“I never expected it,” says R., “but when my favorite uncle S. died he left me some money—well, lots of money. And yet it wasn’t enough to fund my own revolution the way I used to dream (Belize looked promising), and now I can hardly afford my Park Slope apartment. It would help if I had a job, but I can’t possibly work for anyone and right now I don’t have to. Anyway, there’s plenty left for lunch, the Pinot Noir is a bargain and will go very well with that venison steak in morel reduction you ordered.
“The worst part is, all uncle’s money is in stocks—my own private social security account before I even retired. I hadn’t even started to work! He’d wanted to help me with my writing career, that’s what the will said, but it’s strange, I mean he’d only read these poems I wrote at 16. I should be grateful, but then, you know, all that money really burns a hole in your conscience.
“I got these statements every month. At first I couldn’t really look at them. I was told never to throw them away in case I got audited, so I just put them in a shoebox in my closet. Now I have six closets. It’s like they pay for their own storage space. So for a while I couldn’t read them, just thought of it as money in the bank, like a savings account. Then a box tipped over one day and they came spilling out. All those numbers and names! What did they mean? And how could I be expected to read them?
“Those were the Nineties, the tech-bubble hadn’t burst, and there was a sense you could do no wrong with stocks. I read the names on the portfolio, boy, they would not have gone over well in my college chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops: Gap, Walmart, Wrigley, News Corp., and Archer Daniels Midland, world’s largest exporter of genetically modified soybeans. At least they sponsor NPR. I had no idea what the other companies did and their names were no help (I suppose that’s the point): Rentokil, Cendant, THX-88. And then the T-bills, lots of T-bills. The federal deficit could keep going up forever and I would finance it.
“Uncle’s portfolio outperformed the market consistently, that’s what the investment advisor said when I went to see her in her big midtown office with panoramic windows. The barren, ravaged land across the river encouraged the long view—it was either stocks or barbarism. I was wearing my USAS button on my leather jacket and plunged in on the subject of ethical investing. She was sympathetic. She’d heard of people who refused to invest in companies that didn’t promote Christian values or were linked to violent television. It turned out that Uncle had also set some limits: no weapons manufacturers, but he’d had faith in the drug companies (even when they wouldn’t let go of the AIDS drugs patents), and he’d started to go soft on Philip Morris when they rescued the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But what about companies that, you know, treat their workers well and don’t destroy the environment and don’t finance wars? I was getting bolder. What about companies that actively try to improve the lot of the poor?