Can morality play a role in capitalism? Should it?
Human society has, of course, wrestled with this dilemma for centuries.
For some market fundamentalists on the ideological right, all morality – at least when it comes to the roles of investors and consumers – is to be found in profits and bargains.
Yes, that computer manufacturer (or meat packer or clothing producer) may poison its neighbors and rely upon horrific sweatshops that employ young children in conditions little different from slavery, but hey, so long as their return on investment is high and prices low, goes the thinking, that’s a problem for someone else to solve.
Interestingly, for very different reasons, some on the other end of the spectrum also view the idea of drawing lines in this realm as a futile exercise. Don’t kid yourself, goes this argument; it’s absurd to pretend that one can actively participate in the modern capitalist economy without abetting exploitation and injustice.
Meanwhile, for the large majority of us who find ourselves somewhere in between those points of view, making a judgment call on such matters can often be a challenge. Sometimes it’s hard to obtain accurate information about the depths of a company’s anti-social behavior. In other instances, a firm may have a mixed record or be moving in the right direction.
And things can really get complicated when the question is not merely whether to patronize a particular company, but whether to invest in it. After all, most people do not select individual stocks to buy and sell; they rely on professionals (like pension managers and mutual funds) who bunch thousands of investors and scores of investments.
But as numerous examples in which once predatory companies changed their ways attest, progress in this realm is possible. And happily, one important partial solution for those who hope to be part of building a better kind of capitalism has been the emergence of some large investment groups who seek to both abet societal progress while also making a profit.
Take, for instance, the investment company with the world’s largest portfolio, BlackRock. A while back, BlackRock, which manages $10 trillion or more in assets, announced that it would use some of the outsized economic power and influence it commands to help tackle the global climate emergency.
As an eminently reasonable explanation on the firm’s website makes clear, BlackRock views such investments a socially responsible and a path to long-term profits.
The policy makes enormous sense at a moment in history in which the urgency of rapidly reining in global carbon emissions has never been greater. Scientists report that humans have already produced more carbon emissions in the last three decades than had occurred in the previous two-and-a-half centuries. To think that we could somehow serve as successful stewards of the global biosphere and the life forms that call it home without rapidly altering this pattern and slowing the global warming it’s causing is simply preposterous.
Unfortunately, when it comes to preposterous notions about our ever-more-fragile planet and the modern economy, no one is more shameless or prolific than the apologists for 21st Century robber-baron capitalism at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Ever since BlackRock made its announcement, ALEC has been relentlessly attacking the move and sending signals to its right-wing minions in government to join in.
And so it came to pass last week that North Carolina Treasurer Dale Folwell – a far-right true believer on myriad issues who’s always looking to raise his profile in anticipation of a 2024 gubernatorial run – announced that he was joining the ALEC chorus and calling for the resignation of BlackRock CEO Larry Fink.
Folwell – a politician with a notably spotty record on the environment whose own investments strategies have quite arguably cost the state big sums since he took office – claims that BlackRock is somehow endangering the billions of dollars in state investments he manages with this policy.
A more accurate assessment is that BlackRock is making giant fossil fuel companies (and their mouthpieces in politics) uncomfortable by both highlighting the industry’s long-term lack of economic viability and helping the world to end its heroin-like addiction to its products.
As New York City Comptroller Brad Lander explained in an on-the-mark letter to Fink this September, pols like Folwell are “waging a war of political distraction in the hopes of protecting the fossil fuel interests.” If anything, he rightfully noted, BlackRock should be moving more aggressively with its climate work.
Indeed, like Lander, many environmental advocates are deeply concerned that BlackRock is already wimping out on its initial commitment.
The bottom line: the global climate emergency is an all-hands-on-deck existential crisis in which vastly more in the way of aggressive commitments from giant controllers of capital like BlackRock are (and will be) absolutely essential. And the notion that North Carolina’s Treasurer is intentionally using state resources to help undermine such efforts constitutes a massive betrayal of the people he’s sworn to serve.