slow money, part two

In reading about Slow Money, I’ve been thinking about the term “invest.” Investments. Invested in. What are people invested in? What are we, as a society, invested in?

The definition of “invest” reflects the dual nature of how we think of investments. As the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes: on one hand, to be invested is “to commit money in order to earn financial return.” But “invest” can also be defined as “to involve or engage especially emotionally.”

These two types of “investments” can work together, if one is financially invested in a cause they care deeply about. But as Slow Money founder Woody Tasch notes, this is rarely the case.

In fact, as Tasch explains to Thea Sullivan in the recent issue of The Sun (“Prophet Of Modest Prophet: Woody Tasch On How Not To Get Rich Quick,” June 2010, not available online), it is not uncommon for philanthropic funds to make money (be financially invested in) from companies whose business practices create the social problems their charitable giving (engaged on an emotional level) is working to prevent. Which, of course, is really quite odd. 

“This is a symptom of a very deep cultural disease: we’ve separated profit making from social goals and forgotten that the way we make money actually shapes our environment. I’m not saying people shouldn’t become rich. It’s not a matter of controlling who makes how much money; we have to control what the money is financing. We have to be more intelligent and more nuanced in our understanding of economic growth.”

To paraphrase the late, great historian Howard Zinn, money can’t be neutral on a moving train. It is either actively working to facilitate a cause you care about, or it is actively working against that cause, depending on how it is invested. We, as a society, can’t be truly invested in social change if we don’t care about, or don’t know, where our money is and what it is being used for.

Often, Tasch points out, the manner in which the economy is run has a very direct impact on society. “The world economy is growing at a rate of hundreds of billions of dollars a year,” Tasch tells Sullivan, “and there are all kinds of embedded issues of consumerism and materialism and waste.”

Slow Money’s motto is “Investment strategies appropriate to the realities of the 21st century.” Which sounds simple enough. But when it comes to money, and the economy, it is extremely hard to separate our treasured myths and explanatory storylines from actual reality. As Tasch notes, it makes little sense for Random Charitable Foundation to raise money to fight suburban sprawl, or work to end violence, when they are heavily invested in the development of Random Suburban Mall, or Random Prison Complex. Yet, this is the actual reality in far too many cases.

In the recent Enough blog post “On Crisis and Community,” Tyrone Boucher notes “how connected this all is – community, interdependence, prison abolition, interpersonal violence and systemic violence, war, globalization, militarism, capitalism … the threads are so knotted and entangled it’s impossible to pull them apart.”

The rules and regulations that are set up on a systemic level have constant consequences in the daily realities of people’s lives. Tasch refers to this interconnectedness as the “social footprint.”

“We’ve been talking in the last decade or so about carbon footprints,” he tells Sullivan, “but we haven’t really talked about the social footprint – the broken social relationships in the wake of economic growth.”

At its worst, our current economic model of growth can have violent social repercussions. “An economy that accepts that families will be split apart so that their members can follow careers and opportunities around the country or the globe is violent to social stability,” Tasch notes. “People are disconnected from their relatives and from the places they grew up, and they have limited allegiance to new places and fewer social connections there.”

Yet this is the reality our economy demands of all but the most privileged few. Everyday terms like downsizing, mergers and acquisitions reflect this real nomadic requirement on the nation’s workforce.

And this is the economic reality of our cultural landscape. Whether it is affecting an underserved urban neighborhood, or a patchwork suburban development. It is difficult to be socially invested in a place that isn’t financially cared about.

Which reminds me of this observation on our overly-suburban landscape, from Geography of Nowhere author James Howard Kunstler:

“The living arrangement Americans now think of as normal is bankrupting us economically, socially, ecologically and spiritually. The physical setting itself … is not merely a symptom of our troubled culture, but in many ways a primary cause of our troubles.”

And so it is for our economy, as well.

The investments we make with our money predetermines the investments we will be required to make as socially-engaged members of our collective community. We can’t, as a culture, be invested in our social causes if we are financially invested in their social problems.

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Filed under Accountable Wealth, Consumerism, Economic Justice, Social Change

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