Summer 2012

Common Good Investing – The Next Maturation of Socially Responsible Investing – Part of the Wider Common Good Movement

By Terry Mollner, Chair of StakeHolders Capital


The next layer of maturation of the socially responsible investment movement will be part of a deeper, wider, and more fundamental planetary movement that I am guessing will become called “the common good movement.”

Anytime a group of human beings come together to do something they begin living within some agreements. Obviously, the most basic one is to do something together. The second set of agreements is always the identification of behaviors that are acceptable and not acceptable, usually called “moral behaviors.” All subsequent agreements are within and honor these moral agreements, such as today to not kill, enslave, steal, lie, and have all exchanges be considered fair by both parties.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement is the very raw and deeply serious beginning of a new movement to mature our most fundamental moral agreement.

It used to be that if a group was unable to get their village to agree to change one of its important moral agreements, they went to another place in the forest, or across an ocean, and began another village. That is not so easily done today: television and cell phones are nearly everywhere. Within our developed societies that honor and celebrate individual freedom, people do easily leave any sub-group and start another one, whether it is a new marriage, business, or any other group activity.

However, if they want to bring about a change at the very fundamental level of our moral agreements in one of their large communities such as a nation or the planet, today they begin a movement. A movement has three fundamental stages: 1) outrage to alert people to an immoral social tradition, 2) unilateral action to build support, and 3) legislation as a result of widespread support. 

The initial outrage stage is when a group publicly declares that what has been an acceptable social tradition is now declared to be immoral. For instance, when in the 1950s Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, the Civil Rights Movement began. It declared that the acceptable social tradition of treating African-Americans different than white Americans was immoral. The second stage was unilateral actions by many: allowing African-Americans to sit anywhere in restaurants, having them appear in television commercials, and allowing them to be on professional sports teams. This built widespread support: to the surprise of many the world did not fall apart. Only then was it possible to pass the first Civil Rights Act in 1964. Two other obvious recent examples are the Women’s Movement and the Environment Movement.

On the surface the Occupy Wall Street Movement is declaring that the up to now acceptable social tradition of having 1% of the people receive 25% of the annual income is immoral. However, there is the beginning of a deeper and more profound declaration also present: the up to now acceptable social tradition of giving priority to anything other than the common good is immoral. While still honoring and building on individual freedom, it is maturation beyond giving priority to individual freedom. The new freely chosen highest priority is the common good. It is an agreement that not only do we each have the right of individual freedom but that we are also already all in this together and of equal importance.

Instead of polarizing individual freedom with the common good, this new movement unites them into a cooperative whole.

Its new more mature definition of moral behavior is “freely choosing to give priority to the common good.” The new ingredient is that word “priority.” Rather than polarizing them (capitalism verses communism) they have been prioritized. The priority is the common good while at the same time it honors and builds on individual freedom. It does this by having the priority be the result of the maturation of our freely chosen priorities. This occurs by recognizing that when we have our priorities in the order they occur in nature we are able to not only get both fulfilled but also more of both fulfilled. We are all in this together on this small planet; therefore, it is more mature to freely choose to give priority to the common good of us all.

When the Occupiers looked at the way our now global village is organized, they saw that our main institutions do not honor this more mature definition of moral behavior. When they looked at the world’s 200 nations, they saw that each was giving priority to its own citizens. That is immoral according to this new definition of moral behavior. When they looked at the corporations, they saw that they were giving priority to the financial interests of a few, the shareholders. In this new era that, too, is immoral because the highest priority is not the common good of us all. When they looked at the politicians, they saw that they tended to give priority to those who gave them the most money to get and stay elected. Similarly, when they looked at the special interest groups, they saw that they gave priority to their one issue. Both of these also are considered immoral in this new era since they are also not giving priority to the common good. Thus, since it did not make sense to join any of these existing institutions, they focused on the other logical option: they started from scratch to see if they could fashion this more mature moral society themselves, in their tent cities. Because of the now hyper-connectivity of the planet, within a month millions of people around the world ran out of their houses, organized support demonstrations, and built sister tent cities. Clearly a new global movement had begun.

The second stage will be unilateral action to build support for this maturation of our most fundamental moral agreement. It will be the formation of new organizations of every kind in the private sector that people can join or leave at anytime (they have to build on individual freedom) that give priority to the common good, not their members.

There will be a re-villaging of people’s lives in a modern context (by agreement rather than living in houses next to each other) to enjoy each other more. They will also make it possible to do a better job of supporting their marriages and raising their children to full human maturity before they leave their teenage years and marry.

They will build businesses of all shapes and sizes that not only give priority to the common good but also build associations of these businesses to finance the transition from classic and all forms of new capitalism to common good capitalism. These companies will primarily cooperate, most particularly by forming agreements among competitors to raise the social level playing field and secondly compete with each other. They will permanently set aside 10% or more of their annual net profits and invest it in some of the many common good investment funds. These funds will mainly buy companies and convert them to common good companies that also put a cap on the return on equity appropriate for the risk involved. They will also permanently set aside the annual excess and also invest it in common good investment funds. Since the highest priority of all of these investment funds will be the same, the common good, they will easily form joint ventures to buy very large companies. In this way, and in a way that fully honors individual freedom and free markets, the world will rapidly self-finance its maturation into common good capitalism. In the same way that companies have embraced civil rights and environmentalism, this will become such a widely supported movement that companies will either have to convert to be common good companies or they will face competition that will make it difficult for them to survive.

