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Eat the rich before they eat us

Most days, I find myself in West Union nibbling on a salmon and kale poké bowl while dreaming of the next controversial topic to whine self-righteously about in my esteemed Chronicle opinion column. One drab and monotonous day, as I choked down another piece of unseasoned fish, Duke did my work for me—President Price announced that a small group of “impact investors” had passed the proverbial “GO” and would receive $100,000 in Monopoly money to boost their chances at being the next Goldman Sachs executive to cause a financial crisis. 

Sorry—that perhaps came off a little harsh. Rather, the undergraduate Duke Impact Investing Group received funds to generate “social and environmental impact[s]” alongside financial returns, a classic example of using knowledge in the service of society. I, of course, salivated over another opportunity to condemn my peers and earn mention in Matthew Noles and Mitch Murphy’s next column.

I’ll admit: At first, I knew little about impact investing. And, friends, I’ll admit something else: Once I did my research, I was blown away. Everyone—and I mean anyone with a couple million or billion to spare—is all aboard the social impacting train. The industry’s collective assets have risen above $500 billion and will approach $1 trillion in the next decade. As I read more, I felt deeply relieved to learn of so many corporate heroes taking their societal responsibilities seriously. (Don’t just take my word for it: start your own investigation here).  

Here’s a fun example: BlackRock, a global investment management corporation with assets of nearly $7 trillion (yes, trillion) has boldly established itself as a leader in sustainable investments. The company has fought the good fight against climate change, war, and poverty while remaining one of the world’s largest investors in coal production plants, weapons manufacturers, and real estate acquisitions displacing poor tenants. A not insignificant number of Duke students past and present have bravely suppressed cognitive dissonance to secure lucrative positions at BlackRock, and perhaps some of Duke’s current impact investors will join this storied tradition.

The core lesson from my research, however, is that the logic of impact investing is completely incoherent. When an investor or a firm, at their own discretion, decides some venture is a worthwhile investment, no one asks why such dramatic wealth disparities, or why the problem they want to fix, even exists in the first place. Wealthy investors would much rather slap their name on a “do-good” initiative boosting their public image (while still earning a decent profit) than equitably redistributing their wealth through higher taxes or living wages and job security for working-class people. 

BlackRock is certainly not the only firm pooling wealth made possible by mass exploitation. The entire social impact industry, in incredibly complex ways, is underwritten by ill-gotten wealth, and functions largely as a thin moral cover for an unjust economic system. Accountable only to shareholders, impact investors make the rich richer while claiming to make life slightly more tolerable for everyone else (that is, if impact investing generated any real “impact” in the first place). Writer and recovering McKinsey consultant Anand Giridharadas thinks along the same lines. “Impact investing gives [the investor class] more influence and the moral glow to continue practicing pillage economics elsewhere.” In other words, impact investing depends on economic and social inequality for its very existence, insulating the privilege of the rich and powerful above all else. 

I can only conclude, then, that Duke seeks to train future donors in the fine art of avoiding accountability while hoarding power and wealth. We shouldn’t be surprised—the university has been practicing the same subterfuge its entire existence, and scandal after lovely scandal in recent years are the rule. 

Alas, I am but a naive, sanctimonious 21 year old (un)paid by Opinion Editor Leah Abrams to spew my thoughts: what do I know? Yet, some of my fellow opinion columnists seem to have the same concerns about the choices our university community makes. In recent months, we’ve read about how Campus Enterprises, much like DIIG, teaches our future billionaires to give lip service to social good as long as they get to call the shots and never have to sacrifice their “hard-earned” wealth. We’ve engaged in anxious debates over whether making six figures upon graduation justifies family separation, eviscerating poor neighborhoods, enabling the US military’s violence abroad, or making opioid manufacturers more efficient at murder. In response, administrators and students alike assure us that all of these bright and level-headed Duke students will create “change” from the inside. I’m not holding my breath for evidence of such change when the year-end bonuses start rolling in. 

At what point do we give up the fiction that Duke University and its students are a moral beacon in a dark and scary world, but rather far more comfortable growing powerful and wealthy off the status quo? Those who rise in defense of impact investing, greedy corporations, and careers with other global purveyors of inequality likely know they will never face the violent consequences their work produces. The maintenance of poverty, white supremacy, war, and xenophobia aren’t so terrifying when cast as necessary evils in intellectual debates.  In true Duke form, supporting future careers at companies like BlackRock, Palantir, and McKinsey empowers students to act with impunity while fooling themselves into believing they can make the world a better place. President Price’s gift to DIIG is just another example of doing good masquerading as doing justice, which should require us to think critically about who has power and resources and who doesn’t. 

Since I’m starting to detect a strange odor from my salmon and kale poke bowl, I better start wrapping up this latest addition in my ongoing series of complaints. This conversation reminds me of a quote from an interview with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, discussing the legacy of public historian and civil rights activist Howard Zinn. She says:

“[Zinn] writes in the book that he would tell his students that he’s not a neutral person, that all ideas do not carry the same significance, that the level of injustice and inequity in the world requires that we take positions. Those positions should absolutely be rooted in facts, in history. But life is really too short to equivocate. We have to take positions on things and then fight for them.”

Where we choose to work is not neutral. Neither is the choice about which companies recruit on campus. We normalize morally bankrupt choices under the false notion that any option is fair game. Zinn instructs us to recognize that working at Palantir or McKinsey is not solely a decision about future career paths, but a question of life-or-death for millions.  I’m tired of those with power, authority, and security telling us otherwise.  

Gino Nuzzolillo is a Trinity senior. His column normally runs on alternate Mondays.

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