If you’re joining us late: my article in the current issue, about the Generation Investment Management firm of London, explained its potential as a test case for the “sustainability can be profitable!” hypothesis.
Over the past ten economically tumultuous years, the returns of this environmentally and social minded firm have beaten nearly all other investors. Thus Al Gore, Generation’s chairman, and his colleagues say that financial managers should give sustainability another look.
The counter-argument is: this can’t be right. If sustainability really were so lucrative, more people would be doing it already.
In counter to that, Gore et al say: in fact, more firms are taking this approach, and it is paying off. One recent indication, which I mentioned in my article, is the report from Oxford University and Arabesque partners about the growing popularity and profitability of a longer-term, socially minded investment strategy.
The Wharton study looked at 53 “impact investing” funds from the private equity world, and how both their financial returns and their social-responsibility “impact” measured up. This is an allied but different approach from Generation’s. (Generation’s main fund holds publicly traded corporate stocks, not private equity, and has its own definition of “sustainability.” But “impact investing” and “sustainable capitalism” are part of the same movement.)
Here’s what the study found:
A common critique of impact investing broadly is that investors must expect concessionary financial returns in exchange for pursuing a social or environmental impact… [JF note: ie, most people assume that social responsibility comes at a cost.]
WSII assessed the financial performance of the subset of funds seeking market-rate returns, assuming that the tension between financial performance and mission preservation would be most acute in this group… The data show that impact funds did not have to make concessions in order to preserve the portfolio companies’ missions upon exit. [Ie, as with Gore’s fund these funds have been able both to “do good” and to do well.]
The study goes on to explain its methodology and results and then concludes:
Market-rate-seeking impact investments in the sample, therefore, may be financially competitive on a gross basis with other equity investing investment opportunities. This financial performance may be why impact fund managers often assert that there is little inherent tension between profits and “purpose.”
In early responses to my article in the current issue about the surprisingly profitable track record of Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management firm, Felix Salmon and other commentators have given variants of what I’m calling the “$20 bill on the sidewalk” argument. The $20 argument goes: if an economics professor sees some money on the sidewalk, he thinks, That can’t really be a $20 bill, because if it were someone would already have picked it up. The analogue when viewing sustainable investment would be, This approach can’t really be so profitable, because if it were other people would already be doing it.
For this installment, a sample of responses that say: As a matter of fact, it is that profitable! And lots of other people have been doing it. And, even if Al Gore and David Blood didn’t “invent” this approach, perhaps their prominence and their recent success will help it become better known.
First and most extensive is a long report by Jim Cummings at the Resilient Investor site, which essentially says: Welcome aboard, Mr. Gore! And it’s about time! It’s worth reading in detail, but here is a sample:
Convincing quotes from [various experts I cite in the article] all seem to agree [that Generation’s profitability] flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Where have they been?
When we wrote Investing With Your Values in 1999 (published by Bloomberg, not exactly a fringe outfit), there was already a solid track record of clear parity and frequently out-performance by SRI funds; our own Jack Brill had completed a 5-year New York Times mock-management quarterly feature, running a strong second with the only SRI portfolio. Indeed, the co-authors of our new book were in the audience at the annual SRI Conference in 2005 when David Blood, who had recently launched Generation Investment Management with Gore, told the gathered crowd, “You were right. You’ve been right for 25 years. Incorporating social, environmental, and corporate governance considerations into the stock selection process adds value.”
We were happy to welcome Blood to the club in 2005, and we’re surely excited that Generation’s first ten years of results can be added to the steady stream of mainstream reports confirming and expanding on the message that socially and environmentally responsible firms outperform their values-neutral peers.
After the “welcome aboard!” joshing, Cummings goes on to emphasize why the Generation story might be significant:
But we don’t mean to dismiss the power of what Blood and Gore (!) have accomplished. In two ways, they are making a statement that few others are in the position to do. First, they’re showing that sustainable capitalism can do more than just slightly outperform the norm (which is impressive enough; over time, the increased returns really add up)….
Secondly, their target client audience is the extremely rich, with most of the assets they manage being held by institutional investors. Though most laymen aren’t aware of the fact, institutional investors (pension funds, universities, foundations) hold a large proportion of the world’s market equity. If capitalism really is going to evolve into a force for good, as argued by SRI pioneers John Fullerton and Hunter Lovins, then getting institutional investors and the uber-wealthy on board is going to be key.
