Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

On the Market: Taking Stock of One’s Soul

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I wonder if the US lost it soul in the markets. It seems so: the immediate response that the GOP had in the face of the COVID-19 crisis was to propose a tax cut (payroll taxes, in this case). They have a limited range of acceptable tools, it seems. (I’m reminded of a cartoon showing a man drowning, waving his arms, and a man on the dock sees him and calls out, “I can’t swim! Would $10 help?”

Justin E.H. Smith writes in Cabinet Magazine:

At the museum, I am standing with my spouse in front of a Flemish vanitas scene. There is an old man hunched over his accounting books, surrounded by gold coins and jewels; a skull sits on his desk, and Death himself perches undetected above his shoulder. What, I ask her, is the “takeaway” of such scenes supposed to be? That one would do well to start thinking of one’s soul, she says. And I think, but do not say: I thought of nothing but my soul for forty years, never learned the first thing about how money works, and now time is much shorter than in our youth, and I’ve managed to save so little money, and I am worried about leaving you alone in this world without me, with only the small amounts we’ve been able to put away for us, for you, as we move about from country to country, renting one modest apartment after another, like dry old students. O my love, I hate to envision you alone and frightened. Is it wrong for me now to count our coins and to keep our accounting books? Am I compromising the fate of my soul? Is this vanity?

In November of last year, I opened a brokerage account. I had been reading simple, bullet-pointed introductions to financial literacy for a few months before that, manuals “for dummies” of the sort that I am conditioned to hold in contempt when their subject is, say, Latin, or the Protestant Reformation. After this period of study, I determined I was ready to invest the bulk of the money I had to my name, around $150,000, in the stock market (an amount large enough to make me already worthy of the guillotine, for some who have nothing, and small enough to burn or to lose with no consequences, for some who have much more). The fact that I had that amount of money in the first place was largely a bureaucratic mistake. When I quit my job at a university in Canada after nine years of working there, the human-resources people closed my retirement account and sent me the full amount in a single check. That check—the “retirement” I unwittingly took with severe early-withdrawal penalties at the age of forty-one when in fact I was only moving to a job in another country—plus some of the money I had saved over just the past few years from book-contract advances, was to be the seed funding for what I hoped, and still hope, might grow into something much larger through the alchemy of capital gains.

It was driven home to me repeatedly in my early efforts to build an investment strategy that, quite apart from the question of whether the quest for wealth is sinful in the sense understood by the painters of vanitas scenes, it is most certainly and irredeemably unethical. All of the relatively low-risk index funds that are the bedrock of a sound investment portfolio are spread across so many different kinds of companies that one could not possibly keep track of all the ways each of them violates the rights and sanctity of its employees, of its customers, of the environment. And even if you are investing in individual companies (while maintaining healthy risk-buffering diversification, etc.), you must accept that the only way for you as a shareholder to get ahead is for those companies to continue to grow, even when the limits of whatever good they might do for the world, assuming they were doing good for the world to begin with, have been surpassed. That is just how capitalism works: an unceasing imperative for growth beyond any natural necessity, leading to the desolation of the earth and the exhaustion of its resources. I am a part of that now, too. I always was, to some extent, with every purchase I made, every light switch I flipped. But to become an active investor is to make it official, to solemnify the contract, as if in blood.

• • •

When I was eleven, I learned that a check is the form of currency you use when you do not have any other. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2020 at 5:45 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

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