You don’t see it, but on my screen there’s a number for each of these columns, starting with the very first one I did in 1996 (#1 – ‘An Ode to ATM’s’), the first hundred or so of which, because of ‘technical difficulties’ – sloth – I have never gotten around to including in the archive.
Numbers being what they are, I have had some private fun the last few months marching up through history. At #1865 (‘The Utility of Deregulation’), I thought of the end of the Civil War. At #1929 (one of my political rants), I naturally thought about what we all think about when we hear that number. At 1968? (‘What SHOULD The Top 1% Be Taxed?’) Well, it was such a momentous year that a friend of mine even wrote a book about it.
Today’s is the two thousandth – although much of the heavy lifting, these past several years, has been done by you, my exceptional readers, whose comments are so frequently more interesting than my own . . . and by people like Paul Krugman and Matt Miller, whose insights I frequently excerpt for the same reason. (But the clickle – #90, June 14, 1996* – was my good idea, and I am clearly due for another one really soon.)
*The archive does not go back that far, but it was reprised here.
Two thousand columns later, I thought it might be worth taking a minute to recall the genesis of the enterprise.
It began with a call from Joe Ricketts, head of a deep-discount brokerage firm called Accutrade that was about to launch an even deeper-discount brokerage then called Ceres, now Ameritrade. Would I write a daily comment for its web site?
‘A daily comment?’ I repeated. (Once a month is pushing it for me.) I was much too busy and important to do this, I explained.
‘We would pay you a lot of money,’ Joe explained.
I arrived at his hotel room in New York with a long list of requirements I knew he could never satisfy. Complete editorial freedom; the ability to advise against the frequent trading that would be his firm’s bread and butter; a clear disclaimer that I did not endorse his firm (matched, of course, by a clear disclaimer that his firm did not endorse my comments) . . . and on and on. Oh, and, like, a billion dollars a column, even if it were a 7-word column (‘The market feels a little toppy here – buyer beware’).
Joe balked at the billion but offered half a billion, and soon thereafter my first column appeared:
Welcome to my ‘daily comment’ [it began]. The ground rules Ceres and I have agreed to are simple. I can write whatever I want, ranging from a sentence to an epic, and nothing is off limits.
I can even say things like, ‘Don’t trade stocks yourself – for most people, it’s smarter to invest through no-load mutual funds.’ Which it is. (Not that this has ever stopped me from testing my hand against the pros.)
Most days, I’ll presumably write something vaguely related to money, since money is much on my mind. But don’t be amazed by a political screed or two, or a recipe for low-fat lunch. (OK, here it is: take one low-fat Bilinksi chicken sausage, microwave 90 seconds, place across a slice of low-fat bread, drown in ketchup, envelope in your fist, and eat, being careful not to bite off a finger in your enthusiasm – it’s that good.)
On the theory that we should start with something simple, like cash, today’s ‘comment’ is an ode to automated teller machines . . .
I will spare you the ode but tell you, instead, that Joe and the folks at Ameritrade (where I still do most of my investing, at $11 a trade) were beyond upright and outstanding to deal with. I was pouty and spoiled (I am a writer) and for the first several months actually did begin each comment with the disclaimer that you probably shouldn’t trade stocks, you should just “buy and hold” index funds. What’s more, Joe and I hold very different political views, and I wasn’t shy about what I wrote.
And yet the checks came like clockwork. They only stopped because, at the end of the three-year term of our agreement, it would have been insane for Joe to continue paying me. By then – indeed, by about the third week of our deal – what was really attracting customers to Ameritrade was the exceptionally low cost and high convenience it offered, and which I enjoy to this day.
I would never have said that five years ago, when they were paying me. But sufficient time may have passed for me to do so now. (I have no doubt some of Ameritrade’s competitors do a good job as well.) Thanks, Ameritrade.
As our three-year deal was winding down, in 1999, I realized that the billions of dollars I was being paid were only one reason I’d miss this gig. Against all reason, I had found myself wanting to say something almost every day. And – straining reason ever further – a small but loyal band of readers had chosen to come listen. I had come very much to enjoy, and learn from, their feedback.
So I got my wonderfully talented and obliging friend Marc Fest to set me up with my own website, and Ameritrade very graciously encouraged me to ‘port’ my readers from their site to mine – and here, five years later, we are.
Thanks, faithful reader.
Coming up? ‘2001.’