I should clarify that, even more than I mentioned in the piece, everyone at Generation whom I interviewed stressed that they were part of a long tradition — but that they hoped that their recent results might add more oomph to an ongoing, international effort.
I’ve been following ethical investing for over forty years and independently founded Investing for the Soul in 2002 to help investors everywhere apply their personal values to investing. The site covers SR-ethical investing news and research from around the world, plus related insightful commentary and services for investors, investment professionals and organizations.
I believe that if everyone invests according to their personal values, then, since so many of our core values are alike—and are supportive of higher ideals—that in the long run, only companies employing these higher values will truly prosper.
In his note Felix Salmon asked if I had talked with any of Generation’s investors. The answer is yes, but none of those I spoke with wanted to be quoted by name. I have followed up with one of them, asking whether he would be willing to join the on-line discussion. He said:
I found Felix Salmon’s piece depressing for its being infused with a skepticism so severe it borders on denialism. You had already answered many of his objections in the main piece, thought he chose not to mind, and you dealt with the rest of them in your follow-up note. I have nothing to add.
And just to round this out on a “many readers, many perspectives” note, here is one more note from a person drawing the opposite inference:
I'm inclined to think well of Al Gore, and my reaction to hearing about his investment approach is "I hope he succeeds"! Reading the persuasive response by Felix Salmon pulls me back from this bias.
It's not the inherent contradiction of what Al Gore proposes (live sustainably and be rich!). It's the fallacy of his investment philosophy - that his firm will consistently pick winners. Yes, some seem to be able to do that, but for everyone who picks a winner, there is someone who picks a loser. Investment as practiced, or should I say "sold" by Al Gore is a zero-sum game. If I buy low and sell high, there is someone else selling low and buying high. For every firm that claims above average returns, there is a firm that has below average returns. And, an approach of picking winners leads to active trading and high expenses, reducing investment returns, but making the brokers rich.
Investing in companies that reflect your values is a good thing, but as I infer from Felix Salmon's commentary, there is nothing magical about it.
Following my article on the implications of the so-far-very-profitable “sustainable capitalism” approach of Al Gore’s Generation Investment firm in London, and the previous call-and-response you’ll see further down on this page, some more reader response.
First, from a veteran of the U.S. high tech industry who is now a professor in Israel:
Like Felix Salmon, I have an active BS detector that begins to buzz when the success of what is essentially a technical advance (usually something that I encounter in a popular treatment of an engineering breakthrough, like recent stories on i-phone sized cameras with 16 different lenses and imaging chips) is defended by one number and a lot of good intentions.
The Institutional Investor article which you link to leaves me feeling much better about the likelihood that Generation is really doing well for fundamentally sound reasons, and will have a broader impact. It does make the case that others are following similar directions.
A theme in these two articles which caught my interest is that European investors and governments take a broader, more philosophical approach to capitalism than does the US. (Leaving aside the London Whale and similar stories.)
In the world that I see, European support for research in science and technology, this is definitely true. The EU's programs, such as Horizon 2020, have broader boundaries, and their goals combine technical excellence with sustainability and industrial exploitation. "Welfare capitalism" is accepted, e.g. Airbus. In the US, the NSF and DARPA seem to care most about continuing US scientific and military dominance on steadily shrinking uncertain budgets. Perhaps each side of the Atlantic is still thinking in terms that have not changed much since the 1950s.
And from an American with extensive experience in big-project investments (and also environmental projects):
It is going to be a stretch just to get investors to put their money into things that are good for the world and also yield no more than the level of returns that the investors are otherwise accustomed to (especially at no greater than customary risk to the investors). In fact, it is also going to be quite difficult just to find such investment opportunities for them, and to structure them so that they actually are good for the world and also actually do yield even customary returns with customary levels of risk.
It may be possible to invest in things that are good for the world and also produce HIGHER than customary returns at no more than ordinary levels of investor risk. But people familiar with finance and investing will so skeptical of that proposition that even if Generation has indicated that it has already accomplished this (to some extent), the cognoscenti are likely to think: Really? To what extent, exactly? And how scalable/replicable is this – currently – even if Generation has actually accomplished it (to some extent).
