The stock market barely missed a beat after the tragedy of 9/11. In an industry with so little time for reflection, we must learn to pause and ask the important questions.
People have long given names to their children. When did they start giving names to their baloney?
As much as we take brand names for granted today, the phenomenon is relatively recent. Until the Industrial Revolution, most of the things people had were made by themselves or by people they knew. It would have seemed odd for people to name their lunch, or the shirt they wore, or the chair they sat on. As people moved from subsistence farming to wage labor and a cash economy, stores still mostly consisted of generic goods: the shopkeeper would scoop oats and pickles out of barrels, and sell nameless shirts and chairs. Tobacco and patent-medicine sellers were the first to use brand names, but it was not until the 1880s that packaged and branded goods largely came to replace locally produced goods sold in bulk. One of the first successfully branded and mass-marketed products was Quaker Oats, first packaged with the image of a Quaker man in 1888. Breakfast cereal now had a name, and a face to go with it.
Aunt Jemima, Tony the Tiger, Michael Jordan, the iconic Oscar Mayer commercial (“My baloney has a first name…”) and a host of other attempts to animate products would follow. Advertising encouraged people to develop relationships with products and brands, to see products as ways to express their own personalities and transform themselves. Why did products come to be humanized? The answer, many scholars think, is that products have become personalized as people have disappeared from the process of production. When we knew the people who made or sold our stuff, goods were embedded in a world of meaningful social relationships. But when we no longer know or even see the people involved in the production and distribution of products, then the products themselves need to be personalized. As Sut Jhally writes in an article entitled “Advertising as Religion,” “The real meaning of goods” — goods as markers of social relationships of production — “in fact is emptied out of them… The function of advertising is to refill the emptied commodity with meaning.”
Online shopping takes the disappearance of people from the consumer’s view to a new level. All we see are images of products on the screen. With a few clicks, almost anything can be summoned out of thin air to materialize on our doorsteps. Amazon boxes wear a smile. In Amazon commercials, they dance and sing. The humans working at Amazon warehouses, meanwhile, are invisible to us. Their every movement is monitored electronically, and they can be fired by algorithms with no human input. They complain of being treated like robots, while Amazon packages take on life. We relate only to products, while the people are hidden from our view.
This is the basic problem with the world economy today: it is structured so that we cannot see the consumption of workers’ lives and the destruction of the environment. Massive inequality and injustice persists — garment workers in Sri Lanka are paid $54 a month — not simply because we choose exploitation over justice, but because we cannot see the exploitation; all we see are the products we buy. Companies have moved production to places like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh both to take advantage of low wages and to keep production hidden from the Western consumer. Indeed, brands outsource production to other companies in order to hide production from themselves.
Similarly, invisibility is the basic problem with most mutual funds. It is not only extremely difficult for the average shareholder in a mutual fund to find out where and how the companies in their portfolio are treating the earth and their workers, but most people don’t even know what companies they are invested in. Mutual funds change their holdings frequently, and are only required to report them a few times a year. Most mutual funds provide information only about a stock’s performance in terms of market value and dividends, and no information whatsoever about working conditions, wages, and environmental sustainability. This is not by accident — mutual fund managers generally exhibit a rigidly disciplined lack of curiosity about such matters. Some portfolio managers operate on numbers alone, and even hide the names of companies from themselves so that they will pick stocks “objectively,” based only on quantitative metrics. The people who make our stuff, and make profits for shareholders, are thus hidden behind layers of numbers and a disciplined resolve to pay attention to nothing but shareholder value. Our retirement accounts become just another way of depersonalizing our social relations and ignoring what we owe to our fellow human beings.
The only way to overcome this dynamic of invisibility is to commit to seeing what is hidden from us by design. Faithful investing is not just a matter of being benevolent to the less fortunate. It is an effort to see the world rightly, which is the first task in any attempt to be a moral person. To treat people as children of God with their own proper dignity, one must first see them and see the ways we are already interconnected, for better and for worse. A socially (and morally) responsible stock picker is one who is resolved to find the truth about how people are treated by any given company, to resurrect workers to visibility, and avoid being complicit in profit through exploitation.
In Jesus’ description of the last judgement, the condemned ask “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or lacking clothes, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?” (Mt. 25:44). In our case, we come to their help first by seeing them and refusing to profit from their misery. Paul indicates that in Christ we are connected to others as if by the same nervous system, such that “ If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (I Cor. 12:26). We must not only see but feel the pain of those hidden from our view. Investing only in good companies that treat their people with dignity is one way to honor our fellow children of God, and to refuse the idolatry whereby products take on life while people are dehumanized.
This communication is provided for informational purposes only and was made possible with the financial support of Eventide Asset Management, LLC (“Eventide”), an investment adviser. Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is an educational initiative of Eventide. Information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable.