Friday, 28 December 2012

Net Worth

Now that Christmas has passed, we have the next major season to look forward to: tax time. This means that for the coming weeks we will be bombarded with ads for RRSPs, RESPs, Mutual Funds and financial planning services.
Very few, if any, of these will focus on meaningful investment, unless you happen to consider unlimited financial gains regardless of the implications to be meaningful. A handful of funds, labelled as “ethical” or “environmental”, profess to somewhat higher ideals, but often fail to deliver much more than green-washing. In BC, investors may have an easier time finding viable options that do less damage than good, but for most Canadians, the choices are driven more by short-term, resource-laden gain than by a higher set of ideals.
In sorting out one’s finances, we bump into some more questionable value statements. The most obvious of these is the concept of “net worth”. In banking terms, a person’s net worth is set entirely on their financial assets, and nothing more. Every time I hear the term, I picture the bridge scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” in which George Bailey waves his insurance policy and says he’s worth more dead than alive. I find it a sad reflection on our society that we can use such terminology, and that this is how we consider the worth of individuals. By this standard, Ghandi, Mother Theresa, and most artists and religious leaders and prophets have no “net worth”.  Newborn infants certainly value their mothers, but since they too have no “net worth”, we can toss out parenthood as well. The victims of the shooting in Newtown probably didn't have much "net worth", nor do the hundreds of missing Canadian First Nations women, or Chief Theresa Spence. 

It is true that this is simply the view of the world through banking terminology, but to pretend that it doesn’t transfer into our society’s culture is in my opinion, na├»ve. It is common for us to hold to highest value that which is financially lucrative, and ignore or demean that which is less so. This is why people who choose materially-based careers such as investment banking or business administration are more highly regarded than those who choose socially-based careers such as teaching or the arts. While the long-term benefits to society of the socially based careers is likely to be of greater benefit, the fact that these do not immediately turn a large profit means that they bring with them less honour, prestige and a lower salary, except in extreme cases. Few of our brightest and most motivated people are drawn to these fields when compared with those drawn to the materially-based careers.

Looking at where our country invests tax dollars, it would appear that our leaders value short-term financial gain for the few over long-term sustainability. Indigenous people are valued least, followed by children, immigrants and women. Natural resource extraction and foreign investment trump science (aside from the activities that involve cherry-picking studies in order to support a pre-determined financial agenda), education and the environment. Basic needs such as food security and clean water are secondary to foreign interests, tarsands development and military investment. The military is invested in as if it were a consumable, with little regard for soldiers and troops once they have served. Military engagement is based not on ethics but on resources and economics. There is no need to invest in science, research and development since it will not immediately benefit politicians and the corporations who control them. In fact, to invest in science, particularly in an inspiring, multi-national, long-term human endeavour would go against the strategy of day-to-day existence that fuels our increased reliance on unbridled consumerism. While the moon shot was once an inspiration, it wouldn’t sell enough merchandise now to compete with the growth mentality we’ve come to espouse.

We have a very obvious candidate for our collective energies, that being climate change, but too many people seem to have bought into the ideology of personal financial gain for us to move forward in any meaningful way. We have lost sight of what is real. As long as competition and fear guide us, we will continue to stagnate under the illusion of what we have fooled ourselves into believing is of value. “Me first” may have us all drowning (figuratively or literally) in the long run. Putting off tough decisions indefinitely does not work.

Our currency is a tool for trade, no more. What is it that is worth trading? Starting with basic needs in order of importance: clean air, clean water, healthy food, shelter, clothing. Money itself is not able to meet any of these needs; you cannot breathe it, you cannot drink it, you cannot eat it and gain any nutritional benefit (especially not those new plastic bills), it would be difficult to build a decent shelter from it, and it isn’t very easy or practical to sew together and wear. Money is a tool for trading goods, and is not a replacement for them. We seem to be losing sight of this rather obvious fact as evidenced by our government passing legislation that threatens the first three of these things.

Part of our problem too is that people have a nasty habit of looking at things with a competitive mindset. Because of this, the countries of the world are hesitant and defensive when it comes to working together on projects in which they are required to truly share in a long-term and meaningful way. There’s always a “you go first” playground-style defensiveness that keeps us from moving forward in a timely fashion to work on problems that concern all of us. Moving beyond this is crucial if we are to solve the climate change problem, yet I fear that we haven’t progressed far enough to accomplish this in time. 

There are people out there who are busy working towards change, people like Chief Theresa Spence who are willing to put themselves on the line for the sake of future generations. It is up to you and I to support their efforts. We need to redefine the meaning of "net worth" in our personal lives as well as in the larger culture. The time for change has come.