Cut through Salmon’s screed, and those are essentially the questions he’s asking. A subsidiary set of questions, to which he also alludes, arises around how acting largely like a hedge fund buying and trading securities – not investing in projects directly, or in start-up companies – actually advances the “good for the world” cause.
On politics, from a reader in California:
I know that Mr. Gore has done a lot to bring the climate change issue to the fore and that with Current TV he promoted progressive ideas, but this Generation thing is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Here is a man who had built the mechanism and personal brand to influence tens of millions of Americans to take action (i.e., vote) on progressive ideas. One would think that he could have carved out a larger roll for himself being involved in the public discourse and getting people more active in politics.
But instead he chooses to get into investment management? Seriously? It seems that the guy he really admired was not Gandhi but Mitt Romney. And meanwhile, after building Bain, Mitt Romney longed to attain to the status and influence that already belonged to Al Gore as a trusted political voice and leader.
I can’t help but think that the 52 year old Gore could have used his energies much better than running after pension funds to play with their money and get returns that were 2-3% higher than average. Whooopde do. I wish he had instead worked in building coalitions to elect leaders that make a difference.
I have responses on many of these points but will save them for an upcoming round. For now, thanks to these and other readers. Again the point of my article was to try to get the “sustainable capitalism” concepts into broader discussion, and scrutiny, by the non-financial-pro part of the public. So responses pro and con all advance the cause.
The new issue has my piece on the Generation Investment Management firm co-founded more than a decade ago by Al Gore, and why Gore thinks its profitable track record can shift capitalist incentives in a pro-environmental direction. I hope you’ll read it, because I think the arguments Gore and colleagues are making bear directly on the “saving capitalism from itself” debate that has been running for years in Europe and which the Democratic candidates waded into during this week’s debate.
Yesterday I posted a long, largely skeptical response by the financial writer Felix Salmon, of Fusion. You’ll see it lower down on this page. Salmon had once looked into Generation himself, and he had questions about both the details of its operation and the significance of its example.
My purpose in this story is different from that of some others I’ve written. For instance, in the big Chickenhawk Nation piece I did in January, the narrative structure boiled down to: I’ve been wrestling with this topic for years, I’ve been reporting on it in recently, and now I have a line of argument. So sit back and let me see if I can convince you. Some other long stories, on fields I’ve dealt with for decades, follow that same structure (for instance this and this and this and this or this.)
Many other stories are in more straightforwardly reportorial mode. (The Atlantic is one of a handful of publications comfortable with both.)
For those stories the narrative structure boils down to: I heard about some new subject, I found out what I could, and now I am going to show and tell you what I’ve seen, which you may not have heard about before. Most of my reporting from China was in this second category, and so in this current story about Generation.
At face value, I find the Generation story an example very much worth taking seriously, on a subject of tremendous world-wide importance. And at a minimum I find very interesting. But my main ambition with this story was to move the “sustainable capitalism” argument closer toward the limelight of public attention and discussion, both by financial experts and by informed amateurs. Toward that end, even a note as querulous as Salmon’s helps the discussion.
Nothing that follows should be construed as an response from Al Gore, David Blood, Miguel Nogales, Mark Ferguson, or the other Generation co-founders I write about in the story. I haven’t spoken with any of them. These are my answers, based on things I learned during my reporting or inferences I make. Their intention is to put in context questions like those Salmon raises. Here goes, starting with a lot of specific points.
Is the Generation team cooking the books, index-shopping, “p-hacking,” or in other ways cheating by choosing the MSCI World Index as the benchmark for their success? (Over the past 10 years, that MSCI index had a 7 percent average annual return. Generation averaged 12.1 percent.) Answer: Not as far as I can see. From the start the broadly accepted MSCI World Index was the benchmark for their global-equity fund, which accounts for most of their holdings.
Why not use the better-performing S&P 500 as a benchmark? Because that is a U.S. index; their holdings are international.
What is the MercerInsight assessment that shows Generation’s results to be so strong? It’s from Mercer, a well-known firm that among its products offers a proprietary assessment of asset-manager performance. That is where I got my figures. Also a recent article in Institutional Investor quoted another source, eVestment, as saying that Generation’s returns had been 12.14 percent over the past decade, versus the 12.1 percent I attributed to Mercer.
Does Generation really have $12 billion under management? That’s what they tell the regulators.
