The idea of investing in our planet, in the sustainability of the world we inhabit and hope to flourish on, used to be a lyrical pursuit, a poetic meme, a cultural folly. Life was lived in natural ways by most, even when one lived near the top of an economy. You planted crops, utilizing what lands were available. You herded animals, gathered water and other resources. Investment was a concept tied to time, and the resources one could see or accumulate physically.
The idea of allowing money to make money was considered unnatural and evil. Remember: usury was a venial sin until the last few centuries. And we’re not speaking of simply Western traditions, either. In his seminal work of philosophy, Politics, Aristotle described usury as “the birth of money from money,” and claimed it was unnatural because “money was sterile and should not breed.” Similar edicts are found in all religions, in most of civilization.
Try to get at the roots behind the concept of investment these days, however, and the Internet quickly betrays its debt to the world of modern economics. Investment terminology is all monetary, and often quasi-scientific these days. Try tying the idea of philosophy to investment and all that comes through are sales pitches for new investment philosophies now, and little in terms of actual quotes or ideas that precede Warren Buffett. Try a bit harder to tie the ancient and long-noble art of poetry to economics and an entirely new form of Wall Street-style limericks comes into view.
We’ve been looking into the terminology of investment because the ground beneath all investments is shifting, majorly. Concepts from before the age of modern economics have returned with a vengeance—pandemic, plagues, economic fundamentals—and folks are again looking at ways to find solidity in tangible “investments”, things that are sustainable in older, eternal ways.
In his 2011 book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber argued that before the advent of money, economic life within a community was a web of mutual debts. “People did not behave as self-interested individuals—at least not from the perspective of a single transaction; rather, they would share food, clothes, and luxuries, and trust that their peers would repay the favor in return. When we consider these origins of debt and credit—as a system of mutual aid between people who trust each other—it’s no surprise that so many cultures viewed charging interest as morally wrong.”
In a similar piece in the online journal of essays Aeon, José Scheinkman and Edward Glaeser noted how religion’s war against usury “also acted as a kind of social insurance that reduced inequality.” How? By making loans available without interest, and not allowing the rich to use their wealth to get richer.
While some now say that investment and debt became essential as larger political entities started fighting wars, there are also historians and economists who contend that the usury taboo was more about performance than reality; the moneyed classes, including churches and the aristocracy, fought against the ideal of endless charity and learned to disguise interest payments (much the way the Muslim world has worked its way around similar lending and usury taboos). In Christian dogma, cracks in the old ideology appeared with the Catholic Church’s development of the concept of Purgatory in the 13th century: a place where the eternity of Hell and sin could be mitigated.
One can see the arguments allowing laxer monetary regulation starting within the writings of the great Thomas Aquinas, who started exploring just ways to distribute wealth and allow for a broader definition of fair economic exchanges were fair.
By the early 20th century, purchasers of stocks, bonds, and other securities were still being described as speculators, with investments tied to more conservative money paths such as bonds. By the early 21st century, speculation was the word for financial instruments beyond those that crashed the markets via the various exercises described in Michael Lewis’ The Big Short as, “Wall Street investment banks are like Las Vegas casinos: they set the odds. The customer who plays zero-sum games against them may win from time to time, but never systematically, and never so spectacularly that he bankrupts the casino.”
This all part of our raging late-era free market capitalism, which in many ways is more the saving grace of new evangelical religiosity than the shared empathies and moral clarity that once drove our sense of community, economy, and investment. Or that which many started looking for, full-time, after past shared crises and economic downturns, as a means of better marshalling and utilizing what resources we can rely on.
Eventually, I did find one poem called “The Investment,” by that most American, and reliantly self-reliant, of poets, Robert Frost.
Over back where they speak of life as staying
(‘You couldn’t call it living, for it ain’t’),
There was an old, old house renewed with paint,
And in it a piano loudly playing.
Out in the plowed ground in the cold a digger,
Among unearthed potatoes standing still,
Was counting winter dinners, one a hill,
With half an ear to the piano’s vigor.
All that piano and new paint back there,
Was it some money suddenly come into?
Or some extravagance young love had been to?
Or old love on an impulse not to care—
Not to sink under being man and wife,
But get some color and music out of life?
The ancient and medieval philosophers were never refuted. Frost’s vision of investment as an internal equation has never been called false. Instead, new authorities established themselves to equate ethics and finance in the form of a supposedly scientific study of money matters where no judgment other than efficiency could be passed on a studied decision.
Yes, there are those who still discuss the ethics of finance and whether bankers deserve lucrative bonuses, the moral hazard of corporate bailouts, or business-based families should run our governments. But by and large, the only real argument against the mass of modern economics, again crashing, comes from those seeking other means of sustenance, both soulfully and economically. From those who want something more than mere finances.
From those who still seek morality and true sustainability in all that they do, and inhabit.