The Retirement Fund Revolutionary

The best paper I ever wrote was for my Ethics & Sustainability class in my MBA program.  My professor was likely the most progressive I’d ever had, perhaps not surprising considering I got my bachelor’s degree at a conservative Catholic school.  The class was unlike my other business classes; instead of balance sheets and Net Present Value, the emphasis was on corporate ethics and responsibility – an outside-in approach. I transitioned well though, proudly earning an A on my paper, titled “American Collusion: How Corporations, Shareholders, and Legislators Work Together to Oppress the Marginalized in Society.”

The paper intertwined the capitalist corporate ethos of profit and exploitation with issues that compelled me – topics like the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements.  Fundamentally, my research was concerned with the corporate responsibility solely to shareholders, a divergence from a previous era in which businesses answered to all stakeholders including the community and the environment. Not surprisingly, when shareholder value held the trump card, the existing wealth gap bulged.  As a result, marginalized groups had fewer opportunities, and individuals and communities in the lower classes suffered. They not only suffered with poverty but with all poverty’s attachments – unemployment, homelessness, discrimination, incarceration. It’s no coincidence that victims of the wage gap, like victims of systemic racial injustice or sexual violence are disproportionately BIPOC individuals and women, most economically disadvantaged.  Though it was impossible to prove causation, rising corporate greed and the growth of movements of individuals harmed by the state or people in power rose to the level of strong correlation.

The primary solution I advocated was organizing. When unionized, workers typically less susceptible to financial exploitation and even sexual harassment, thanks to the ability to collectively bargain.  Of course, unionizing alone would not solve all these issues but it’d been proven to bring the playing field at least marginally closer to level. It was a well-reasoned argument.  It was a damn good paper.

The day after submitting my final copy, I went into work. 

Often, the first thing I do when getting into work is check the company stock price. So much is tied to it.  Besides being an indicator of our company’s overall health – my job security – it’s a marker of how well my portfolio is doing.  We’re incentivized with company stock options.  If the company share price rises, we get the option to cash the options in at maturity, for considerable potential profit. And my Roth 401K is spread over several investments, so it typically moves in tandem with the market.  As the index rises, so does my personal wealth in my retirement fund. My paper quickly became a distant fog as I returned to the reality of emails and meetings, seeking continuous improvement in our manufacturing processes and pure value driving for our shareholders. My mind leaped from philosophy to strategy in a few hours – a philosophy of a more equitable nation butting heads with our business strategy of suffocating our competitors to maximize profitability.

This cycle continues.  At home I shop on Amazon, the poster child of labor exploitation, for books on progressive policies and anti-racism.  When my solidarity t-shirt doesn’t arrive on time, my head erupts with rage at the machine that’s supposed to deliver in two days without error.  I listen to Nas and J. Cole rap about class struggle on my way to the mall to buy high-end, name brand clothing and shoes that I don’t need.  With my browser open to an article about poverty levels and rising eviction rates, I open a new tab to haphazardly monitor my interest accrual in my mutual fund investment.  I’m all about progressive, anti-capitalist, revolutionary change – until it gets personal.

Each day I must reconcile – or choose to ignore – the hypocrisy between what I claim to represent and what my actions indicate. Unions, as I argued in my paper, are great and necessary.  But if manufacturing employees at my company unionized, I realize the havoc it would wreak on our internal systems and our profit potential (and possibly, one day, my own salary).  The abominable system of capitalism, one in which the rich profit off working class labor needs reform.  Just not complete reform.  I still need my retirement fund that’s predicated on ownership of other companies’ stock. Sweatshop labor, like the Uyghur minority’s forced labor in China, is unfathomable.  But do I check the tags of the Ralph Lauren sweaters or cheap soccer jerseys I buy from overseas?  Never. I may be triumphant in signaling my virtue, but my personal exploits are not congruent with my stated ideals. I’m a perpetuator of the very system I seek to dismantle.  If I am the change I wish to seek in the world, I’m also the damned problem.

By this precedent, I can also be the solution.  But to be the solution would require a transformation in lifestyle, a retreat in my participation in practices and norms rooted in white supremacy, exploitation, and greed. In the book of Matthew, a man asks Jesus how to enter Heaven.  Jesus tells him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and come follow Him.  According to Matthew 19:22, “[H]e went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.” Though apolitical, Jesus was most certainly radical, and his disdain for wealth was probably matched only by his compassion for the poor.  But in this encounter, too often I see myself as the man walking away in disappointment, not the radical outsider.  I want change, I want to do right, but when given the roadmap to revolution, I stow it in the glove box and settle for a more comfortable route.

I think it’s important here to acknowledge that greater institutions must advance the types of changes I want to see before the needle moves. Nevertheless, it’s a humbling experience to evaluate my own dissonance between my publicized desires and my actions. My hope in writing this is that I reach an acceptance of what parts of me need to change to align with my stated values.  But I can’t start until I acknowledge my own blind spots because, to quote Gandhi, “if you want to change the world, start with yourself.” And before I change myself, I must know what to change, and how to better live out my values – not just on paper, but in practice.

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