My turn: Darfur and divestment

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2008

Help me to understand. The Alaska Permanent Fund money managers are opposed to selling off our PFD stock in nine companies invested in Sudan. People want them to divest from these companies because Sudan is enabling and supporting the factions terrorizing the refugee camps in Darfur, and causing ethnic genocide. Even though thousands of horrendous acts of murder, rape and destruction are perpetrated against the women and children of these refugee camps, the government of Sudan does nothing to stop it. Rather, they are supporting the groups who are perpetrating these crimes in a fight against rebels.

I assume the argument goes that by divesting we are doing our small part in bringing to bare financial pressure on Sudanese government officials who do not seem willing to respond to any other calling, like humanitarian concerns. However, it appears that the PFD money managers believe their decisions ought to be apolitical and thus, except for the bottom financial line, be valueless. It would appear that in their view profits are to be the only motive for making investment decisions. Am I to understand, then, that they have one set of values for their dining tables and another set for their business tables?

Do we have one set of values for our homes and communities and another for our business decisions? If a foreign company derives its profits from the use of slave labor would our PFD money managers argue that the slavery issue is of no concern? Isn't that what we fought a civil war over? Is it only profit ratio that matters? Certainly, use of slave labor is condemned internationally, and the money managers would probably accede to that, but what about the use of child labor? Philip Knight, owner of Nike shoes, tried to defend his contracting with Indonesian companies who used child labor to make his Nike shoes by saying it was a contract and he had no responsibility for what his manufacturing contractors did. As I recall, that argument lasted about five minutes, until the weight of public opinion came crashing down on him. If his personal values couldn't guide him, the loss in shoe sales certainly did.

Do the PFD money managers really leave their values at home when they go to work? Is the profit motive a higher value than those enumerated in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution? Equality of all men? Life, liberty, and such? Basic human rights and dignity? How about the religious values we espouse? Do we abandon these concepts when we make financial decisions? The argument might be made that our divestment makes little difference in what will happen in Darfur, but isn't it our values that are at stake? Don't we want to be able to look our kids in the eye and say that we refused to support genocide?

I suspect that the problem for the PFD money managers is one of drawing the line. If we divest from these companies, how do we not divest from other companies on other issues? How do we decide, and on what grounds? Is it the weight of public opinion by which we decide such matters? Do we expect the Legislature to decide? Do we vote? Can't a situation be so horrendous that it is clear that divestment is appropriate? Isn't this one of those situations?

These are thorny questions, some of which have no clear answers. But don't our democratic ideals demand that we wrestle with such issues? Trying to define away and deny such difficulties by ignoring them will not make them go away. Such issues do not have clean and easy solutions. Democracy is messy. In my view, to try to make such issues go away is wrong. I don't believe that we have become a society where profits trump values and ideals. That's a message we need to convey to our PFD managers, and that's a message we need to convey to our corporate leaders.

The case of Darfur is clear. We ought to divest. Two bills are currently supporting divestment, HB 287 and SB 227. I urge readers to contact their legislators in support. Other calls for divestment may well not be as clear. But that is no reason to keep us from doing the right thing here. As Lincoln said in his first inaugural, we need to listen to the better angels of our nature.

• Steve Wolf is a Juneau resident.



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