Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Case Against Friends' (Quaker) Prudent Financial Investments

Friends have a long-standing witness against playing games for the necessities of life. In my Faith and Practice this is in the advices and queries on 'Integrity': "From early days Friends have opposed gambling and practices based on chance. These activities profit from the inevitable loss of others, promote greed, and conflict with good stewardship."

Friend have also a long history of having prospered from adherence to religious principles, even when these seemingly conflicted with worldly success. But prospering necessarily leads to new responsibilities and new temptations. The greatest of these may be: that being wealthy accustoms people to remaining wealthy, and to relying on worldly goods for security.

There is a crucial distinction between: a) profiting from activities that increase the real wealth of the human race, and: b) profiting from some zero-sum game, that merely redistributes claims on the available wealth, so that other people lose what any person gains.

I don't think that financial greed is characteristic of Friends. So far as Friends invest their own funds, and the funds of Quaker organizations, the normal objects are 1) to preserve their value and 2) to receive a steady income-- which they fully intend to use responsibly for constructive and benevolent purposes.

This isn't just personal wealth (I imagine most Friends are modestly endowed with worldlies, while some of us are downright poor.) Our organizations and institutions have endowments, reserve funds, budgets sustained overwhelmingly by contributions from the wealthiest Friends.

What happens when the economy staggers? Well, we've seen that happen already. Much Good Work, which people have been doing under Friends' auspices, suffers. Endowments shrink in value; reserve funds intended to maintain stability stop being stable. Our means of helping shrink while the need outruns all bounds.

Has any actual wealth disappeared? No, the number of available workers, the tools and the potential worksites are unchanged. Less wealth gets produced because the social mechanism we depend on to match workers, tools, and tasks breaks down. Suffering increases: homelessness, malnutrition, crime, broken health and family violence. But overall our resources and productive capacity remain what they were ; we just lose our ability to give each other permission to use them.

We invest individual and collective funds (including the pension funds that most of us were counting on as individuals) into a vast, complex system of social machinery-- in hopes that we're keeping that system functioning for the common good.

This assumption is entirely unfounded, and-- I insist-- untrue.

There's a lot of respectable expertise-- from the Greenspans and the Geithners and their well-financed school of economism-- that denies this. There's also some information I find more trustworthy-- although some of it's heavy going-- from sources like , , and among others. I urge people to examine and consider this-- but you will of course need to rely a great deal on your own sense of intellectual coherence, integrity, what God in you confirms to ring true.

One can make a coherent, even overpowering case, that this system has been growing increasingly disfunctional, parasitic, corrupt and politically corrupting for the last fifty years.

In the last several decades we've progressed into what the late Hyman Minsky predicted and described as a 'Ponzi-stage investment market.' He expected this to result any time an investment market enjoyed a long period of government-protected stability--

As institutional investors come to experience and expect that their investments will remain safe and profitable, they also realize that they can get a higher rate of return-- with reasonable safety-- from more short-sighted endeavors. If the investment eventually fails-- while they've enjoyed a high return on paper, and been promoted away from direct responsibility for the loss-- it's no blow to their careers. "Success" comes to be more and more defined by whether one can keep up with the pressures to take on high-yield, low-function investments. These are not investments in productive capacity or products, except for assets to be acquired via leveraged buyouts and sold off wastefully. As real estate, the object is not for use, but for resale, legal forms of tax evasion, acquisition of more for the same purposes-- as exemplified in that old S&L bubble, where "trading a dead horse for a dead cow" was considered smart business. Most of the wealth moving around is purely electrical-- A few years ago, one objective measure showed about $1000 changing hands in the "FIRE" sector (financial, insurance, and real estate) for every dollar going into real world goods and services.

A system that overwhelming rewards short-term success and penalizes long-term, steady usefulness-- presents what the old political economists called "a moral hazard."

If you look at American performance-- in industry, public goods, media, political and social policy-- over these decades, can you truly deny that short-sighted, greedy, corrupt and irresponsible influences have triumphed everywhere? Are we in reasonable doubt as to the sources of the money that paid for those results?

Friends, of course, are putting their money into prudent and constructive endeavors, right? Well, no; they may settle for a low rate of return from non-military companies-- but these companies have funds, and need to invest whatever isn't in immediate use, and can't afford to have those funds lose relative value... My own Meeting's reserves lost about 1/3 their original value in the last crash. How much in the next? Do you really think that won't come soon?

Real investment means knowing what your money will be used for, who will use it, and how. Anything else is gambling. It's gambling merely for security and a modest return, but that's not a qualitative difference.

This is not a faith-based way of supporting Good Works-- unless that faith has been placed in something less than sacred. The money we raise and spend is not a fit measure of our contribution; the sweat and thought and human contact we're led to provide directly-- is of far more value. Reserves are for buying someone else's work.

Can we trust God to lead us into our own forms of right action, and to support us in them as needed? Dorothy Day did it that way, as a matter of principle. What's our principle in this?