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Corporate America Plays ‘Spoons’

There’s a card game called “spoons” played something like this:

Four players encircling three spoons each receive four cards. The dealer draws a card from the deck and passes an unwanted card to the next player, who does the same, with the last player putting unwanted cards in a pile.

The object: Be the first person to hold four cards of a kind, then pick up a spoon. When a spoon is picked up, the other spoons are fair game. Whoever doesn’t get a spoon is the loser.

Sometimes there’s a grabbing frenzy, sometimes not—particularly when a spoon is lifted discreetly while others search frantically for needed cards. On occasion, an involved player won’t even notice there are no spoons to be had anyway.

Corporate America has been playing spoons with the average investor.

A few years ago, millions flocked to the stock market like Kodiak bears gathering at a mountain stream to fill up on salmon. Now, Americans are like bears coming out of the mountains during a drought, looking through garbage cans for something to eat.

Actually this bear market isn’t quite that bad—yet. It got that way once; our grandparents tell us about it. Thankfully, the economy is running well enough that most of us can eat. However, many Americans have seen the spoons disappear—spoons for eating the main course of early retirement and a few extra trimmings along the way.

There wasn’t a grabbing frenzy. Instead, some of the players got what they needed and then slowly and quietly claimed their spoons. As insiders in this game, they knew it was about to end. They sold their stocks while prices were high, ensuring their financial future.

“So what if others continue the game?” they thought. “Sooner or later they’ll figure it out. After all, every game must have a loser.”

Pyramid systems are illegal. They are scams that defraud those who end up at the bottom of the pyramid. Many investors now feel that the stock market—a sure bet three years ago—has been little better than an illegal pyramid system.

Many people have ended up at the bottom—mostly the little people, the middle-income investor—while the wealthiest in corporate America got their spoons and are now using them to stir the life of ease. Everyone knows that investments come with risks. What we didn’t know is that the risks haven’t been the same for everyone.

Those who got their spoons will have to withstand a bit of rock-throwing by the public, but it’s not likely to last. We admire and envy the wealthy too much to hate them for long. If we are honest, what many of us hate is that we were not in a position to get our spoons before the game ended.

How many of us would have done the same had we been in their shoes? As we answer that question, we may realize that the greed in corporate America also lies in each of us. Certainly the potential for it does.

One of the great dangers in a capitalist system is the temptation to lay down ethical business practices at the altar of materialistic greed. We are going to pay a high price for our greed. As the veil is pulled away from company after company to reveal their true business practices, average investors now see that the deck was stacked against them all along.

To compound the problem, voices of authority from some of our highest leaders are weakened by revelations that they played the same game years ago, grabbing their spoons and getting their money while the little man got the shaft. It may have been legal but it certainly wasn’t ethical.

The Taliban was not able to destroy our markets with flying bombs. What they failed to do, we are doing ourselves with our own greed and lack of ethics. The prophet Amos had harsh words for the unethical merchants of his day:

“Listen, you merchants who rob the poor, trampling on the needy; you who long for the Sabbath to end and the religious holidays to be over so you can get out and start cheating again—using your weighted scales and under-sized measures; you who make slaves of the poor, buying them for their debt of a piece of  silver or a pair of shoes, or selling them your moldy wheat: The Lord, the Pride of Israel, has sworn: ‘I won’t forget your deeds! The land will tremble as it awaits its doom, and everyone will mourn. It will rise up like the river Nile at floodtime, toss about, and sink again'” (Am 8:4-9 TLB).

Yes, we have an enemy from without, and we must work to protect the homeland from terrorists. But while we’re focused on foreign enemies, we are just beginning to realize that the greatest enemy may be within—even within our own hearts.

We must change the game from selfishly grabbing our own spoons to using our spoons to feed the less fortunate.

Otherwise, Amos’ words will repeat themselves in our day.

Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column first appeared in The Moultrie Observer.