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Letter: Eat your own lunch before you eat somebody else's

letter to the editor

Most days, I find myself in the basement of the Bryan Center eating a sausage McGriddle from Mcdonald’s while trying to rush to class. I don’t dream about the school paper but I read it from time to time. One day, as I chewed on my delicious $3.29 sandwich, I was astounded to find an article in the Duke Chronicle disparaging the financial sector and those that express interest or pursue careers in it.

In fact, I was so shocked I thought I should take a few moments to share my own two cents.

First, I’d like to address the skepticism surrounding impact investing. Private citizens have every right to criticize the means by which corporations choose to pursue profit, but we must remember that, short of regulation and exercise in representative democracy, these companies will choose the path of least resistance. The examples Gino gave of corporate misconduct, while salient, are hardly without nuance. 

Take the so-called “real-estate acquisitions” from Private Equity firms forcing out tenants by dismantling or leaving building infrastructure to decay. Gino neglects to mention that many of the apartment units these Private Equity firms acquire are “rent regulated,” meaning landlords are prohibited from dramatically raising rent. “The only significant way around that constraint for a landlord [is] to wait for a long-time tenant to move out.” 

This is not a vindication of corporate behavior, but we must recognize these firms are faced with a choice: pay to maintain an unprofitable investment, or don’t. The regulations that elected representatives chose to impose inadvertently created a system of incentives that resulted in injustice. 

Or let’s look at asset managers like Blackrock that are invested in coal production while also paying “lip-service” to alternative green energy. The fact is, under the Trump administration, support for renewables has decreased (shocker). In fact, some of the biggest fiscal incentives like energy investment credits, which allow for as much as a 30% deduction in installation cost tax for green energy producers, have been removed from federal policy.

Yet, large investment firms have shifted into this ‘trendy’ space of impact investing. In fact, impact investing has doubled since last year to $228 billion according to a survey by the Global Impact Investing Network. And the big bad Wall Street Banks have been contributing a sizable amount not just to the rather vague cause of ‘impact’ but specifically to investments in renewable energy: Chase, Bank of America and Citibank have all made pledges of $200 billion dollars toward renewables despite a lack of obvious “profit incentive.”

This is not to absolve the corporate sector of the fact that overall spending has gone up in fossil fuels, and even peaked when President Trump pulled out of the Climate Accords in 2017. What I’m saying is that the “guilt,” if there is any to be found, lies in many different places. Should we blame emerging economies for their reliance on fossil fuels as a means of development? Should we blame corporations that, though beholden to the pursuit of profit, have decided to allocate in lower yielding investments for the sake of “social conscience?” Or should we blame federal policies that, for better or worse, the electoral college voted into office in 2016?

Howard Zinn is right. In a world full of injustice and inequity, it is the civic responsibility to take a position. But forgoing nuance for the sake of virtue is hardly a preferable alternative.

In a world full of color, it would be a shame to see only in black and white.

When you look at Duke students and you fail to comprehend why they would choose to work at the damnable Wall Street or corrupt Silicon Valley, understand that there are failures in government oversight and private advocacy that leave individuals in our society vulnerable to exploitation. Indeed, sometimes well-meaning intervention is precisely what leaves those in need worse off. 

Moreover, these corporations (and maybe even Duke students in general) don’t act with a single mind. They pursue careers and lifestyles for different reasons, and try to express goodwill where they can. Even if it means a piddling $200 billion dollars toward climate change when they’ve invested much more into fossil fuels, these people are making a statement. They do care. Just like how when Pete Buttigeg served in Afghanistan, he didn’t seek the growth of the military industrial complex. Or when Barack Obama graduated from Columbia University and chose to work for four years in the Business International Corporation, he didn’t seek to strengthen Wall Street and consolidate the banks.

Oh and by the way, if you truly bear the sins of whatever firm you choose to work at, allow me to pose this final question. Duke has done some bad things over the years. I can’t recall the full list of problems that our University has yet to tackle, and I am not dismissing the pressing issues that other students have taken it upon themselves to address.

But is it not true that we students aren’t represented at large by the policies the University has chosen? And have we not tried our best within the system to address the inequities perpetuated by our own administration? 

Or should we have done the right thing, and not chosen to go to our own imperfect, world class University in the first place?

Jonathan Tao is a Trinity sophomore.

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