Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception.
— Joan Didion, On Self-Respect
In my first column I wrote about my failure to put my money where my mouth was. Not long after that, I called a friend of mine and asked her to tell me about the new developments in socially responsible investing.
During the year that I wrote this column, I started to educate myself. I met with SRI advisors, read books on personal finance for idiots, went through years of tax returns, all with the help of my partner. I used a magnifying glass to examine the fine print on my financial statements.
I also decided to tell my father and sisters about this column. I worried my dad would see me as ungrateful or make fun of me for saying I wanted to pay more taxes. Only the second part came true. I feared telling my family would crimp my freewheelin’ style and I would no longer able to write things like “farty fart fart fart.” I guess I’m safe.
And then one day I mentioned to my dad that I was thinking of leaving the family financial advisors and moving to a new firm. Instead of warning me I’d regret it, he said he was proud of me. And just like that, my biggest fear was gone.
There has always been something that gives me an anxiety attack about the investment managers’ use of the word “growth.” It seems so dependent on people buying things, which means that things will always have to be made. The dumbest question I never asked was, “what if we run out?”
I have stock in seven of the world’s “too big to prosecute” banks. One of the companies I’m invested in has a state-run plant in Pyongyang that churns out two billion cigarettes a year. One of the companies I’m invested in has overt and covert ties in Iran. One, an insurance company, was sued for delaying payouts to the families of fallen American soldiers.
Joan Didion wrote in her essay that people with self-respect, “have the courage of their choices. They know the price of things.” Part of the way I understand this is that no one can tell anyone else what they feel. Someone may really believe in those cigarettes from North Korea. If they decide that’s not working for them one day, it will happen through their own chain of cause and effect, their own moment of reckoning. Self-respect is what Didion calls a “private reconciliation.”
Last week I told my family’s trusted advisors I was moving to a sustainable and impact investing firm. I’ll begin the long, slow process of moving into companies that are not motivated solely by profit, but have what are called double or triple bottom lines.
Back in the spring during a meeting with SRI advisors, I started crying. I felt the weight of twenty years lift off me for a moment. It was only then how heavily my conscience had been weighing on me. I cried because I was relieved, but there was sadness, too, for what it had cost me to wait for so long.
Milton Friedman said, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to increase its profits."
I can’t live with that anymore.