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2013 Winter Issue 5 (February 15, 2013)

Washing Our Hands

February 15, 2013
By Griffin Johnson

Language is deceptive. Economics hasn’t evolved the same way as etymology. There are roots—”re-” or “anti-” or “endo-”—that don’t mean the same thing intuitively as they do materially. That, I think is what’s at heart of the divestment issue, because “divest” is such a crisp, pure, upstanding word that it’s easy to get confused about what it really means.

The divestment controversy, like a forest fire, is a healthy, organic, cyclical part of life, and it’s flared up at every Carleton-like college every few years since at least the 70s—my father has stories about his time at Michigan, when investments in South African diamond mines were the issue. Which is to say that I don’t mean to vilify anybody, or to demean anybody’s point of view. The discourse, as Sam Elliott says, keeps on perpetuation’ itself, and I’m no less immersed in it than anyone else. That said, I do think we’re getting a naive viewpoint at Carleton.

The responsible-investment arguments I’ve seen, on the signs that are going up around campus and from the proponents of the online petition, advance an argument that I think is heavy on emotional impact but fairly light on nuance.

Let me sketch out some of the base assumptions of the pro-divestment cadre, just so I have something to argue against: one, divestment means pulling our money from a company in which we invest a part of our endowment; two, we ought to use our money the most ethical way we reasonably can; three, we’re invested in dozens of companies making unethical business choices; four, if we continue to invest in those companies, we are condoning their immorality. The conclusion drawn, then, is that we should divest from these companies and re-invest in companies with stronger principles.

I think a good analogy for this view of things is the idea of our ensemble of available corporations as a telephone switchboard. (If you don’t remember what a telephone switchboard looks like, this is going to be unhelpful, but I don’t blame you.) Each corporation is a port, and Carleton’s investment is a plug. The inert support for the corporation that the plug represents is repaid by a steady stream of money that flows backwards, out from the plug, into the Carleton community. The idea that proponents of divestment seem to have is that we should pull our plug, our support, from each bad port and plug it into another, better one, which won’t taint its stream of money with fossil fuels or human trafficking.

My objection to this is that what Carleton has in those ports is not an inert plug. Carleton isn’t just sticking inert money into a corporation that gets its investment; this idea seems predicated on the assumption that money is essentially analogous to support. But Carleton’s not selling its support; if investment were that abstract, Carleton’s investment would go towards things like Independent Thought and Gender Fluidity, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Carleton’s not supporting a company when it invests, it is buying influence in that company. That’s what a share is.

And if Carleton were to divest from a company like Wal-Mart, for example, it would not simply remove its symbolic support in some kind of defiant gesture; rather, it would remove its influence. Only the horrible, insidious thing about the word “divest” is that like dispersal, discharge, dismissal, it implies a total release. That’s not what takes place when a college divests, and we probably shouldn’t use the word “divest” at all—it would probably be more honest to cut to the heart and say “sell.”

For a sale to take place, there has to be a buyer. And if we’re selling because we’re morally disgusted with the kind of abuse that a corporation can perform on the world, it follows that whoever is buying does not share our scruples. So, when we advocate divestment, we may feel like we’re opposing immorality, and on some level we are, but that level is purely symbolic, and symbolism, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t hold much permanent sway outside of the seminar room. Economic, what we’re doing is selling our influence to someone who’s less responsible than we are.

The fact is that the economic roots of Carleton are not as heroic as its theoretical canopy. The fact is that our professors, even the Marxist revolutionaries among them, draw part of their paychecks from the union-busting sociopaths at Coca-Cola. We seem to be intent on denying this, but we live in an empire. We cannot extricate ourselves from the immoral position that puts us in, even if we drive a Prius, even if we’re vegan, even if we knit our own clothes. Our privilege is to enjoy the full fruit of post-industrial capitalism, whether we want to or not.

Faced with this, we can either accept it or do our best to improve it. If we accept it, fine, but we seem to have decided collectively that investing in poisonous gases, human slave labor and murder is unacceptable. Which raises the question: if we have such privilege, if we have such influence, then why throw it away? Why divest?

As long as we have money in Coca-Cola, as long as we’re willing to get our hands dirty, to deal with complex problems, to organize our influence in some productive way, then we have some say in whether or not they work their laborers like animals and murder them when they try to unionize. As soon as we divest, we’re as irrelevant as the nearest crowd of hemp-clad picketers. Is political irrelevance worth a sense of self-worth? I’ll trust the Carleton community to make that moral decision.

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