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A Business Proposition 

The business editor at the daily newspaper asked me to pick five local companies most likely to make money for investors. The paper was going to follow the stocks for a year. It's not a bad idea: novices often come out ahead of experts in this kind of thing. A guy I know picks horses by their names: the more poetic the more he bets. He wins a lot. And then there is "beginner's luck," which is how most gamblers get hooked. The opportunity appealed to my sporting instinct.

The editor sent me a list of 49 local companies listed on the Stock Exchange, and I went to work researching them. I already knew some of them, like the ones that extort me every month for the gas and electricity, and the one that wipes out indigenous people in search of gold. I skipped those. My favorite cafeteria chain was also listed, but I'd just read that they were about to go under. Too generous, I suppose. Sometimes they even have a piano player at lunch. That's no way to help your stock. I also ignored the gambling corporation that empties the pockets of the poor. Betting on them would be like shooting fish in a barrel: the poor will always be with us. I crossed out the chicken empire because I know how they get to the table and I don't eat them. The company that makes war planes and high-tech weapons looked pretty attractive in light of the latest from Fox News, but then I remembered that it was tax money that they were spending. I would rather not encourage military greed.

That left me with 45 virgins. I flew through a number of banking concerns that looked quite profitable, but whose home pages throbbed with indefinable anxiety. Loan-sharks, mysterious bookkeepers, crooked bankers swam past my eyes. I fear banks instinctively. Big buildings that lock up my money. The real owners of my house. I know this isn't Argentina. On the other hand, one year ago, Argentina wasn't Argentina either.

The next company I looked up was nice. It was a small investment company that loaned money to its neighbors and planted trees in school yards. It had been owned by the same family for 200 years. You could hear the wind whistling through the eerie quiet in the serene offices. The worst thing this company did was not make any money. Their stock held rock-steady around a dollar. On the other hand, if there was a shark in the water anywhere, this stock might be the poetic longshot of all time. I also liked, for the same reasons, an energy co-operative that provided electricity to rural areas and sponsored youth camps in the summer. This company's stock was probably decorated with Christmas trees.

The rest were disasters. Mega-corporations with six class-action suits currently against them. Shipping concerns that promised to sink half their antiquated barges if only folks would hold on to their stock. Oil explorers who turned the seas inside out to look for planet death. Real-estate firms that chewed up trees and spit out suburbs. A company that blighted 50 states with roadside advertising. Refiners of deadly substances made from mountains of wounded earth. OK, OK, I know that my retirement fund is in the hands of a broker who, doubtlessly, has no such qualms. But she makes the sausage at night while I sleep.

I thanked the editor and gave her my regrets. I'm just not grown-up enough for capitalism.


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