Invest in innovation, not exploitation

The Thinker by Rodin

America is a supposedly country that rewards innovation. The trouble is, a lot of this innovation is really exploitation. I looked into this briefly a few posts back when I looked at Lyft and Uber’s “innovation”. The only really innovative part about these ride services is their app. They’re both cheaper and generally faster than taking a taxi. So much for the innovation part. The rest of it is pure exploitation, mostly of its drivers who get cash up front that doesn’t begin to pay a living wage, particularly if you consider the wear and tear on their cars.

These days much of what passes for innovation in our economy is finding newer and cleverer ways to exploit people, who are generally among the most vulnerable among us. Granted, this may be as American as apple pie. We bought Manhattan from the Indians for the price of some trinkets. These days, the exploitation is less overt. But even if you don’t use Lyft or Uber, you don’t have to look far to see examples.

At the macro level, large companies that pollute exploit us all. Their cost of business is discounted by using our air and rivers as a sewer, and we pay the price. Tens of thousands of Americans die from air pollution every year, and the Trump administration is doing its best to make sure more of us will die. Generally though it’s the poor and vulnerable that get exploited. This is our innovation economy at work.

Perhaps you saw John Oliver’s recent show on mobile home investing. This is exactly the sort of “innovation” that I wish we could outlaw. By definition, if you live in a mobile home you don’t make a whole lot of money. You might own your mobile home but in most cases these homes are not truly mobile. And if you wanted to pack up your mobile home and move it elsewhere, you probably can’t afford to do so. In most cases your mobile home sits on a lot that you rent. There are plenty of investor groups buying these properties and regularly jacking up rents, knowing they have a captive audience. Some say this is a great way to earn “passive income”. What you are really doing of course is exploiting the least among us. In many cases these people are skipping medications or food to pay these rent increases. Some abandon their property, which is repossessed and resold to the next exploited victim.

I’m not prone to anger but these sorts of schemes make me positively irate. They should be outlawed. There are all sorts of ways we pick the pockets of the poor among us: pay day loans with incredibly usurious interest rates, lotteries that take their money but rarely pay off, casinos with a similar idea, higher prices for substandard food because supermarkets won’t serve their communities and of course the traditional: substandard public schools that are grossly underfunded because wealthier school districts won’t share their wealth. If that’s not enough, we shame them for taking food stamps or trying to compete for the vanishingly small market of affordable housing.

Most of us though don’t distinguish between companies that make money via exploitation versus innovation. That’s because it requires research, thinking and our capitalist system sees nothing wrong with exploitation. Look at some of the recent IPOs. How many of these are really driving innovation? Lyft went IPO, but Uber was first to this market. Lyft’s app is not noticeably better than Uber’s. Both depend on exploiting drivers and frequently change their payment terms to drivers to increase their revenues at drivers’ expense. Both are working hard on autonomous car technology. They can’t wait to boot their drivers altogether because they’ve run the numbers and maintaining a fleet of autonomous cars is way cheaper than even exploiting their drivers.

Some companies are both exploitative and innovative. How should I feel about owning Amazon stock, which I probably do somewhere in a mutual fund or ETF in my portfolio? Most of Amazon’s model has been exploitative: they’ve undercut competitors by sustaining losses funded by investors until competitors are out of business. I can see the problem locally with so many vacant storefronts. These customers are using Amazon instead.

Amazon was shamed enough by Bernie Sanders so that they raised their wages to $15/hour, which is good, but it’s barely a floor for a survivable wage. Meanwhile, they are finding other ways to “innovate”, most recently by creating their own air fleet that innovates by screwing their pilots. But other parts of Amazon are truly innovative. Amazon Web Services was a completely new idea that Amazon figured out and which fundamentally changed computing, dramatically lowering computing costs, increasing uptime for connected systems and spurring all sorts of innovation in information technology. Its web services are now the most profitable part of Amazon’s business. It’s proven extremely profitable for Google and Microsoft too, who have pockets deep enough to compete in this market.

Ideally I would not own any stock in companies that are exploitative. But like most of you I suspect, I don’t own any stock directly. Instead, I own mutual funds, ETFs and bonds. Mutual funds and EFTs are collections of ownership in lots of stocks. I could own a commercial bond for a specific company, but even here most of these are amalgamations of lots of bonds funds. There’s no easy way to invest in pure innovation, and hard to avoid investing in exploitative companies.

It’s not entirely impossible, however. You can invest in “green” funds and there are some socially active funds that avoid investments in arguably “evil” countries, which include Israel, which is effectively an apartheid state. Kiplinger has some suggestions for this kind of investing. But it’s not easy and in some cases impossible.

For example, if your company does not allow you to invest your 401K in funds like these, you have no options and may pay a penalty for doing investing outside of your 401K, particularly if your employer makes matching contributions to your 401K.

Which is why in the end what you can do is limited, unless we had a progressive Congress that changed investment laws. At a minimum they could require companies offering 401Ks to provide options for employees who want to invest in funds that are innovative but not exploitative.

I am overdue for a talk about this with my financial adviser. Frankly, I wasn’t thinking much about this until my recent trip on Lyft. Much of our portfolio has moved with retirement from 401Ks to IRAs. These could be shifted toward funds that reward innovation and socially progressive. Fortunately, I have a call with him tomorrow.