Rather than a war of the ballot box, a new more mature form of democracy by representatives from throughout the community will emerge. It will be based on a cooperative search for more mature truths, and the building over time of widespread support for them, to guide the community. They will probably initially have no legal power but operate as a parallel form of democracy and become the most respected organization in the community, the equivalent of an elder body only of people of all ages.

Finally, there will certainly be the emergence of an additional nation based on agreement rather than geography that anyone can join or leave at anytime. Just as we currently vote in our towns, states, and nations, we will also vote in this nation. It will be very appreciated by the geographic nations because it will only attend to things not being done by or well enough by the geographically defined nations. Its highest priority will be the common good of us all; and donations or fees, not taxation, will cover costs. People will mature into giving priority to this nation by agreement because the priority is the more mature priority, the common good.

Much more will emerge, including of course a common good investment movement. It will be for people who only want to invest their capital in companies that are common good companies or moving in the direction of becoming common good companies. These will be companies that, at a minimum, have publicly declared that their highest priority is the common good and their second priority is profit or anything else. We will still be concerned about the checklist of behaviors that evidence this priority – for instance, good relationships with their employees, community, and environment; but our primary concern will be if it is a full member of this movement to common good capitalism.

Maturation is the fundamental cooperative process in nature. Even Edward O. Wilson, who is the 81-year-old two-time Pulitzer Prize winning Harvard professor also known as “the second Charles Darwin,” has recently declared in the August 26, 2010 cover story article in Nature that cooperation not competition is the fundamental process in nature. Cooperation is when the parts give priority to the whole. Although he does not take the next step, the logical conclusion is that he has declared that the universe is an indivisible whole. This is the same fundamental assumption of our beloved spiritual teachers throughout the ages.

If the universe is one indivisible whole, then what we currently assume is true of all the parts of our body – that when healthy they each give priority to the whole – is also true of our relationships with the entire universe: it is natural for us to mature to where we “freely choose to give priority to the common good of us all.”

The movement to mature beyond giving priority to paternalistic systems, like communism, and systems that give priority to individual freedom, like democratic capitalism, is here. We will be part of it and our part will probably be called “common good investing.” Now, instead of focusing on the secondary priorities of companies, we will focus on the highest priority. Also, instead of asking them to mature we will be focused on taking action to replace them if they do not mature.

Our main question will be, “What is your highest priority?” If they say it is anything other than the common good and our maturation of what we agree is the common good, they will be in one camp. Those who agree to give priority to the common good, and back it up with a common good audit by a respected third party, will be in the other camp. Increasingly the public will know which camp a company is in and only support those who are in the common good capitalism camp. A list of socially responsible concerns will no longer be sufficient. We will insist in knowing how they prioritize them. Prioritization is the thinking framework that will define this new era.

Politicians always get in front of whatever parade is going down Main Street. Thus, legislation in support of this will eventually emerge. However, this movement does not need it. Rather, it is fully understood that these more mature organizations must emerge within the private sector so they are clearly based on individual freedom.

And what is the common good? As mentioned earlier, we know the current minimum agreements such as to not kill, enslave, steal, lie, and have all exchanges be considered fair by both parties. However, our common good agreements are consistently maturing, usually through movements such as the Civil Rights, Women’s, and Environment Movements, that accept the responsibility for assisting us all to mature our moral agreements, our common good agreements.

Moral behavior cannot be legislated. It is not possible to pass legislation to have the unique act of each person each moment give priority to the common good of us all.We can only pass laws that encourage people to do things or punish people for not doing things.

In addition, maturation is an inside job; no one can make us mature or mature for us. Thus, giving priority to the common good is an honoring of this process and the commitment we each have as part of being a member of society to give priority at all times to what is best for us all. This, of course, includes participation in our maturation and the maturation of our common good agreements. Our current moral agreements are different than they were thousands of years ago and they will be different thousands of years in the future.

In any society, no one can excuse another from or be excused from honoring our moral agreements, our agreements on what is acceptable and unacceptable. Today, because we have divided our organizations into for-profit and non-profit organizations, some for-profit companies thing they have been authorized to be exempt from this moral obligation. That is not true. That is simply how they are structured relative to each other. In this new common good era it will be clear that no one can excuse another from or be excused from honoring our moral agreements. These will be companies that

The common good movement is here. The common good investment movement will soon be here as well.

Article by Terry Mollner, Chair of StakeHolders Capital, Inc. in Amherst, MA (http://www.stakeholderscapital.com), is one of the founders and member of the board of the Calvert Social Investment Funds (http://www.calvert.com ) and the Calvert Foundation (http://www.calvertfoundation.org). He is also a member of the board of Ben & Jerry’s (http://www.benjerry.com) and chair of Trusteeship Institute, Inc. (http://www.trusteeship.org).

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