Why has Generation closed its best-performing global equity fund? In London they told me they were deliberately capping its size because they did not want to let it get unmanageably large. Instead they have been opening new funds.
Why do they have a $3 million minimum-investment threshold? Their clients are mainly big institutional investors.
Do they hold any bonds? The global-equity fund is mainly for stocks.
Do they actually hold shares longer than other managers? When I asked, they said that their average share-holding duration was 3 years. I didn’t check systematically, but published reports suggest that many managers turn over their entire portfolio within a year or less.
Why are they buying only companies they like, rather than shorting companies they don’t? I asked this in London and was told that they consider themselves an investment fund, not a hedge fund. That is, as one of their people put it to me, “We want to reward companies we think are doing well, not penalize ones we think are doing poorly.” For better or worse it’s a deliberate choice.
Why do they hold less of the Irish company, Kingspan, than they used to? Because (as they told me when I asked) they have a “value” measure as well as a “sustainability” measure. If they like a company but it’s too expensive, they don’t buy. If they like it but it gets too expensive, they sell.
Do they really interact with management, as active “owners”? That’s what they said. “We want to be active owners, not activists,” one said.
Is Al Gore more than a rainmaker? They claim he is.
Why didn’t I write more about the mechanics of buying and selling? I thought I did a fair amount, but for more you can check an explicitly financial publication (Institutional Investor) or a business case study (this proprietary one from Harvard Business School).
Now, the big and important question:
Does anyone at Generation imagine that, on their own, they’re changing the course of capitalism? That’s not what I understood. I understood them to say that their track record deserved consideration as a test case of the proposition that “sustainable” investment could bring high returns.
As it happens, that’s just what I said in the piece: “Their demonstration has its obvious limits: It’s based on the track record of one firm, which through one decade-long period has managed assets that are merely boutique-scale in the industry’s terms…. Generation’s goal is to present an example of a less environmentally and socially destructive path toward high returns.”
Where can you read more, for the sorts of things I didn’t get to in the piece? Here is a start:
“Sustainable Capitalism,” the main “what we’re trying to accomplish” policy paper from the Generation Foundation, the advocacy arm of Generation, published in 2012.
“From the Shareholder to the Stakeholder,” an influential report last year from Oxford University and Arabesque partners, which I mentioned in my piece. It argued that recent evidence showed that long-term-minded, “sustainability”-conscious investors made more rather than less money.
The new issue (subscribe!) has my article on Generation Investment Management, the London-based financial firm Al Gore co-founded more than a decade ago. Generation has been very profitable, and Gore and his colleagues contend that its success should draw attention toward the rewards of environmentally conscious “sustainable capitalism.”
Felix Salmon, the prominent financial writer and senior editor for Fusion, has some thoughts about this piece, what Al Gore and his colleagues are up to, and what it all does or does not mean. As will become obvious, there are parts of Salmon’s letter I like and agree with more than other parts, and I think that many of his complaints boil down to this not being a different kind of article for a different kind of readership in a different, more financial-insidery kind of newspaper or magazine. Or by a different writer! Some other parts, I think, are versions of the “$20 bill on the sidewalk” outlook I mention in the article: the Gore/Generation practices can’t really be that successful, because if they were everyone would already have adopted them. (“That can’t be a $20 bill on the sidewalk, because if it were someone would already have picked it up.”)
But there are also some good fundamental questions he asks about the implications of this model, which I’m resisting answer piecemeal and will begin responding to tomorrow. For now, I’m grateful to Salmon for letting me quote it in full and kick off the discussion.
Felix Salmon writes:
This is a fascinating and yet frustrating article, at least for me. It’s by far the most in-depth thing that has ever been written about Generation, but I feel like it doesn’t really answer any of the questions I had about the company, most of which arose when I wrote this piece about why more investors don’t divest from fossil fuels. The Generation view would have involved me putting something in there about how solar is a much better investment than coal, or some such, but because Generation is so secretive about its results, I couldn’t really do that.
1: *How*, exactly, does the Generation model “shift the incentives of financial and business operations to reduce the environmental, social, political, and long-term economic damage being caused by unsustainable commercial excesses”? Is it basically just by saying to companies “if you behave this way, then we will be more likely to buy your stock”? It seems to me that whether or not Generation has done well for itself and its investors, there’s really no evidence at all that it has shifted any incentives even in the companies it invests in, let alone in the companies that it *doesn’t* invest in.
