This past June, I was invited to visit the New York Mercantile Exchange (or NYMEX) by my friend Steven Spivak, a professional commodities trader.
For those of you unfamiliar with the NYMEX, it's the exchange where commodities like orange juice, pork bellies, gold, crude oil, natural gas, copper, and silver are traded. (A good deal of the Eddie Murphy movie Trading Places takes place there.) The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) trades primarily in equities, as opposed to the commodities traded on the NYMEX.
Bells Are Ringing
To my surprise, I was asked to ring the opening bell for the gold and crude oil exchanges, both commodities I'm heavily invested in. As soon I rang the bells, all hell broke loose. Traders like Steven were buying and selling commodity futures -- as well as put and call options -- as fast as they could.
For Steven, it didn't matter if the market was going up or down. He was busily buying and selling as he ran between the gold and crude oil pits. In less than an hour, he'd made over $70,000 in profits. Not bad for a guy in his 20s.
During that hour, I was standing next to a NYMEX employee. I asked him if he understood what was going on. He replied, "No. I've worked here for nineteen years and I've never bothered to learn. I like my job, and I don't like the pressure these guys go through every day." Although I didn't ask, I suspect he's lucky to make $70,000 a year.
Run, Don't Walk
The reason I'm comparing my young friend Steven to this older, clearly less well-off man is to give you an idea of the disparity between individuals' earning power in this country. Financially, millions of Americans are being left in the dust.
A few days later, as I was driving back to Phoenix, I was held up at a crosswalk by two young, overweight people crossing against the light. Instead of hurrying, they looked at me as if to say, "We're in a crosswalk. We have our rights. The government protects us from impatient drivers like you."
As I watched their ample backsides waddle slowly in front of me, I thought back to my hour in the trading pits of the NYMEX, and to the idea of relative speeds of wealth creation.
Clueless in La-La Land
Which brings me to my politically incorrect thesis for this week: Most Americans live in la-la land.
They're clueless about what's going on in the world of money, and still think we're the richest country in the world. In reality, we're the biggest debtor nation there is.
Most Americans also still think our government will protect them. The world is changing at an alarming rate, yet most people here waddle stubbornly through the crosswalk, so to speak, still believing that this country has the right of way and that our political institutions are still sound.
Midterm elections will take place in a couple of months. The common question regarding the outcome is: Will the Democrats or Republicans win? But the question should be: What difference does it make? Regardless of which party wins, the rich still make the rules.
The Chickens Come Home to Roost
In Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter with Kansas? : How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, which I highly recommend, a poor man reports that he voted Republican because he wanted to get back at Wall Street.
Can you imagine that? I always suspected that a lot of people aren't very bright. To paraphrase a popular statement, a poor person voting for a Republican is like a chicken voting for Col. Sanders.
Recently, Congress worked diligently to have English passed as the official language of the United States. They also worked hard to make burning the American flag illegal. Now, I'm in favor of speaking English as well as of not burning the flag. But don't our political leaders have bigger and more pressing issues to focus on?
What about Medicare, which is running in the red? And what about Social Security, which will soon be running in the red? In case you don't know how in trouble both programs are, as of 2004, Medicare's long-term fiscal gap is over $60 trillion, while Social Security reportedly has a $10 trillion shortfall.
Yet in spite of these financial challenges, millions of Americans continue to waddle through the crosswalk of life, expecting our government to take care of them instead of building wealth. They're living in la-la land.
The Catastrophe Ahead
Donald Trump and I co-authored a book, to be published next month, about what individuals can do to address the massive problems facing this country. Our point of view is that, while it would be nice to change the government, doing so seems to be an unrealistic goal at this time.
Instead of changing the government, we recommend that you change yourself and prepare for the economic turbulence that lies ahead. If you think political action can save this country from itself, I'm afraid you're dreaming -- or perhaps daydreaming as you waddle through that figurative crosswalk.
In the next five years, the United States and the world will go through some of the most financially disturbing times in the history of the world. Once again, the rich will become very, very, rich, and the unsuspecting will be left like the passengers on the S.S. Titanic, heading straight for an economic iceberg.
One way to approach the coming changes is to ask yourself whether you'll be like my friend Steven Spivak -- trading rapidly, earning over $70,000 an hour -- or like that 19-year NYMEX employee, who's content to work for $70,000 a year at best. While both men are working for a dollar that's declining in value, one is earning more than enough of them to stay ahead of its erosion.
Both options are available to each of us. Which reality you choose -- deciding on how much you can earn and how fast you can earn it -- will determine your station in life five years from now, when things start to get really sticky.