The economy is still sluggish, and we know who to blame -- sort of. We can't quite put our finger on the culprit.
Deep within the greatest economic system ever devised, there lurks a gnawing parasite that devours the nourishment of capitalism from within. Every day, almost complacently, our captains of industry invoke this dark force. Every fault in the nation's fiscal life, and in the global market, traces back to their influence. They are the source of every burst bubble, every bankruptcy and bank failure, every default and foreclosure, every Black Tuesday, market plunge, recession, depression, and funk.
We know they are among us and around us, yet we cannot stop them. They are our Big Brother, our Sugar Daddy, and the crazy aunt locked in the attic. They are a deadly Silent Partner to our every enterprise, and the scapegoat to our every flop. They seem to be everywhere, but they are nowhere.
Alone, each one is puny and harmless. Think of a grasshopper. Singly, they are neighbors, bosses, employees, and fellow workers. But in the countless swarms that drive and stifle the economy, they are locusts, capable of blotting out the sun, laying waste the land, and turning the very Earth into a barren skull devoid of solace.
Whenever they are mentioned, with fearful reverence by senior management at IBM, Microsoft, Ford, and AT&T, I think of that exhausting chase in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Butch, saddle-sore and bone-weary, turns and sees, again, a dusty column relentlessly following, as it has done for days on end without rest or relief -- a life-sucking string of pursuers, fifty horsemen direct from the Apocalypse.
Paul Newman says: "Who are those guys?" In the movie, they were Pinkerton guys. In our economy, they are far more sinister and infinitely more numerous. We call them shareholders.
But who are they? What do they want from us? Why can't they leave us alone? Shareholders are the source of that speech that seems to spring, every three months, from some boardroom or another: "It is with a deep sense of loss that we at Pontius Pilate, Inc., announce today the downsizing of another 50,000 identifiable human beings with names, faces, and families. We also must close our offices in______. We've been forced to halt all manufacturing, and, we also regret, as a matter of fiscal prudence, all health, pension, severance, re-training, suicide hotline, and burial benefits."
It continues: "However, the responsibility we feel toward our luckless ex-employees pales in comparison to the responsibility we owe our shareholders, the faceless fiends who hold us hostage to their anonymous caprice, who feel no corresponding responsibility to anyone, and who threaten every minute to forsake us -- millions lost in the blink of an eye -- at the drop of a rumor or the sighting of a cold sore on Ben Bernanke's upper lip. We must obey our shareholders, for they make possible for us -- the executive elite -- our corner offices, our seven-figure bonuses, our leather-lined limos, our offshore nest eggs, our wine, our women, our platinum parachutes."
What is a shareholder? Defined by what he does with his money, he's a gambler -- but a mutant of the species with a weird sense of entitlement. When normal gamblers lose, they don't cry for blood sacrifice. They don't demand that the Golden Nugget start firing its dealers and cocktail waitresses. They don't insist that Caesar's shutter its restaurants, empty its hotel rooms, dismiss its chefs, and fire its maids. They don't expect the Bellagio to cancel all its floor shows, silence its lounge singers, pension off its showgirls, and make its magicians disappear. A night of mass losses in Vegas doesn't threaten the livelihood of Wayne Newton, the Blue Man Group, and Cirque de Soleil.
But the shareholder, gambling on oil shares, automakers, and General Foods, rather than on aces, queens, dice, the NFL, and little bouncing balls, expects the world to lose when he loses. He belongs to an immense commune of fellow suckers, called a stock market, whose conviction is that the laws of probability don't apply to them.
But here's the trick: Shareholders never actually appear at the stock market. They never show up anywhere -- not even at shareholders' meetings. Who are those guys?
They are a phantom, a highway mirage disappearing as fast as you approach. They can't be reached, reasoned with, spoken to, or found. They're as ruthless as they are mysterious. They bet gleefully on drought, famine, and flood, asking only a half-hour's warning between 9:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., New York time.
Addicted to instant gratification, they see nothing worthwhile about waiting for anything. They are opposed to any sort of job security. They recoil at labor (especially the organized kind), deplore pension plans, and disdain family values (except as an advertising hook). They oppose the minimum wage, day care, health coverage, sick days, holidays (including Christmas), higher education, lower education, public transportation, public works, and peace on earth.
Since Adam Smith's time, shareholders have thrived on war, like a great vulture, tearing at the corpses of the honored dead, probing their entrails for capital gains.
We walk among them daily, passing them on the street, greeting them on elevators, rubbing elbows, touching them. They have no distinguishing marks, no scars or tattoos, no taste, color, or odor, no gang colors or school uniforms -- not even a club tie. Right now, thousands of them might be massing to invade my life, ravage my credit, wreck my career, empty my savings, foreclose on my home, repossess my car and alienate my loved ones -- all because the banana crop in Aruba was bored by weevils.
Maybe the question is not who, but why. Why are those guys?