To take a big example, how, say, are Exxon Mobil’s incentives shifted by the the existence of Generation, and companies like it? The story says that Generation is “reducing the destructive side effects of modern capitalism”, but I don’t see any evidence of that?
2: The benchmark being used here is the MSCI World, which, fine, is as good a benchmark as any, I guess. (Although it ignores the bulk of all investable global assets, in that it includes no fixed-income bonds. Does Generation invest in bonds at all? Or anything other than publicly-listed stocks? From the story I’d guess not, but who knows.)
Still, you have to set your benchmark ex ante, not ex post. Did Generation say, when it was founded, that its benchmark was going to be the MSCI World? Because if it didn’t, this is basically the investment version of p-hacking. [JF note: More on p-hacking here.] The main benchmark that investors tend to use is the S&P 500, which has significantly outperformed the MSCI World over the past 10 years.
3: What is this Mercer “survey” on which the claims of outperformance are based? The piece annoyingly has no hyperlinks, even to things like public Andy Haldane speeches, so I’m unclear on whether the survey is even public. [JF note: I’ll try to restrain myself in general, but this doesn’t have links because it’s an article from the print magazine.] And is the 12.1% figure before or after Generation’s fees? How much is Generation charging for its revolutionary model?
4: More p-hacking: all we’re being told about here is the 10-year return of a single Generation fund, which may or may not be the one which is closed to new investment. Remember that because Generation is highly secretive about its results, it gets to open itself up to Jim Fallows on its own schedule, at exactly the point at which it can claim the best results. What we don’t see in the article is even a simple chart of the value of $1,000 invested in Generation: all we get is a single datapoint of the 10-year annualized return. Which is interesting enough, as far as it goes, but how’s the 5-year return? The 3-year return? And, more importantly, what are the *investor* returns, as opposed to the *investment* returns?
If I could only get one number from Generation, this is the one I’d be most interested in: what is the average annualized return per dollar invested with the company? Here’s my suspicion: that Generation launched with a small amount of seed investment from its founders and maybe a passel of other Davos Man types. (Big institutional investors don’t even tend to consider a fund for investment until it’s at least 3 years old.)
During its first three years, when it was very small, Generation managed to do extremely well — so well, indeed, that it was able to attract billions of dollars in institutional capital. (We’re told Generation has $12 billion in AUM, although investment firms have all manner of ways of exaggerating that number, and I’m not sure I believe it.) But in the years since — in the years in which it has been a multi-billion-dollar investment fund — Generation has not been able to replicate the results it had when it was small, and as a result, none of its institutional investors have seen the 12% returns that you talk about. Has Generation actually managed to prove that it can deliver above-market returns to investors? I’m still unconvinced on that front.
5: Talking of which: Why is the fund closed to new investment? Ambitious investment managers like Blood and Gore don’t tend to do such things unless there’s some kind of problem with the fund in question. Best case scenario is that the fund can’t scale: it works when it’s small, but not when it has real money. Worst case scenario is that the fund is just doing really badly, however well it did in the early years.
For that matter, what’s with the $3m minimum, not being open to normal investors, etc? If this is going to revolutionize capitalism, rather than just being a feel-good diversification play for the ultra-rich, why can’t all of us be part of it? And why is Al Gore, of all people, gating himself off from 99.9% of the population who might be interested in going down this road?
6: The noncommittal quote from David Rubenstein is golden. But isn’t it that case that the likes of Rubenstein have vastly more ability to actually change the way that companies are run than the likes of Blood & Gore? Rubenstein has almost total control of the companies he buys. He can run them as sustainably as he likes, with an eye to as many different bottom lines as he likes. He can change them in deep, far-reaching ways. Whereas all that Generation can do, really, is buy and sell stocks on the secondary market.
Even Larry Fink, with his trillions under management, can’t do much more than that: look how much of his company is iShares, for instance, and other passive investment vehicles which give managers essentially no discretion over what to buy and sell.
7: But also, Rubenstein is right about constraints. Generation is trying to make money by trading in and out of roughly 125 companies, all of which are, to a greater or lesser degree, “sustainable”. That’s great. But what would happen if it then gave itself the *option* to trade in and out of other companies which are *not* sustainable? That option has some value, no? Would it not help if Generation understood Exxon Mobil well enough to be able to short it, rather than just taking long positions in its cleantech competitors?
