Friends and the Stock Market

Are Quakers involved in the stock market, and if so, why? My own conclusion is that the stock market is antipathetic to Quaker ideals.

Let’s take a look at what the stock market represents and supports.

  1. The stock market supports the U.S. notion of getting money for nothing. We have been brainwashed to believe that it’s right and proper that "our money is working for us." There is even a biblical basis for this, the story of the servant who didn’t make his money "work" but only buried it in the garden—and was scolded for it. I think this philosophy needs further scrutiny. How right is it for people to get rich without doing anything productive or useful, without contributing to their society? And not only how right is it, but how tenable is it, in the grand scheme of things? What would happen to society if all of its members contributed nothing? Would they continue to get rich? It’s hard to imagine that.
  2. The stock market supports the greedy, antisocial self-interest of multinational corporations that are moving factories to other countries in order to pay less in wages, get women and even children to work long hours in unsafe conditions, and to avoid safeguards and regulations.For any system to work, there must be some goodwill. This is not just a moralistic notion. Picture a project on which 12 people are working. All 12 of them are selfish, greedy, hardnosed, uncompromising. Is that project going to succeed? You can tell that it won’t. There has to be some give and take, some flexibility, some willingness to cooperate for the common good—in short, goodwill. Yet, increasingly, there is less goodwill in our culture; not only on the streets and in our businesses, but in our political structure. Witness the times when our evenly divided partisan Congress has brought the government to a halt, tied up the budget, wrangled for days and weeks, and failed to find agreement. In business, this lack of goodwill makes everyone involved focus on the bottom line, money. Clean air and water? That costs money—forget about it. Worker safety? That costs money—get away with as much as you dare. Workers’ pay? It costs less elsewhere; move to Taiwan.
  3. The stock market supports gambling—"playing the market." You don’t hear much about investing any more, because most people are so eager to make money, they don’t invest for the long term, they study short-term trends and gamble that the price will go up or down, bringing them a profit. Thousands of day-traders fine-tune the daily ups and downs.
  4. The stock market supports fraudulent manipulation. As with most gambling, the neophyte loses. To make a profit, you must buy low and sell high. Most small investors buy when a stock is on the way up and panic-sell when it is on the way down. They buy high and sell low. It’s easy for big players to manipulate this, pocketing as gains what the small investor loses.
  5. The stock market supports illusion and panic. Suppose Al puts $5,000 into the stock market, sees it rise to $30,000, and then sees it drop to $4,000. Al very naturally will think, and truly believe, that he has lost $26,000, a devastating amount that sends him into a deep depression. Bob goes through the same thing but sees that he has only lost $1,000 and is not devastated by it. But how many will have the more sensible attitude?
  6. The Dow and other indicators are irrelevant. With so many profit-takers manipulating the market daily, it is unrealistic to suppose that the numbers posted mean anything at all, especially when the Dow, S&P, NASDAQ, etc. remove low performers from their lists when it suits them.

Are these goals we want to support? Instead of NAFTA and other globalization regulations that give multinational corporations unbelievably coercive powers over us, we should be aiming for sustainable self-sufficient communities. Think about this: when the multinationals have no more competition, will prices remain low? If most of us are by then out of work or working for low wages, can we afford those prices? When these two worlds collide, won’t there be a crash of devastating proportions?

The communities that will then be strongest and most able to cope will be the ones that have worked to build sustainable self-sufficiency, supporting locally owned businesses and area farms, and maintaining a workable social infrastructure. This is where our money should be invested—not for questionable profits, but for our future.

In order to achieve this goal, we could be investing our money in ways that promote it. For instance:

  1. Instead of falling for the "one-stop-shopping" lure of supermarkets, we could spend in small, locally owned businesses. Instead of getting a return of mere money (which will do us little good in the kind of world we are now facing), we would be helping that goal of a sustainable self-sufficient community, the one that we would be living in. If we started a movement in our communities to do this, those local businesses would thrive.
  2. We could join with others to buy apartment houses, and be committed to charging reasonable rents. The motive here would not be profit, but helping people survive in an increasingly unhelpful world.
  3. We could call our area community development organization to see what needs to be done and how we can help. If there is no such organization, start one.
  4. Call the school department and see if you can volunteer in the classrooms, or ask the library, homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or other community organizations how you can help. Our communities have had their budgets slashed and are in dire need of our volunteer help. If we don’t help, many good projects will close down. But I’m sure Quakers don’t need to be reminded of this!
  5. Subscribe to at least one alternative magazine or newsletter, such as Hightower’s Lowdown, The Nation, or The Progressive. In these days of consolidating, right-leaning media, it’s doubly important to support these voices from another source.

