Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Releasing the Cow

My sister and I have been thinking about cows lately.

The bigger conversation started with preoccupations and distractions. It escalated once we brought Bob Thurman into the mix. And it turned to cows when Thich Nhat Hanh weighed in...

The Buddha and a group of monks were lounging around one day when a frantically wide-eyed farmer came looking for his lost cows. The monks hadn't seen the cows, so the farmer, now unhappier and even more frantic, ran off to look somewhere else. When he was gone, the Buddha turned to his monks and got metaphorical...

My dear friends, you are the happiest people in the world. You don't have any cows to lose. If you have too many cows to take care of, you will be very busy. That is why, in order to be happy, you have to learn the art of cow releasing. You release the cows one by one. In the beginning you thought that those cows were essential to your happiness, and you tried to get more and more cows. But now you realize that cows are not really conditions for your happiness; they constitute an obstacle for your happiness. That is why you are determined to release your cows.

I've developed a minor cow problem. My blog post ideas are turning into cows. I get an idea in my mind, and it slows me down a step. Until I can mold it into a post, it makes it just a little bit harder to deal with everything else.

Usually, it's not a problem: it's just work. I spend some time thinking, outlining, synthesizing. I write something down. I post it up. And I move on. The cow wanders into my mind. I pat her. I feed her some hay. And she saunters off into the distance.

I don't mean to say that the writing is easy. I am, after all, comparing it to having cows in my mind. But the cows are usually cooperative.

Over the past few days, however, I've had a lingerer on my hands. She stares at me; haystalks poke out the sides of her mouth; and, as soon as I stop paying attention to her, she moos.

It's stupid. I shouldn't be letting this happen. But I am.

I think my problem is that the cow in question is a cow I don't understand. I should understand her: she's a just a cow. But I'm blocked, and I'm only getting more confused.

So, I'm trying something different. I'm writing about cows in general (above). And I'm accepting abbreviated, unsynthesized, half-confused thoughts about the one cow that won't leave me alone (below).

A few days ago, I read a Forbes article called Capitalism 2.0. If I've understood properly, the authors, Todd Henderson and Anup Malani, have offered quite a radical little policy suggestion.

By investing in certain ways and purchasing in certain ways, we make what are essentially equivalent to charitable donations. Because they serve the same purpose as donations to nonprofits, they too should be tax deductible.

Think about socially responsible investing. About 10% of all invested assets go into SRI funds. Those funds underperform the market by an average of 3.5%. People know that, and they choose to invest anyway. In 2005, investors would have made an extra USD 84 billion had they invested traditionally rather than with a conscience. In a roundabout way, investors took USD 84 billion and "donated" it to "charity."

Now think about donations embedded in the prices of consumer goods. Fair Trade certified coffee is more expensive than unfair trade coffee. People regularly pay that premium, however. In order to ensure that farmers in the developing world are paid a fair price, consumers "donate" USD 5 for every pound they buy (Fair Trade coffee costs about USD 15 per pound, while mystery beans cost only 10).

We're donating, and we're donating a lot, but present tax code doesn't reflect our philanthropy. The article's authors think it should.

And I don't know how to react.

I love the idea of creating incentives for people to invest responsibly and buy responsibly. I love the idea of lowering the price of paying that premium. And part of me wants to congratulate Forbes and its journalists for jumping on the "creative capitalism" bandwagon.

Another part of me, however, tells me to dig in my heels and naysay. Don't trust the government with something like this. Think about lobbyists, campaign contributions, corruption, Exxon Mobil and their strategic persuasion campaigns. It simply can't work. The government is incapable of approaching a problem like this objectively. Right?

I'm confused. I'm looking at the cow. I don't know what to tell her. And she's just flicking her ears, chewing some grass, and looking right back at me.

But now I've written this. Now she's words on a computer screen, and hopefully she'll stay here. Maybe I'll revisit someday. Maybe I won't. It's been an educational couple of days I guess. It brought that Thich Nhat Hanh passage to life and gave me an opportunity to reconnect with my academic roots. I certainly can't complain about that.

Who knew how broadly applicable a degree in Eastern Religion could be.


Ron Robins said...

I think a degree in eastern religion is invaluable -- having made a study of it and practicing TM for decades myself.

Now concerning your point about socially responsible investing (SRI). I don't know where the writer of the Forbes piece got their 3.5% 'underperformance' from with regard to SRI. There have been well over fifty studies relating SRI to company and stock market performance. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that SRI investing is likely to match, and sometimes even better, conventional investing.

I've been following SRI for around forty years and have a site that some of your readers might like to look at. It covers the latest global green and SRI news and research. It's at www.investingforthesoul.com

If the reader clicks 'Archives' they can then go to 'Ethical Investing Research/Studies' and begin to understand the research that exists in this area.

Good luck and best wishes, Ron Robins

Jake de Grazia said...

Thanks for the info Ron. It's hard to know what to do with numbers like Forbes's 3.5%. I'm far from knowledgeable enough to confirm or deny anyone's claims with regard to SRI performance. I'm guessing that lots of the numbers discrepancies have to do with differing definitions of SRI. We should all, Forbes included, be careful to clarify when we drop statistics like that. Thanks for the vote of confidence in the Eastern Religion major, and thanks for the link.