8: There’s lots of talk in this piece about the problems of short time horizons, with a hinted implication that Generation’s time horizons are long, or at least longer. But some numbers would be really helpful here. Are Generation’s time horizons longer than any other institutional fund manager? How long does Generation hold on to its positions, on average, and how does that number compare to its more conventional competitors? That kind of thing. I’m perfectly willing to believe that Generation’s *analysis* involves a long-term outlook. Almost all stock analysis does. But does its investment behavior reflect that?
9: There’s also a bunch of talk about inequality, and wealth disparity, and that kind of thing — but how does running billions of dollars for major institutional investors, and delivering above-market returns on those billions, *decrease* inequality? Surely the more successful Generation is, the richer rich people like Al Gore become, and the more that inequality goes up.
10. It seems obvious to me that Gore’s job at Generation is the classic chairman job of asset-gathering. He’s not picking stocks, or making buy or sell decisions, or anything like that: he’s a sales guy, trying to persuade huge institutions to give him some of their billions. He’s also had ten years to perfect his sales pitch. When faced with a guy like that, you naturally need to have a certain degree of skepticism about what he’s selling, unless you can independently come to the same conclusions.
But it seems to me that Gore has almost complete control over what he chooses to reveal about Generation’s results, when he chooses to reveal it, and what he keeps secret. No one can do the kind of independent analysis on Generation that Generation does on the companies it invests in. Or if they can, they can only do so under strict NDAs. I’d love to know whether you talked to any of the investors in Generation, to see whether they are actually as happy with Generation’s returns as Gore would like us to think that they are. [JF: OK, I can’t resist on this either. Yes.] Or, better yet, whether he talked to anybody who kicked the tires and decided *not* to invest.
11. How does the actual business of buying and selling work? This is incredibly vague to me. The only example in the article is that of Kingspan, where we’re told that Generation bought 5% of the company in 2007, and then bought more and more stock when it got cheaper. Which implies to me that it should have well over 5% of Kingspan right now — but a quick Google search shows that in fact it only has 3.87%. Did Generation cash out when its investment became profitable? Did it even make money on Kingspan? I’m very unclear on what the Kingspan story is meant to be telling us.
12. There’s a lot of mean stuff written in this article about other firms on both the buy side and the sell side, and how short-termist they are, and how obsessed they are about stock price, and how their live events and conferences are incredibly narrowly focused, and stuff like that. But of course no names are named, at least on the buy side, and I do wonder how much of a straw man this is. The investors I know tend to spend a very great deal of time looking at long-term trends and the like, while it’s obvious to me that Generation, just like any other shop, has traders who are ultimately in charge of buy and sell decisions and who Jim probably didn’t talk to at all. Is Generation really all that different? Isn’t compensation based on 3-year performance, for instance, pretty standard for this kind of company?
13. In any event, even if Generation and investors like it do succeed in getting above-market returns from long-term investments in sustainable companies, how does that change anything? If you’re a long-term investor, after all, then pretty much by definition you’re not a marginal price-setter; that’s always going to be a short-term hedge fund or algobot. The effect on companies’ share prices is going to be de minimis, and the effect of companies’ share prices on the planet is going to be even smaller. I really don’t see how a tweaked investment strategy for rich institutions is going to Reform Capitalism, let alone change the planet, or reduce inequality, or anything like that. I mean, Al Gore is (sorry) no Warren Buffett. And even Warren Buffett hasn’t really changed anything!
Thanks to Felix Salmon for a bracing kickoff to a discussion. Stay tuned for more.
In every issue and most every article, we try to tell you about ideas and developments you might not have come across before. As a reporter, I like the job best, and feel most alive, when being exposed to some new-to-me culture or organization or approach to life. A Chinese factory, a software startup, a genomics-research lab, an aerospace design center, a Border Patrol unit—these are the sorts of places that I’ve had the luck to spend time inside, begin learning about, and try to describe in the magazine. The structure of a great many of our Atlantic stories, and nearly all of mine, then boils down to: “Here’s a question I had, here’s how I looked for answers, and here’s what I found.” That’s what I’ve done in this case, and I think the results contain genuine news.