It is all too easy in this country to be drawn into being motivated by money. How many of us shop at discount stores and supermarkets in order to save a few pennies? How many buy into money market funds? How many really know for certain, in today’s conglomerate corporate maze, that "socially responsible" funds have no ties to sweat shops, child labor, corruption, or fraud? Wouldn’t WorldCom, Enron, or Arthur Anderson have qualified as socially responsible?

We need to be asking many more questions. For instance, we seem fixated on growth. If our business doesn’t grow, we consider it a failure and close up shop. Is this wise? In order to grow, there must be an ever-expanding market, which not only means increasing transportation costs, but perhaps reducing the ability of other communities to be self-sustaining. Multinationals keep prying open new markets around the world, but—and this is a big but—we live in a finite world and eventually there will be no new markets. We are just putting off an inevitable point of no-growth. And the more worldwide is our economy, the more worldwide will be the resulting depression. We have no idea what that will be like. Shouldn’t we be trying to avoid this? For instance, we could be reading up on E. F. Schumacher’s idea of steady-state economy, which doesn’t depend on growth, on boom and bust, but on steady, local, sustainable provision of goods and services.

Another question: The healthy U.S. economy grew to depend on ordinary people having enough money to buy.

Our keyword was "volume." With volume, we could bring down prices to an affordable level and raise everyone’s standard of living.

Our economy is different from the old European model, where ordinary people did not have enough money to buy, and therefore the market was intended for a smaller volume of upper-class buyers.

We should ask ourselves whether, in their greed, corporations are moving us back toward a low-volume, class-based society. At some point, when ordinary people no longer have enough money to buy, won’t these huge corporations that were based on volume have to go belly up? Don’t they realize this?

Third question: It became apparent after September 11, 2001—if it wasn’t so before—that our lifestyle depends on buying things we don’t need. Our government actually told us that "being American" meant going out and buying. Buying what? Don’t most of us already have enough? Therefore, we are supposed to buy things we don’t need. What kind of country is this? With much of the rest of the world living in poverty, and so many desperate families right here in our own country, we aren’t American unless we buy things we don’t need? Here again is a scenario that can’t possibly go on indefinitely.

Fourth question: Didn’t we used to object to monopolies and trusts? There must have been reasons for that. Yet today, no one seems to be objecting to the huge multinationals that spread across the globe, gobbling up smaller businesses, moving to countries where they pay no U.S. taxes, pay less to their workers, and can ignore environmental protection and worker safety. Can this be considered right?

Perhaps even more dangerously, corporations are buying up our politicians and getting laws passed to their own advantage, eroding the decades of progress in laws affecting workers. We need to become very wary of letting everything lapse because of a perceived "emergency."

Fifth question: In many other countries, people have taken long, hard looks at the gap between rich and poor, and have tried to do something about it. In this country, where CEOs make six- or even eight-figure salaries and thousands of families live below the poverty line, we haven’t even begun a serious conversation about it. Perhaps we are complacent because the "American Dream" tells us we might all get to be CEOs—an obvious delusion. Such inflated salaries seem senseless. Nobody needs that much money, and it’s obscene when others are hungry. For justice’s sake, the wealth should be shared more equitably than it is now.

I doubt if many Quaker meetings have ever discussed these issues. Perhaps it’s time we did. Could our Advices and Queries be enlarged to include a section on the dangers of being motivated by money, of living off interest, of "getting money for nothing," and our relationship to the consumer society?

Teddy Milne

Teddy Milne, a founding member of Northampton (Mass.) Meeting, is a writer and a songwriter. She has been a co-director of Powell House, a clerk of Friends General Conference's Publication Committee, a member of Quaker Home Service in Britain Yearly Meeting, and has led Quaker tour groups to Britain's 1652 country and to the former USSR.

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