Local column: Easy money - an ally for a lazy conscience

Posted: Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Is there a shadow of doubt that all Alaska citizens would condemn the genocide of any people anywhere in the world?

So why is it so difficult for the Legislature to direct the Alaska Permanent Fund managers to divest from the companies with business interests in Sudan? It seems most of our elected officials have suspended their conscience, and many Alaskans aren't troubled by their unwillingness to act.

Our conscience is a gift that grants us free will and separates us from the animals. Religious teachings evoke it as the container of moral values. It is as unique as our fingerprints and DNA, yet science can't measure it. And although we can't peer into the thoughts of another human being, we often contemplate the acts of others that oppose our sense of right and wrong.

State statute pertaining to the permanent fund is silent on matters of conscience.

Avoiding all moral considerations seems fiscally efficient because issues that lack this kind of clarity would stifle decision making. But it was only a matter of time before an investment crossed the line from questionable to beyond morally unacceptable.

If our conscience tells us that genocide is absolutely wrong, why are we stuck in this indecisiveness? It's not as if politicians and citizens alike aren't capable of debating the government's fiscal policies. We do it all the time. But unlike the contentious nature of tax and spend decisions, in this case the people are on the receiving side of the equation. It's easier not to question where our money comes from as compared to where it would go after our government takes it from us.

The word that needs scrutiny here is easy; that which requires no great labor or effort.

It's easier to measure pure profit without the complication of debating moral values. But when we chose not to face the difficult questions before us, the proper word may be lazy; averse or disinclined to work.

How would politicians respond if the public was made aware that their blind trusts included investments in foreign businesses operating in a nation engaged in genocidal acts? It would become campaign fodder that would force them to work to establish an image of a clear conscience. In all likelihood they'd direct their trust mangers to severe those investments long before the voters cast their ballots.

What about the rest of us?

Would we as individuals feel comfortable having gained a personal monetary profit from those companies with ties to the Sudan? Is it a matter of privacy? In other words, does our comfort level rest with the exposure that allows others to judge us? Who is judging also seems to matter, publicly and privately, because we're certainly more aware of our conscience when people nearer to our daily lives are asking difficult questions.

The idea that our conscience is affected most by those closest to us suggests we'd be more likely to sacrifice personal gain to maintain the respect of friends and citizens in our communities. We are also more apt to support their well intentioned efforts, which is why state statute directs the permanent fund board to consider investing in businesses closer to home. If there are eligible companies within the state that the permanent fund hasn't invested in, how do we explain to their owners that it's better for Alaskans to seek profit from foreign companies doing business in a country engaged in acts we all find repugnant?

Our history isn't free from policies and actions that breached our sense of decency. When our founding fathers drafted the Constitution they chose to defer the debate about the morality of slavery. The problem didn't go away. It was left for other generations to solve, but not until after hundreds of thousands of native Africans died for the sake of plantation owner profits.

In today's global economy, no one can possibly understand all the implications of our financial reach across the world. Remaining unaware creates a shield from the internal questions our conscience is supposed to impose on us. But choosing to ignore what we do know, that we have a small connection to genocide, is to knowingly snake our way toward aiding the unconscionable.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident. He did not apply for the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend this year.

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