Through the past few months I’ve had what I found one of the most engrossing of these exposures. It’s the one this piece describes, involving the Generation Investment Management firm of London, which Gore helped found. In the article I do my best to describe why the firm’s approach to the world is interesting, unusual, and potentially quite significant — and why its approach has led to better returns than virtually any other asset-manager in its class. I’ll let you go there yourself to judge the case the company is making. Why the “green Warren Buffett” comparison? Because Buffett shifted investment strategies by showing that his could pay outsized returns. That is what Gore is attempting as well.
Just one other word of set-up: perhaps the most interesting substance sections of tonight’s Democratic debate on CNN about the future of capitalism. That wasn’t something you’d expect from this kind of event, but it came up — and it isdirectly connected with the ideas Gore is dealing with. Over to the article for more.
Meanwhile, I talked with Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace about the piece, for a segment they ran this evening. You can find it here.
The family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many. It’s time to figure out better ways to live together.
The scene is one many of us have somewhere in our family history: Dozens of people celebrating Thanksgiving or some other holiday around a makeshift stretch of family tables—siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, great-aunts. The grandparents are telling the old family stories for the 37th time. “It was the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen in your life,” says one, remembering his first day in America. “There were lights everywhere … It was a celebration of light! I thought they were for me.”
The oldsters start squabbling about whose memory is better. “It was cold that day,” one says about some faraway memory. “What are you talking about? It was May, late May,” says another. The young children sit wide-eyed, absorbing family lore and trying to piece together the plotline of the generations.
How new technologies and techniques pioneered by dictators will shape the 2020 election
Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET on February 10, 2020.
One day last fall, I sat down to create a new Facebook account. I picked a forgettable name, snapped a profile pic with my face obscured, and clicked “Like” on the official pages of Donald Trump and his reelection campaign. Facebook’s algorithm prodded me to follow Ann Coulter, Fox Business, and a variety of fan pages with names like “In Trump We Trust.” I complied. I also gave my cellphone number to the Trump campaign, and joined a handful of private Facebook groups for MAGA diehards, one of which required an application that seemed designed to screen out interlopers.
The president’s reelection campaign was then in the midst of a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup. That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country, and I wanted to see it from the inside.
Stop-and-frisk was awful. But to disqualify the former New York mayor from the presidency on that basis is to risk something more destructive: a second term for Trump.
Is the American left about to prioritize virtue signaling over keeping an unqualified monomaniac from a second term as president? This is what would happen if Michael Bloomberg’s failed stop-and-frisk policy is treated as automatically disqualifying him from serious consideration as the Democratic presidential nominee.
When Bloomberg was mayor of New York City, the police department dramatically expanded a policy under which officers stopped people on the streets to question them and pat them down for weapons. This draconian practice unforgivably stifled black and Latino life in New York City for years.
Yet black America needs Bloomberg neither to have had a perfect past on race nor to “get it” 100 percent today—and neither does the rest of America. What black Americans want by overwhelming margins is for a moral and intelligent candidate to replace Donald Trump, and fetishizing wokeness above all other concerns may be antithetical to that paramount goal.
Is free speech imperiled on American college campuses?
I’ve argued before that campus speech is threatened from a dozen directions, citing scores of incidents that undermine the culture of free expression and dialogue needed to seek truth and learn.
The academic Jeffrey Adam Sachs has staked out a contrastingposition at the Niskanen Center. A small number of anecdotes “have been permitted to set the terms of public debate,” he once wrote. He has also argued that “rather than collapsing into chaos, 2018 was a year of relative quiet on campuses. There were fewer deplatformings, fewer fired professors, and less violence compared to 2017. There was also more dialogue, greater respect for faculty free speech rights, and increased tolerance on both the right and the left.”
Americans’ interest in spell-casting tends to wax as instability rises and trust in establishment ideas plummets.
Juliet Diaz said she was having trouble not listening to my thoughts. “Sorry, I kind of read into your head a little bit,” she told me when, for the third time that August afternoon, she answered one of my (admittedly not unpredictable) questions about her witchcraft seconds before I’d had a chance to ask it. She was drinking a homemade “grounding” tea in her apartment in a converted Victorian home in Jersey City, New Jersey, under a dream catcher and within sight of what appeared to be a human skull. We were surrounded by nearly 400 houseplants, the earthy smell of incense, and, according to Diaz, several of my ancestral spirit guides, who had followed me in. “You actually have a nun,” Diaz informed me. “I don’t know where she comes from, and I’m not going to ask her.”
