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The greedy American threatens nation, world Future: Stock market, Social Security, sex and glaciers all make grist for prognosticators' mills.


Money makes the world go 'round -- and nuts, sometimes.

From the Washington Monthly to Harper's to the Atlantic Monthly, our current national obsession with the stock market is held up to the light this month, and the picture is not a pretty one. (In a piece of timing the market might admire, those mags have jostled for newsstand space with issues of Money, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Week touting hot mutual funds.)

In Washington Monthly, Joseph Nocera is decidedly bearish about the effects of the longest bull market in history. He sees Americans in such a fever of greed that we now find work slightly demeaning, at least compared with the get-rich-quick opportunities of the market, and says we now "find ourselves rooting for our portfolios rather than the greater good."

Nocera has the gift of clarity, and he marshals his arguments persuasively, through both anecdote (such as a blue-collar couple who have pinned their hopes on volatile stocks rather than building their carpet-laying business) and insight.

For example, he says the reason Americans have submitted without a peep to the shift from company-funded pensions to 401K plans -- "one of the biggest takeaways in American history" -- is that Americans are in the grip of "bull-market delusions" that anything Wall Street touches will endlessly propel their fortunes onward and upward.

One conclusion that Nocera sees as especially pernicious: a proposal to gamble part of the Social Security trust fund in the market, rather than fix the system.

Beyond the home front, the internationalization of investing is growing apace, and ever since Kathie Lee Gifford's sweatshop soap opera, many Americans have wondered how many of their investment dollars are helping to brutalize foreign workers. In a piece on that subject in this month's Harper's, Ted C. Fishman's intent is to provoke, and he succeeds by tossing off such lines as, "Do I care that I am investing in tyranny, authoritarianism, and latter-day feudalism? Absolutely. I'm glad. What could be better for my get-rich-in-Asia strategy?"

But Fishman's cold-blooded rundown of his own foreign portfolio is actually more effective than hand-wringing moralizing when it comes to describing the link between American investors and oppressive labor practices in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia. Fishman shoves the bottom line right in the reader's face: The worse conditions are for Third World workers, the higher the returns are for "global investors" back here in the United States.

Capitalism has been very, very good to millionaire financier George Soros, and he has returned the favor by devoting much of his life and fortune to combating communism. But that doesn't keep Soros from seeing laissez-faire extremism as a threat to economic stability and social justice, an argument he makes in the February Atlantic.

When a well-known champion of democracy argues that market values and market behavior are bad for democracy, it is bound to cause a stir, as indeed the Atlantic piece already has. But I fear that so much of Soros' essay is written at an abstract level that it is likely to sail right over the heads of the free-market buccaneers who should be his primary audience.

Peek at 2020

Millennium approaches -- and with it, a scramble of prognostications. So what do you want first, the good news or the bad news?

There's a little of both in the February George, where nine future-oriented writers peer at the crystal ball for a glimpse of the world in the year 2020. The ultimate good news is that "Human extinction is unlikely," according to Arno Karlen, author of "Man and Microbes." Whew!

With that worry out of the way, you can concentrate on your social life, which will be lot safer in the year 2020 because of a handy new accessory: a "Magic 8-ball with a built-in sweat

sensor," which writer Melissa Roth says will detect whether your date for the evening has a sexually transmitted disease.

In the morning, you'll jet off to work in a Jetson-like flying commuter vehicle, unburdened by a wallet or purse, since electronic transactions will have turned the United States into a "cashless society." At night, you'll be sending out for dinner, since cooking at home will likely "be reduced entirely to hobby status," according to author Michelle Stacey.

Of course, there will be trouble as well in Tomorrowland. For one thing, temperatures may climb, glaciers may melt, and storms could get more violent.

Life is good

Life, characteristically, sees the future in rosier terms. With amazing photography by Alexander Tsiaras, Life shows how, in medicine, the future is now: A doctor saves the life of a fifth-grader who has a brain tumor, by planning an operation using three-dimensional holograms.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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