Redefining investment

Yee haw it's the barn raising! barn-raising
(Photo source.)

“Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn”¦.” (Isaiah 58:7, 8 )

My friend Dan is an unabashed capitalist.  He’s a general contractor making his living building homes.  He invested in a housing development just before the housing market crashed, and his business is bleeding money from bad timing.  But last year, when I was sick for six months, Dan had a slow day and sent some of his guys up to the sawmill to load up a trailer with lumber scraps for me to use as kindling in my wood stove.  The load cost him $40 plus the cost of his workers for the day.  He wouldn’t let me pay for any of it.

Dan has done a lot for us in the five years we’ve lived in Utah.  When our wellhead froze, Dan came out to try and thaw it.  A couple of weeks ago, he helped me cut wood and haul it down from the mountain.  That’s the way Dan is: when someone needs something, he’s the first to step up.  And he doesn’t do it because he expects anything in return, he does it because that’s what a good neighbor does.  This year, I gave Dan a half a pig– not because I owe Dan anything but because I, too, want to invest in this relationship.

Twice in recent years I’ve been sick for extended periods, and I know from experience that having a friendship like Dan’s has real value.  It’s not something you can quantify, it’s not taxable, and it doesn’t appear on a financial statement– but it’s far more valuable than stocks or bonds.  And it suggests that as a culture, we need to redefine our concept of investment to accommodate those things that are (or should be) most valuable to our survival: community, friends and neighbors.

The concept of socially-conscious investing has been around for a while: rather than seeking the highest rate of return, seek the highest rate of return you can get while investing in companies that promote social consciousness. But this flies in the face of conventional accounting practices. Why get less return on your investment? The answer, of course, is that there is value in building our community, promoting a healthy environment, and ensuring that our neighbors around the world are not so desperate that they would give their lives in an act of violence against us.  That value is not quantifiable, but it is real nonetheless.

We make investments like this every day: when we give to charitable organizations, when donate our used clothes to thrift stores, and even when we pay that portion of our our taxes that go toward social security and education.  But all of these have at least one middleman, diffusing and diluting our contribution.  Dorothy Day, radical Catholic and founder of the Catholic Worker movement, believed that we should not pay government to take care of our community’s poor– we should do it ourselves.  (Far from promoting a laissez-faire approach, Day dedicated her life to helping the needy.)

Sharif Abdullah, educator, peace worker, and advocate for the Common Society Movement, describes the message of author Meg Wheatly:

Our future lies in community. The measure of “wealth” in the future will NOT be how many digits are in your bank account; “wealth” WILL be measured by how many communities you connect with. Developing community through self-reflection, talking and listening with others, followed by action that is human-oriented and community-scaled”¦ this is our pathway to survival.

Sharif goes on to suggest:

It is time for us to divest ourselves from mutual funds, investment banks, hedge funds”¦ Our mantra must be: if (personally) you can’t control it and you don’t understand it, you shouldn’t be invested in it. Period. It is time to invest in your community. Invest in your bio-region. Invest in your continent. Invest in your planet.

This means not only investing money, but investing time and effort.  From the New England barn-raising to Sri Lankan shramadana (gift of labor), the most important thing we can do for our community is to show up for our neighbors.