An investment firm was supposed to help Fairway survive. So why is the company now filing for bankruptcy?
The news of Fairway Market’s second foray into bankruptcy, this time with the threat that stores could be liquidated to pay off the unsustainable debt hanging over the grocery chain, dismayed its legions of loyal Manhattan customers. Fairway’s New York City stores draw an eclectic crowd of shoppers: local residents, professors and students at schools from the City University of New York to Columbia University, and others seeking its fresh-baked breads, unusual cheeses, and wide range of international foods. Upscale and idiosyncratic, with its humble roots still evident, Fairway is emblematic of the city in which it has become a storied institution. But, fatefully, it is also emblematic of the way private-equity investors—including Fairway’s former owner Sterling Investment Partners—have hastened the fall of brick-and-mortar stores caught in the so-called retail apocalypse.
The end of a weekend has always been unpleasant, but there is something distinctly modern about the anxiety many people feel on the eve of a workweek.
To Alec Burks, a 30-year-old project manager at a construction company in Seattle, Sunday evenings feel like “the end of freedom,” a dreadful period when time feels like it’s quickly disappearing, and, all of a sudden, “in 12 hours, I’m going to be back at my desk.” It’s not that Burks doesn’t like his job—he does. But one thing that contributes to the feeling, he told me, is that “you almost have to shrink who you are a little bit sometimes to fit into that mold of your job description.” The weekend, by contrast, doesn’t require any such shrinking.
The not-exactly-clinical diagnosis for this late-weekend malaise is the Sunday scaries, a term that has risen to prominence in the past decade or so. It is not altogether surprising that the transition from weekend to workweek is, and likely has always been, unpleasant. But despite the fact that the contours of the standard workweek haven’t changed for the better part of a century, there is something distinctly modern about the queasiness so many people feel on Sunday nights about returning to the grind of work or school.
The attorney general is working to destroy the integrity and independence of the Justice Department, in order to make Donald Trump a president who can operate above the law.
When Donald Trump chose Bill Barr to serve as attorney general in December 2018, even some moderates and liberals greeted the choice with optimism. One exuberant Democrat described him as “an excellent choice,” who could be counted on to “stand up for the department’s institutional prerogatives and … push back on any improper attempt to inject politics into its work.”
At the end of his first year of service, Barr’s conduct has shown that such expectations were misplaced. Beginning in March with his public whitewashing of Robert Mueller’s report, which included powerful evidence of repeated obstruction of justice by the president, Barr has appeared to function much more as the president’s personal advocate than as an attorney general serving the people and government of the United States. Among the most widely reported and disturbing events have been Barr’s statements that a judicially authorized FBI investigation amounted to “spying” on the Trump campaign, and his public rejection in December of the inspector general’s considered conclusion that the Russia probe was properly initiated and overseen in an unbiased manner. Also quite unsettling was Trump’s explicit mention of Barr and Giuliani in the same breath in his July 25 phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, as individuals the Ukrainian president should speak with regarding the phony investigation that Ukraine was expected to publicly announce.
When parents portray success as a linear progression of SAT scores, acceptance to selective colleges, and high-powered internships, they set kids up for disappointment.
A 10-year-old boy sits quietly on the sofa in my office, his legs not quite touching the floor. I ask whether he’s ever thought about what he’d like to do when he grows up. With no hesitation, he perks up and exclaims, “I want to run a start-up.” He doesn’t even know what a start-up is, but he does know, in exacting detail, the trajectory he will need to take to become wildly successful in running one. Not yet finished with middle school, he has charted the next 15 years of his life: He plans on applying to the most competitive high school in town, hoping that this will increase his odds of going to Stanford. He knows he will have to serve time as an intern, preferably at Google. He is intent on being a “winner.”
A few glimpses into the varied landscape of Vermont, and some of the animals and people calling it home
Today’s photo story is the sixth in a year-long Sunday series, focusing on each of the 50 states in the United States of America. Vermont is one of America’s smallest states by area, and is home to fewer than 625,000 residents. It is known for its picturesque mountains and valleys, ski slopes, spectacular fall colors, and its famous maple syrup. Gathered here are a few glimpses into the varied landscape of Vermont, and some of the animals and people calling it home.