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Monday March 19, 2001

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Lock, stock and big money barrels

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By Lora J. Mackel

Last week, Americans could hardly tear their eyes away from the financial channels as the NASDAQ and Dow Jones fell more than 100 points. It was horrific to watch, as those new to investment watched their retirement or college funds dry up and blow away.

But was the market dive worthy of the attention it received? The answer is a resounding no, and the behavior of Americans last week only supports the idea that most are obsessed with money and are incapable of enjoying the massive wealth they already have.

Perhaps it is the new culture of investment that has precipitated this obsession. A whole new generation, who previously thought investment was out of their means, are buying into American companies. Technology has also enabled the general public to have greater access to the stock market. All that is needed is a computer, an Internet connection and a credit card. Everyone from the CEO to the school janitor now has money in stocks.

Additionally, the baby boom generation that is on the verge of retirement has learned too late that saving more would have been prudent. This generation, which is massive in size and threatens to be long-lived, presents the most significant risk to government programs like Social Security and Medicare. Saving is no longer encouraged in any generation; instead, financial security is thought to come quickly and easily with a click of the mouse and an Ameritrade account.

We all know this simply is not true.

Because of the expansion of the investor class, stock buying came to be accepted as a "sure thing" instead of the gamble that it always was. Losses, which have become more common since the end of last year, have come as a slap in the face to the new generation so used to stocks going up in value.

While it is comforting in one respect that the act of investment is open to more classes in the country, the massive culture of investment has had detrimental effects. Media is saturated with ads suggesting investment is the way to instant wealth and happiness.

No element of society is safe from this message - even children are urged to buy stock instead of save. Instead of raising the next generation as innocent children, our culture threatens to turn every citizen into a ticker junkie.

Money is not inherently evil. Indeed, it is our country's wealth that enables us to do so many wonderful things, from advanced scientific research to humanitarian relief.

But our culture does not encourage a healthy attitude about money or investment. American children are bombarded with the constant message that making money is more important that being good, and adults put their careers and investment before family in an effort to live out that model.

Good times do not last forever. If our country's entire identity is wrapped up in being fiscally successful, Americans will be unable to withstand morally or ethically bad times.

There needs to be something stronger and more enduring for Americans to believe in than wealth.

You need only to look at the state of American families to see that the money-first model of life is dangerous. American children are more likely to spend time with teachers and day care providers than with their own parents. Divorce happens to more than 50 percent of American marriages.

Last week, which was seen by American media as a crisis, was anything but when compared with the week many other nations had. The British are in the midst of an agricultural disaster, Macedonia threatens to become the next Kosovo and thousands of Africans contracted the AIDS virus.

Americans, blind to the struggles of other human beings, are unable to appreciate how good we really do have it. The ups and downs of the stock market should be expected, but they should not be defined as the ups or downs of our nation. America can be more than just a money-making machine - but only if it shifts its priorities.