don’t serve the people who pay and bleed for them.

Even though a member of the body politic may not be privy to all the intelligence the president has about bank regulation or Afghanistan or global warming, she has the right, even a certain obligation, to consider what she does know and form an opinion. The real control the small investor has over his stocks is not over what the price is, which is the fact of the situation, but over whether or not he sells. In regard to matters not of stocks but of state, the citizen who thinks it’s time to sell or prefers we go the distance need not wait for a phone call from a pollster to express that opinion. She has a vote, but need not wait for an election. Anyone with a pen or a phone can let elected representatives and editors of newspapers and their friends and their networks know what they think.

Image courtesy of hmerinomx via Flickr.

Notes from the Blizzard of 2011

Without television and Internet and computer models we should have expected nothing. The eleventh turned raw and damp before the cloudy sky faded to black with nothing falling out of it. The next morning I awakened to silence, and snow so deep it muted the high-pitched part of the sound of steel scraping asphalt.

I bundled myself in a warm sweater and padded downstairs. Furnace working, steps and sidewalk a foot deep, more falling fast. City plows had already constructed a three-foot rampart across the mouth of our driveway. If the newspaper had been delivered—unlikely—black truths and yellow journalism alike lay concealed under a white blanket. I went downstairs to drink coffee I had roasted in fading sunshine the morning before.

What do you do on a snow day when all quotidian obligations are canceled or postponed? Curl up with a good book? Skype the meteorologically better-favored? Push toward a new blog post? Light up a joint and spend the day in bed? Start a new game of Diplomacy? Or shovel your snow?

We live on a corner, where we get more light in summer and more snow in winter. A few years back, the city built a traffic-calming bulge on our corner where plow drivers leave me compacted wads of other peoples’ snow to dig. But shoveling snow offers the same secret obsessive satisfactions as washing the blackboard did in school.

Snow on the sidewalk outside my house, which is not my property, becomes as much my responsibility as what falls in my driveway, which is. Because the city forbids me to abandon my snow in the public street, and because my house and my neighbor’s bound our shared driveway so closely, I must carry what falls into it out to the street shovelful by shovelful, and away from the driveway’s mouth, to pile it on top of the rampart the plow makes at the edge of the sidewalk. The pile I construct must be secure as an igloo to avoid collapse either way.

How much snow confronted me? On our 160 feet of sidewalk the city demands a walkway three feet wide, but that looks stingy, and the melt-freeze after a storm can turn so narrow an alley into a skating rink, even salted. Out of concern for mothers pushing prams and oldsters pulling shopping carts I do four. So let’s see. Four feet times 160 feet means 640 cubic feet of snow for each foot that falls before I start the steps or the path or the driveway. A good eight hundred cubic feet for each foot that falls, and they predicted a foot and a half.

According to Reade Advanced Materials, freshly fallen snow weighs ten pounds a cubic foot, and compacted snow, like what the plows leave, thirty. Call it twenty on average, though the weathermen warned that our blizzard would bring wet, heavy snow. I would have over a ton of snow to lift two or three feet when I started and four or even five as I built the rampart taller. I had only to lift what fell along the sidewalk, but I would have to carry what landed in the depth of the driveway more than the length of a car, some thirty feet.

I used to pride myself on shoveling my own snow, and enjoyed the exercise. I saved the price of a gym and enjoyed brief interactions with neighbors and passers-by, eyes rolled at nature’s perfidy, a thank you for shoveling, a grim eyes-front march across my territory to duck away from my effort, as if I might expect a tip.

Alas, my lumbar spine has aged faster than the rest of me. Three years ago, when a snow storm coincided with a low back storm, I tried to take less in each shovelful, slow down, but it hurt. When a young teenager offered his services, I negotiated a price, but he did a poor job and sulked when I told him so, so I paid him off and resolved not to employ him again.

In the aftermath of that storm my thigh and calf burned for a week. One time in years past when we were away, the local landscape company did a crappy job, and the fee they proposed as the next winter approached was outrageous. The responsibility for the snow which had been a sometimes burdensome part of the texture of life here became a worry, worsened by having to admit to another bit of age and infirmity.

On Craigslist I was lucky enough to find a young man who shovels snow the way I would if I were able. He is about thirty, with a young son who sometimes accompanies him when he shovels, and well-spoken; in his other life he may be a graduate student. After each snow storm he bills me what his work is worth, and either of us can cancel at any time. Knowing that he will help eases my terror.

Bicycle in snowTerror? Snow may be heavy, but it isn’t terrible. It may fall at inconvenient times, and if it freezes on the pavement, provoke worry in a litigious society. But if you wait long enough it will go away by itself. The terror comes from knowing that my body is as transient as the snow, that my waning capacity to move snow is another hint of changes to come.

Snow is beautiful, too, so for now I shall enjoy it.

What Do You Recommend?

The other night a robot from a polling organization telephoned to ascertain my opinion about the economy, the recovery, and the stock market. The robot spoke in the friendly voice of a midwestern female of a certain age, rather like my college roommate’s mother. I communicated my responses to her by pressing buttons on my telephone keypad. For every question she offered me a ‘don’t know’ option, but out of several dozen I needed it only once, not because I didn’t know what that question was about, but because I thought the offered answers were equally wrong. I try to stay informed—I read the newspaper every day, prefer C-SPAN to game shows and listen to internet radio—and I was happy to share the opinions I have.

The next days brought news I considered bad: the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer by his bodyguard because of his opposition to the Pakistani blasphemy law, and Professor Alan Gribben’s decision to edit the word ‘nigger’ out of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it might offend contemporary sensibilities.

I know how I feel about assassination, censorship, and giving needless offense: I am against them all.

But what if the robot had asked me what we ought to do in or about Pakistan or Afghanistan? I’m not sure. The national leaders who look after my safety and make the tactical decisions know more about what’s really going on than I do, and I do believe it’s in my interest for them to keep some of that to themselves. I study the faces of the young men and women who have died, presented in silence at the end of a newscast that has recited the cost of what we are doing in dollars, and in my sadness I’m unconvinced that what we are getting for the price is worth it. But I’m uneasy about my gut reaction because I don’t trust the reliability or validity of what I have been told—despite my regular consumption of publicly available information.

An old imitation flavor“Don’t eat out of the chemistry set.”
—The Author’s mother.

I do, however, have a thought about the new editions of Twain. Just as the red Jell-O I used to enjoy once was labeled ‘Imitation cherry flavor,’ the new editions should be labeled ‘IMITATION LITERATURE’ and, ‘Warning: The Poet Laureate (or Secretary of Education) has determined that reading politically altered books may be detrimental to your appreciation of American history and literature.’