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Gary Younge
Capitalism's casino

Six months ago a church worker in Harlem put me on hold for what felt like an indecently long time. Just as I was about to hang up on our conversation about the church's moral responsibility to balance the competing goals of historical preservation, economic development and racial and social diversity in the area, he returned to my ear as abruptly as he'd left. "Sorry," he said. "That was my broker. That's a call I had to take. Now where were we?"

A few days later I mentioned this to a social worker in Brooklyn by way of an amusing anecdote. He was amused - but only by my naivety. "You always take the call from your broker," he said. "I'd put my wife on hold for him. And she wouldn't be mad if I told you either. She'd do the same thing."

In a country where the percentage of people owning stock and equities had risen by 31% in four years, following the stock market had become a national sport. With more than a third of the nation owning stocks, Wall Street and Main Street appeared to have converged. The average investor might be in his or her late forties, white and professional but stock ownership had breached the barriers of race, social class, ethnicity, political affiliation and region in a way previously reserved for God and Coca Cola. Around 80m Americans owned stocks or mutual funds - more than watch the Oscars, surf the internet or voted in the 1998 congressional elections and double the number in 1983.

Everyone, it seemed, could be a dealer; and dealing and following your stocks could take place everywhere. Thanks to new technologies you could trade from your home and check your stocks on your mobile phone in an aeroplane and in most business foyers, where hungry eyes feasted on flashing numbers flickering across television screens.

All things considered, this was hardly surprising. Between 1982 and 1999 prices on the stock market climbed every year but one. In 1999 the Nasdaq leapt 86% and reached its high point this weekend last year. Just as Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history, so theorists believed the "new economy" could defy gravity and logic.

But the ramifications went way beyond the economic. Socially, the stock market was the main topic of conversation at water-coolers, barbecues and dinner parties. "I felt I had to get some stocks just so I'd have something to talk about," said a Brit who moved to New York two years ago. People joined investment clubs in thousands and some mutual-fund seminars with top money managers were standing room only.

Culturally, it was de rigueur. Business presenters became household names. The anchorwoman for the business channel, CNBC, found herself so besieged that she started asking her husband to pick up the Chinese takeaway. "I'm trying to get out of there with my food," said Sue Herera, "and the cook's asking, 'What's with Intel?'"

Television shows like The Street and Bull turned the stock market into prime-time soap operas. "Wall Street is the new American pastime," said Michael Chernuchin, the creator of Bull, last year. "People follow the Dow and Nasdaq like they are sports scores. The average New York cabby used to have the Daily News on the front seat beside him. Today, he also has Barron's and the Wall Street Journal."

So long as graphs went skywards the outlook remained sunny. But with markets plunging, and the economy flattening, the stock-buying American public now find themselves under a stubborn, dark cloud. Membership of investment clubs has dropped 23% in the past two years; advertising in personal finance magazines has nose-dived; The Street was cancelled halfway through its run thanks to poor ratings. In the space of just two weeks last month the number of investors describing themselves as bears almost trebled while the number of bulls more than halved, according to a membership poll by the American Association of Individual Investors.

T o some, this signals nothing more than the jitters of novices who were in it for the quick buck rather than the long run. The increase in stock ownership, argued the right, demonstrates both the invincibility and democratisation of capitalism, turning millions from spectators to players in the free market. With everyone from social workers to the clergy involved, the primacy of the market was entrenched.

Whether this was wilful disingenuousness or wishful thinking (or both) is not clear. Either way it represents a fundamental misinterpretation of the phenomenon. For while some joined the investor class with making an easy fortune in mind, the motivation for most of this new generation of investors is not getting rich but not becoming poor.

Since the Republicans started slashing spending on wealth, healthcare and education and weakening labour laws, prompting job insecurity, people have looked for ways to make themselves less vulnerable. A survey released last year by Ariel Mutual Funds and Charles Schwab revealed that saving money for retirement, children's college education and emergencies were all cited before "obtaining a better lifestyle" as reasons for investing in stocks.

This was not confined to the US. Many Britons invested in private pensions, endowment policies and private health care because they could see the writing on the wall for the welfare state, pensions and the NHS under the Conservatives.

And while the political complexion of governments may change, the basic belief that the market can, should and will play a meaningful role in supporting our social needs prevails. Herein lies the ideological impetus for the third way and private-public partnerships pushed by Blair. It also provides the glue for Bush's planned social security reforms, whereby workers will have "individual retirement accounts" with managers they can designate themselves.

With the stock markets taking a pounding, the fig leaf for this political direction has been removed. In its place we see that the politics of the past 15 years has been based on the assumption of permanent economic prosperity. What sense does welfare to work make if there is no work? What point is there in private finance initiatives if capital is scarce?

Meanwhile America's baby boomers sit and fret. With each market bulletin they see their hopes for a comfortable retirement and a sound educational grounding for their children fade. Worse still, with the paper value of their assets plummeting, many have spent against savings that have withered away.

Economists call it dis-saving. "The collapse of savings has been one of the most striking phenomena of the US economy in the 1990s," said the Financial Times. The trouble is, like those who took out endowments 20 or so years ago in Britain only to find they cannot pay off their mortgage today, many here thought they were playing it relatively safe. Naive? - possibly. But their choices were limited. Having been ideologically cajoled and politically coerced to invest in their "own future" they now find they have gambled it in capitalism's largest casino.

gary.younge@theguardian.com

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