Astute readers will discern that no headline actually said that. Although one should, with Slow Money’s fourth National Gathering coming up on April 29–30.
Because there is an economic truth—or, as E.F. Schumacher used to say, a “meta-economic” truth—that is bigger and deeper and, oh, so much more durable than any truth that will ever be discerned from the most expert reading of the Dow Jones tea leaves.
This truth has two parts.
Part 1 is subject to considerable debate: Unlimited economic growth on a finite planet is an impossibility. Now, precious few economists will even entertain such a discussion. But if the idea piques your intellectual curiosity, go to the work of Herman Daly and the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, or to the New Economics Institute.
Part 2 is much more straightforward, much closer to home, much more down-to-earth: Increased consumption is not synonymous with improved well-being. Would any among us dare to argue the contrary, that by consuming as much as possible we will be happier and healthier? So just why is it that we confer so much power over our daily thoughts on a set of economic numbers that measure how fast we are increasing our consumption?
There is no true DJIA. There is no false DJIA. There is no wise DJIA. There is no politically correct or incorrect DJIA. There is no DJIA that says: We are 15 times better off as a nation, as a culture, with the Dow over 14,000 than we were in 1968, when the Dow was around 900. There is only a metric of aggregate economic throughput, which contains within it all manner of activities that are not entirely consistent with improved well-being: cigarettes, spiraling medical bills, Superfund sites, disaster relief, Twinkies, pornography, post-traumatic stress disorder, the costs of war, the 2.9 billion gallons of gasoline burned annually by American commuters stuck in traffic … all this and more is included in the DJIA and counted as beneficial economic growth.
These issues weave in and around all of our Slow Money discussions. It could be said that while we’re together next month in Boulder, being inspired by the presentations of dozens of small-food entrepreneurs who are rebuilding local food systems around the country, we will also be listening to folks who are engineering the future that lies beyond the Dow Jones industrial average.
No one, to my thinking, understood such matters or communicated them any better than Bobby Kennedy did while he was campaigning for president in 1968. I’ve found inspiration in his words many times, and find myself doing so again in the context of the Dow’s current climb, looking down from these heights and remembering all that the DJIA does not tell us. (I can almost hear a few folks groaning, “Oh, no. Not that Bobby Kennedy quote again!” To which I offer: Consuming is good for fast food and faster Internet connections, but savoring is better if we’re after knowledge and wisdom. Let’s not confuse consuming a pithy quote here and there with savoring wise words. When we are fortunate enough to have found a bit of wisdom, let’s savor it, deepening our appreciation over time, turning it over again and again, allowing its implications to seep into the soil of our thinking, leading, if we are lucky and patient, toward a certain fertility of thought.)
So, here it is:
“We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods. We cannot measure national spirit by the Dow Jones industrial average, nor national achievement by the gross national product. For the gross national product includes air pollution, and ambulances to clear our highways from carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. The gross national product includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads … . It includes … the broadcasting of television programs which glorify violence to sell goods to our children.
“And if the gross national product includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend. It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials … . The gross national product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America—except whether we are proud to be Americans.”
But signs of the Dow’s insufficiency as a measure of our well-being are not only to be found in rhetorical heights of the Kennedy kind. They are all around us in the events of the day.
Consider the sequester, stubbornly high unemployment, a housing market that will take who knows how long to heal and, on another front (well, not really, it’s all on the same front, since so many of our dollars are going up smokestacks in China), outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent warning of the dangers posed by growing divisions between rich and poor, unchecked environmental degradation and unbalanced economic growth. What picture of reality does a soaring DJIA give us in the context of such fundamentals as these?
What the DJIA tells us is this: We’ve just lived through—burst bubbles notwithstanding—the greatest legal accumulation of wealth in history, to use the words of venture capitalist John Doerr. Now, we have two choices. We can keep doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different outcome. That is, we can keep putting all of our bets on the latest and greatest, ever more complex and abstract trading strategies and ever faster computer algorithms. Or we can begin to truly diversify our portfolio, go all the way from paper diversification to actual diversity, by putting some of our money into enterprises that we understand, near where we live. We can begin fixing the economy from the ground up.
This is just what we have begun to do under the banner of Slow Money.
Small and midsize organic farms, creameries, grain mills, distribution companies, niche organic brands, restaurants that source as locally as possible, seed companies, urban farms and more—these small businesses that are emerging in communities across the country are not only part of the local food movement. They are part of the Life After Wall Street movement.
What we are up to—those thousands of us who have come together at Slow Money’s National Gatherings and in our 17 local chapters and six investment clubs, moving $23 million into 185 small-food enterprises—is about more than food. It is about what comes after outsourcing and before the next financial collapse. It is about stemming soil erosion and promoting fiscal prudence, about slowing the depletion of aquifers and revitalizing Main Street, about reducing carbon in the atmosphere and building organic matter in the soil. It is about systems that bet way too heavily on technical gimmicks like derivatives and GMOs and way too little on the laws of nature and local ingenuity. It is about food that is full of empty calories and investments that are full of empty profits.
So during these heady days of Dow records, let us ask: Which is the longer shot? That in a world of gigantic financial institutions and a byzantine system of hyper-securitization, we will regulate our way to a better future? Or that, inspired by the rewards of working together at the local level, millions of us will begin to invest as if food, farms and fertility mattered?
I like the latter odds.