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Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 1999 /14 Shevat, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Watching the pot that always boils -- MY FATHER would sit watching Walter Cronkite every weeknight of his life, and at a certain point during each newscast -- at the point where financial information would appear on the screen -- he would say to my mother: "The Dow's up 28 points." Or: "Look -- the Dow's down 64 points."

His tone of voice would match the direction of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Is the Dow up? He would have pleased approval in his voice. The Dow down? Disappointment, foreboding.

I never quite understood it; he and my mother were not deeply invested in the stock market, certainly not to the point where the general direction of the market would affect their lives, except if the market crashed and the country was thrown into another Depression. Which is exactly why, I suppose, he paid so much attention to it; the generation of Americans who did, indeed, live through the Depression can be excused for being a little more wary of the stock market than the rest of us.

I thought about that last week, when the America Online-Time Warner deal was dominating not only the business pages, but the front pages. Market-obsessives no longer have to wait for the evening news to fixate on the quotes -- you can watch the market on cable television all day long, you can follow it on your computer at work, you can link up to it via your palm-held cyber-toy.

And the question I have, as the world tries to stare down the stock market day after day, is the same one I silently had as my father waited for Cronkite to announce the Dow:

Why do this? Why dedicate your attention to the daily fluctuations of a stock market you can do nothing to control?

On a given day, the market is either going to go up or go down. Of that, we can all be sure. The old phrase is, "A watched pot never boils." But the lesson of the stock market is, "A watched pot always boils." If you stare at the pot that is Wall Street, you will see it boil. And as you peer at the artificial turmoil of the boiling market, it can begin to replace real life.

After the AOL-Time Warner announcement, for example, the most heated commentary was not about what the proposed merger would do to the media and entertainment businesses -- it was about what the merger would do to the stock values of Time Warner and of AOL. The fallout from the stock deal was . . . more talk about more fallout from the stock deal.

(In the interest of disclosure: I am on the payroll of Time Warner, because I write a monthly column for Life magazine, although I hold no Time Warner stock. And it seems to me that cross-media disclaimers such as this one, which you read and hear in news stories so often these days as writers and broadcasters try to explain the interlocking corporate ownerships of their employers, are soon enough going to be unnecessary; before long every journalist is going to be working for the same person anyway, and that person is probably in the 3rd grade somewhere right now.)

On the day the details of the AOL-Time Warner deal were being finalized by the executives who run those companies, I was spending about four hours trying to decide whether to use a hyphen in a word in a column. Which at first glance (actually, at the first 12 or 13 glances) makes those of us who spend our time on such small pursuits seem as if we are insignificant human molecules in the outsized world of boardroom giants who can change the landscape of the business universe with a few strokes of their pens.

But is there not a chance that the small pursuits are the only ones worth caring about? The stock market -- its ups and downs -- is, when viewed from a healthy distance, a little like those out-of-town baseball scores that scroll over sportscast screens. Because you see them -- because they're constantly there -- you find yourself musing, almost against your will: "Hmmm. The Phillies beat the Reds tonight." Or: "Oh. The Tigers beat the Yankees." When you know, if you were to think about it, that on that scrolling screen no surprises are really possible. One team will win today, one team will lose. The market will go up on Monday, or it will go down.

Will that affect people? In certain ways, in the long run. But in a country increasingly addicted to business news -- in a country married to the market -- one notion is in danger of being overlooked. Yes, the point of the stock market is for individual investors to increase their personal wealth. For them to hope for the day when they can gaze at a spreadsheet and conclude that they are set for life.

But while they wait, transfixed by the ticker, the sun rises and falls; the seasons change. Set for life? The set part is one thing; the life part is what they might want to think about.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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