Is it time to redefine ‘investment’?

Map of Interstate Highway System Map — Federal Highway Administration
Interstate Highway System Map — Federal Highway Administration

Is it time to redefine ‘investment’?

There are two kinds of investment. One kind is entirely selfish, does nobody else any good, and may indeed do harm. The other, which may be selfish or altruistic in intent, does others good (whether a few or society — yes, there is such a thing as society, Maggie Thatcher). Next time somebody speaks of investing, ask yourself which kind it is.

Bad investments

Stock market

According to Investopedia, an investment is “an asset or item acquired with the goal of generating income or appreciation. Appreciation refers to an increase in the value of an asset over time. When an individual purchases a good as an investment, the intent is not to consume the good but rather to use it in the future to create wealth.”

With the exception of IPOs, investment in the stock market does little to support the businesses whose stocks are bought or sold. True, there is a limited function of providing a resale value to the IPO shares which makes them more attractive to buyers, but that is no substitute for investment directly in companies by people who actually understand the business. A lot of stock market ‘investment’ is gambling, pure and simple.

This uncontrolled gambling has caused huge market crashes, and while a few have been wise or lucky enough to get out of the market before the crash and then had the money to buy when prices were low, many have lost all they had. Examples include Tulip mania, the South Sea bubble, the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the Dot-com bubble (where genuine investment in dotcoms with solid business plans was overshadowed by wild, uninformed speculation) and the crash of 2007–8 (where people ‘invested’ in sub-prime loans and many lost their homes).

When ‘investment’ is in staples, like oil or food, it can raise the price out of the reach of people causing hardship and even starvation. Raising the price of oil raises the prices of many other things which we depend on for modern living. It affects businesses large and small as well as individuals. People buying up (‘investing’ in) property can raise prices beyond what locals can afford for property to live in, whether they are buying to rent or buying second homes in beauty spots.

Buying politicians

The fossil fuel industry bribes politicians to persuade them not to regulate the industry. This saves them the cost of dealing with all the pollution that they cause, which not only affects the health, property values and general environment of those living near their mines and plants, but also harms the whole world with global warming. It also bribes them to get cheap access to new sources of fossil fuels, which leads to pollution of oceans and of pristine wilderness important for wildlife.

Other industries also bribe politicians to prevent regulation. This can lead to poor quality housing, water and air, dangerous vehicles, and food which sickens and sometimes even kills.

Others bribe politicians to get lucrative government contracts. The result is taxpayers paying for things we don’t need, things at much higher prices than necessary, and things that don’t work. Examples are COVID-related contracts in the UK, the U.S. military industrial complex (the U.S. defense budget is way out of proportion compared to other countries) and the U.S. ‘healthcare’ system (an entire ‘industry’ which other developed countries don’t have and which costs Americans twice as much as other countries pay for health care).

Sometimes such investments do bring some benefit to the people, though often not enough to pay for the disadvantages. For example, the U.S. military industrial complex invests in factories in every single state to keep the politicians voting for increased defense budgets, which does provide some jobs in every state.

Investments of any kind should be informed and based on facts. There are entire industries of think tanks and ‘news’ media and social media trolls intent on disinforming the public in ways that lead to gains for those who are paying to spread the disinformation. This can vary from a lie about an opponents’ product or their own to a lie saying that an election was stolen. The latter is intended to bring back into power the party with the most bribable politicians. Bribing politicians can have an incredible ROI. They sell themselves (and us) very cheaply.

Investments intended to make a few individuals or corporations rich result in great inequality which leads to a whole host of social ills (see The Equality Trust). The money is often siphoned out of the country of the people whose work created it or spent on things which do nobody any good, such as joy rides into space or spending ridiculous prices for art (how many artists ever got rich themselves from their work?).

Good investment

In 1948 the UK invested in the National Health Service. Since then it has cared for virtually the entire populace at half the price of the American privatized system. When the pandemic hit it was there to care for us. Unfortunately it has been underfunded and abused by conservative governments (today’s conservatives don’t seem to understand good investment), and they are privatizing it piece by piece, but that’s a rant for another day. In the US, many people dare not take time off sick, so they go into work when they are contagious and infect their colleagues, which is detrimental to their employers. They may also become permanently sick or die through not seeking treatment early, with a loss of their income for their families and their skills and knowledge for their employers.

Many governments invest in vaccines and masks, etc. to counter major illnesses which could affect the population and therefore the GDP. COVID-19 is only the latest. Arguably George Washington might not have prevailed in the American Revolution if he had not ordered that the army be inocculated against smallpox. Some have saved lives and stamped out diseases. Others have mitigated the effects of disease. Where governments do not pay for or subsidise vaccines, the poorer members of the population may not be able to afford them, and continue to spread the disease. According to RAND Europe, vaccinating the whole world against COVID-19 would be a good investment.

Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. While some people and places were adversely affected by the new highways, for the nation as a whole it meant travel was easier and cheaper for people and for goods. Similarly people and businesses have benefited from government investment in other infrastructure. Maintaining that infrastructure is also a good investment. For example potholes can cause expensive damage to personal and commercial vehicles, and unsafe bridges can mean long detours.

Education is also an important investment, if corporations want to be able to hire people for more than manual labour. An educated populace will produce far more inventors and engineers, for example, leading to increased and more valuable commerce, and the return on investment comes from they and their employers paying more taxes. The GI Bill did the same for the young men and women returning from war.

A dumbed down populace may be easier for politicians to fool, but it leaves the country at a disadvantage to others. They may be taken in by serial liars like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, or by foreign trolls working against their country, or by the marketing tactics invented by Edward Bernays, who used them to sell World War I to Americans.

The U.S. does not invest in its young people’s higher education, so they end up with massive student loans. As a result they cannot afford houses or children and so the housing market and all sectors which cater to children suffer. With loans to pay, and the possibility of large medical bills, many dare not leave their employment so there are fewer entrepreneurs and the economy suffers. Unfortunately the UK is now also extracting fees from its university students. This is very short sighted.

It’s time for real investment

It’s time to redefine investment as something that first does no harm and is not pure gambling or speculation. Buying politicians should once again be called bribery and a crime.

Next time you read or watch the news, ask yourself what kinds of investment you see or hear mentioned, and which politicians are voting for good investments, and which are taking bribes to vote for bad. It could be a very good investment of your time

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