Divestment Absurdity

The Dartmouth Editorial Board asserts Nov. 22 that the College’s “broader social and moral obligations” should lead us to divest from tobacco companies because of “negative public health consequences.”

The absurdity of this argument begs criticism.

First, who defines what constitutes “socially responsible” investing? Is it the Board of Trustees? Or the student body at large? Or The Dartmouth’s Editorial Board?

Divesting from tobacco companies can only be the start of a larger campaign to adhere to “moral” codes of investing if Dartmouth is to make The D’s “strong statement” on relevant issues. In all likelihood, divestment schemes would probably come from vocal groups on campus clamoring about the various deficiencies of Dartmouth, the United States and the world. The idealist in all of us would find fault in even innocuous-sounding investments and demand we sell stock in any company that affronts our sensibilities. Here are a few that come to my mind.

Starting with the subsidiaries of the tobacco companies, we would withdraw from evil corporations like Jell-O, Kool Aid, Oscar Mayer and Chips Ahoy.

We would have to pull out of other companies that harm public health. This has to include any alcohol companies, fast food restaurants and anyone who makes junk food. Soft drinks have been implicated in children’s diabetes and tooth decay, so we need to divest from Coke and Pepsi, plus their numerous subsidiaries. Pretty much the entire food industry is out, except for organic farms, but I’m not sure how much return their stocks bring.

Some people probably find “Sports Illustrated’s” swimsuit issue offensive and demeaning to women, so we should withdraw investments in CNN/Time-Warner/AOL.

Clearly we can’t invest in the energy sector unless they’re environmentally friendly. But since they all hurt the environment to some degree, we should probably completely withdraw.

And Microsoft has to go. Their monopolistic tendencies have stifled creativity and kept consumer prices artificially high.

On to larger issues, how about companies that do business with China? China ignores human rights and utilizes child labor. That should knock out the entire manufacturing sector, from Springs Industries to General Motors. Also add Wal-Mart, Lowe’s Hardware and Office Depot to the list for trading with China, along with Nike, Sony and Martha Stewart.

Since many students and Americans are opposed to war in Iraq and U.S. militarism, we better divest from any companies that profit from military spending — Boeing, Ford, Chevrolet, pretty much all the blue-chips. And these companies probably do business with China as well; that’s two strikes.

We should sell our government bonds and renounce all federal funding, since many students have opined that the United States and our policies — military and economic — trample the rest of the world.

Of course, we can’t invest in Israel or any companies doing business there. We should also examine ties to Muslim countries that oppress women and homosexuals, like Saudi Arabia. That means Exxon, Texaco and BP are gone.

Companies that had affiliations with Nazi Germany are a definite no-no, unless they have made reparations. But even this wouldn’t be satisfactory since portions of the reparations are bound to have ended up in Israel. So knock out Siemens, BMW, Mercedes, IG Farben, Merck and IBM.

We should also check all businesses that may have done business in the American South before 1865. If they profited from their dealings with a slave society, we better not invest until they have made amends.

The list could go on ad infinitum. In the end, Dartmouth would be forced to kowtow to every disparate campus organization, from Hillel to the Southern Society. The only “socially responsible” investment plan would be to cash it all in for gold and throw it in a vault. But some third-world countries probably exploit children to mine gold. Uh-oh.

The D is correct on one point: divestment from tobacco companies alone probably wouldn’t affect the endowment’s return. But divestment from all contentious sectors certainly would, and this is the only way the College could make the principled stand for which The D calls. The school’s ability to generate a suitable return would be crippled, and Dartmouth’s “strong statement” would be entirely unnoticed by the companies from which we divest.

I’d rather have a greater return and see our libraries stay open, especially since there is no feasible way to determine which companies are morally sound. But only so long as the paper for the books was manufactured in an environmentally sustainable manner.

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