Grabbing gobs of gold from thin air

September 12, 1997|By Carl T. Rowan

WASHINGTON -- I have a friend who spent August hitting golf balls. Yet he became $6 million richer during that one month, as the value of his Wall Street investments rose faster than his temper after a Burning Tree bogey.

My grandmother used to say ''money doesn't grow on trees.'' It's just as well. Someone has to water and fertilize a tree every now and then, but the Wall Street games suggest that it's possible to just grab gobs of gold out of the air.

I was foolish enough recently to tell a grade-schooler how his college funds have grown in the stock market over the last five years.

''Where did that new money come from?'' he asked.

''Well,'' I said, ''I put your first money in a company that I thought would get a lot of customers and grow. Then a lot of other people thought the same thing and put their money in this company, and that caused somebody else to rush even more money into the company.''

''What happens when they want their money back?'' he asked. ''Will I still be able to get mine back?''

I was sorry I had brought the subject up: The truth is, I don't have the faintest idea how the markets work in finality. Right now it's like bobbing for golden apples in a tree stump full of rain.

Who gets to play?

But there are a lot of worrisome questions about whether enough people are allowed to bob for those apples. It occurs to me that those raking in the ''easy money'' are still the very privileged who have some special permission to jerk things out of thin air.

Everybody can play the state lottery, where the odds are high that everybody will lose. But the odds of winning in this stock market are so great that Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, finds the stock market's rise ''extraordinary.''

It has created an incredible number of millionaires. It has opened up enough ''winnings'' to middle-class people for us to see vast new pockets of affluence in every nook and cranny of America. I applaud this. I always have been a capitalist, though arguing that people ought to prosper according to their willingness to work, their investment of brainpower and their willingness to take risks.

But what we have been seeing constitutes such an outrageous windfall that I must ask whether the gods can allow it to continue. That's why I wish the leaders of the New York, NASDAQ and other stock exchanges had some programs on board to ensure that sizable portions of the trillions of dollars being plucked out of thin air can go to brighten the lives of children from families that are still unable to take financial risks beyond playing the numbers.

In Thailand and Malaysia, devastating drops in the stock markets have occurred. It can happen here, but I see nothing that suggests that it will be today or tomorrow.

That's why, instead of rushing to embrace bonanzas from cuts in the capital-gains tax, I wish those who already benefit so incredibly from this market would ensure all of us some more good luck by dusting some dollars into the troubled social air where the less fortunate might grab them.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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