What's More Precious Than Gold? Beanie Babies

With the stock market plunging in all directions like a bucking bronco, the Russian economy melting down, and parts of Asia staggering, financial analysts are scrambling to find a safe haven, some investment that will maintain its value during periods of severe turmoil in the global marketplace.

I wonder if the experts have considered Beanie Babies?

Until recently, I was under the mistaken impression that these little cloth creatures were just a fad. The truth slapped me in the face several weeks ago. There is a shop downtown that I drive past occasionally, and it has a sign proclaiming, "We buy gold and silver." The display case in the front window is now jammed with Beanie Babies, in addition to coins and baseball cards.

Our family does, in fact, own several Beanies, but I'm not rushing to buy more. This phenomenon is still within the realm of psychology rather than economics. I would call it a situation of UCB (unusual collective behavior).

What puzzles and fascinates me about this particular UCB is why large numbers of Americans are fixated on toys that have no connection to other areas of modern culture. The Beanies aren't part of any movie or TV promotional campaign. Nor do they commemorate a popular event or personality from our history. So why have they become more desirable than Coca-Cola signs, or Lucille Ball salt shakers?

I know prices for rare Beanie characters have skyrocketed, but I remain dubious about their inherent value. If a genuine monetary crisis strikes this country, and I am forced to hike into the countryside to barter with local farmers, it'll be interesting to see what they accept as payment. I have an instinctive feeling my pre-1965 US dimes and quarters will command more respect than old toys, sports memorabilia, or limited-edition plates from the Bradford Exchange.

But I could be wrong. In other countries, commercial products have sometimes achieved monetary status. During the 1980s, packs of Kent cigarettes became the unofficial currency of Romania. So it's not impossible that Boris Yeltsin might ask the World Bank to rewrite all loan agreements, and replace the word "dollars" with "Beanie Babies." I hope the State Department is on the alert.

A man named Charles Mackay described similar economic escapades in his book "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds." My favorite example is the craze for investing in tulip bulbs that swept across Holland in the 17th century.

The book was published in 1841, and Mr. Mackay is long gone, which is too bad. When I think of all the recent shopping frenzies caused by Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle Me Elmo, and the Beanie Babies, it's obvious that right now is the perfect time for a new, updated edition.

* Jeffrey Shaffer, a Monitor humor columnist, writes from Portland, Ore.

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