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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Column: Beanie Baby

My fascination with mass fraud and Goldman Sachs dates back to my entrepreneurial fascination with Beanie Babies in the fourth grade.

I was raised by a mother who took pleasure in withholding things. In her eyes, nothing was earned without hard work. She’d supplied the family with health, auto and house insurance from her six-figure pharmacy job, where she’d worked for the past 31 years. When I asked her why she gets so angry when people ask for the key to the locked bathroom three feet away from the drug counter, she says, “Because I did not go to pharmacy school for six years to show people the bathroom.”

Less than a year after my mother moved to Pasadena from Hong Kong in the 70s, she went from not knowing English to supporting herself on her own. Then when it came to raising three children, there wasn’t a lot of room for laziness.

Who she ended up raising instead were children who became obsessed with the idea of getting something for nothing because in our family, that never happened. Now that I live by myself after an adolescence of model minority guilt, I take deep satisfaction in being sedentary.

“My dream is that one day, people pay money just to hear me talk,” I say to my friend Jonathan on the phone. I’m slumped on the couch, breathing heavily into the phone because I just binged on Chef Boyardee and I’m trying to keep my body from falling off the armrest. “I wouldn’t even have to move, and I would make money.”

I blame the Beanie Babies. It started in fourth grade.

Beanie Babies were insufferably cute, but not because they had black marbles for eyes and didn’t bounce when you threw them down the stairs. Their cuteness came from the fact that they doubled in value in a matter of weeks for no logical reason other than that they were discontinued.

If some ugly spider with red eyes and tiger print on its ass was on sale for $5, we wanted nothing to do with it. But once it became “retired” – a term the Ty factory used when it decided one day to stop making a certain kind of Beanie Baby – its market value soared.

The formula worked. In the upcoming weeks, the ugly spider became worth $20, then $35, then $50. Its red eyes became endearing and the tiger-print underwear was exotic. We needed it to be a part of our lives.

The trick of the system was that you never knew when the Beanie Babies would retire. So you bought all of them when they were still $5, hoping they’d go up in value in a few weeks so you could resell them. We even called the Nordstrom and asked when the factory shipment came in. It was the third Monday of every month. On that third Monday, we dragged our mother to Nordstrom and found 20 other kids who were already there for the same purpose.

Each time, it was a game to guess which Beanie Baby would retire next. To get insider tips on the market trends, we bought these catalogues that had the current value of every Beanie Baby listed. What we didn’t realize at the time was that these were catalogues printed by the Ty factory itself, posing as if they were some independent credit rating agency that determined the value of these glorified bean bags. It was the S&P for fourth graders.

Nevertheless, after we studied these trends meticulously to find out which Beanie Babies would retire, we figured it out. It was always the ugly ones.

But alas, my siblings and I were not the cunning hedge John Paulsons that we had aspired to be. We set up a Geocities website to sell our Beanie Babies, but no one ever bought them because we either priced them for way too high, or held onto the ones we really should have been selling in hopes that their prices would go even higher.

So when the crash of 1999 happened and the Ty factory announced “The End” Beanie Baby, signifying the end of the company, everyone rushed to buy all the Beanie Babies they could find – until a few months later, when the Ty factory released “The Beginning.” Just kidding, we’re back! No one fell for it.

Before Lehman Brothers, this was the biggest economic downturn we ever experienced. What we ended up getting stuck with were rows and rows of ugly Beanie Babies that we couldn’t sell because no one wanted to buy our shit. The bubble had burst, and no one wanted our ugly, sub-prime Beanie Babies anymore.

It’s 2010 now, but the game’s hardly changed. Except we’re not dealing with dusty toy spiders, but foreclosed houses, synthetic CDOs and fraud. The economy is still a gambling game of CDOs and hedge funds where the rules are determined by arbitrary decisions out of anyone’s control.

Shall we take a moment to revisit Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein’s statement, “doing God’s work” in light of recent events? It seems doing God’s work isn’t about rewarding the hard working anymore. It’s more about taking the power away from the people and into the sovereignty of the all-mighty economy.

If only this was as easy to solve as releasing a Beanie Baby a few months later to say “Just kidding, we’re back!”

GEOFF MAK wonders if anyone else who took the 11:30 a.m. UWP exam last Saturday thought the San Francisco Chronicle article was a middle-class revival of the American Dream that discounts the fact that there are still Americans who make money because they actually need it. E-mail him at gemak@ucdavis.edu if you think the problem isn’t that we’re raising lazy kids, but that we’re raising bad gamblers.



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