I’d already read stories about it online, but that didn’t make it any less jarring to see the sign in person.
One recent weekend morning, I headed with my family for a shopping trip to Target—the kind of boring necessity that somehow sees us spending $200 on household essentials and yet still needing a separate grocery trip afterward. The store’s entry doors were decorated with the range of now-commonplace warning signs imploring customers to wash their hands, keep their distance, wear masks if unvaccinated, turn around and go home if they feel sick, and all sorts of other things sure to be blithely ignored by the people they were directed at.
There was a new one, though, unrelated to the waning pandemic, that was dryly absurd when presented without context.
To ensure the safety of our guests and team members, Pokémon, MLB, NFL and NBA cards will no longer be sold in stores.
Over the last year-plus, we’ve established a pretty cozy relationship with banal, everyday dangers, but Pokémon cards? How could those possibly present a safety risk?
The actual context, though, makes the big-box retailer’s move wholly understandable: speculative buyers, intent on scooping up the collectible cards at retail value in the hopes of flipping them for a large profit online, had begun to stake out the stores. People were camping out at times when new deliveries were expected to hit the shelves, planning to buy out the stock before their competitors could—a practice that predictably devolved into physical altercations between customers and store employees, the latter definitely not deserving of such a hassle.
In short, a classic “this is why we can’t have nice things” scenario.
Now, I am not personally impacted by Target’s defensible decision to throw up their hands and say “fine, no trading cards for anyone”. I’m slightly too old to have appreciated Pokémon cards in my youth, and my kids haven’t shown any particular interest in them yet. As for sports cards, I have thousands of once-sure-to-have-been-valuable cards in a big box in my basement, a treasure trove that, improbably, seems to consist entirely of cards depicting former Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Steve Jeltz (career Wins Above Replacement: -0.3). I’m good on cards, is what I’m saying.
But the retailer’s trading-card conundrum is representative of a larger sickness in American life these days, one that’s lived in our collective bloodstream for decades but now seems poised to infect all corners of the economy: we’re turning everything into stocks.
I live in Kentucky, where news stories about the distilled spirits economy are an expected part of any evening newscast. Recently, I watched a report on a new business designed to capitalize on the explosive growth of the state’s bourbon industry in the last two decades. Called “CaskX”—using a familiar naming convention in this type of business—the company announced that it plans to allow retail investors to buy shares of bourbon barrels. These shares would not be for investors’ own personal consumption, but rather for the belief—one parallel to the card-hunters’ hope—that they’d appreciate in value and turn them a tidy profit.
“It’s an exciting situation,” the company’s CEO told a local news station, with the vaguely-dystopian glee of someone selling investors on the energy-generation potential of the Matrix or the nutritive qualities of Soylent Green, “where we can get in on the ground floor before the prices really start to increase.”
As someone who enjoys a snifter of brown liquor on occasion, it’s mildly abhorrent to me to consider purchasing bourbon for its potential appreciation rather than my own appreciation, but I’m not naive enough to believe that things like this aren’t inevitable adjacent to any billion-dollar industry. In fact, many of the producers of popularly-speculated items are more than happy to play along, as anyone who’s ever logged into Nike’s shoe-selling SNKRS app—a place that turns the simple act of buying a pair of shoes into a frenzied sort of lottery—can attest.
Seemingly anything that might become popular to purchase can be made scarce—naturally or artificially—and that scarcity means someone, somewhere, is now viewing it as an financial instrument no different than a stock or bond.
I won’t even pretend to understand the recent proliferation of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and cryptocurrencies, things that make my brain hurt if I think about them for more than thirty seconds, but I can’t shake the notion that if one’s belief in something’s value is strictly tied to a belief that it will forever increase in value, it is not actually valuable. Every week, we’re finding a new version of the Tulip Mania of 1637, only without all the pretty flowers to show for it.
What’s behind all of this? Why are we like this? Why can’t we have nice things?
There’s always been a peculiar mix of hope and desperation central to the American economic structure, a reflexive tendency toward the get-rich-quick system combined with an intrinsic belief that one was always destined to be a billionaire. It’s a belief system that allows the average person to identify more easily with robber barons like Jeff Bezos more than their fellow citizens, and support those industrial titans’ rapaciously-extractive business practices in the hopes that one day we’ll be able to employ them ourselves.
Of course, those windows aren’t as open as we’d like to believe they are; yes, you can found a business in your garage just like Bezos did and hope it’ll send you to space, too. But it helps if you start with the kind of six- or seven-figure investment from wealthy parents that is almost always a quiet footnote to stories like his or a certain former president’s.
Without access to those resources—or a healthy social structure where our needs are met without needing to play the lottery daily—ordinary people are driven mad, seduced by hustle culture mindset and hare-brained moneymaking schemes like these, ones that have been vastly accelerated by the internet’s ability to remove friction between speculator and customer.
So what can we do? Rend our garments, scream at the sky, get into fights at Target? In the end, it’s like the computer finally realized in War Games: the only winning move is not to play. You can only survive a mania by refusing to engage in it. Buy shoes to wear them, bourbon to drink it, and Pokémon cards for whatever it is you do with Pokémon cards. As much as it pains me to walk away from something I enjoy, if speculation is driving the price beyond what those experiences are actually worth to me, I can’t let myself get caught up in a bubble; I just have to hope it will eventually burst.
Besides, I’m just waiting for the day these Steve Jeltz cards finally mature in value. It’s bound to happen soon.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)