A Conversation with Fr. Séamus Finn, Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Director of the OMI's United States Province Office of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation
With: Séamus Finn Berkley Center Profile
April 27, 2022
Background: Investment policies and priorities for faith communities have come to the fore in recent years, working alongside wider socially responsible investment policies and involving active efforts to shape directions for private sector impact. Fr. Séamus Finn has played active roles in initiatives within his order (Oblates of Mary Immaculate), the Catholic Church, and faith communities broadly. He spoke to a group of Georgetown University students and other colleagues on April 27, presenting his work and exploring underlying issues related to investment policies and action to shape them. Fr. Finn brings a long history of active efforts to shape faith consistent investment policies and practice. As director of the Oblates' United States Province Office of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation, he coordinates their advocacy work on behalf of marginalized peoples and communities living in poverty; the priorities are "accompanying those in need" and “being present where decisions affecting the lives and the futures of the poor are made”, in both the public arena and the private sector. He served as chair of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility's board of directors for 5 years and is the Director of Faith Consistent Investing for the Oblate International Pastoral Investment Trust. The latter includes an active shareholder investment program both for the U.S. province and for the congregation, and a presence at different legislative arenas and at international institutions like the World Bank, IMF and the UN. He serves on the boards of several organizations focused on justice priorities in the public policy arena.
Please tell us how you got into what you are doing today. Tell us the story.
It really began in Vermont, back in the 1970s. I was serving as a parish priest in Brattleboro for five years, from 1976 to 1981. A number of the people in the local parish congregation were quite active politically, very conscious of what was going on and remained current on the policies and positions of American foreign policy. They took the opportunity to contact their elected representatives in Congress on various issues especially related to foreign policy. And that was an important starting and initiation point for my future ministries.
Vermont is one of the more progressive states, in terms of its policies on the environment and human rights. It has a small population, about 700,000, but, the way the US system works, it has two senators and one representative. In that period, the US was coming out of the oil crisis of the early 1970s, Jimmy Carter was president, and we were going in the direction of new foreign and domestic political and economic policies with Ronald Reagan. That was also a time when there was lots of upheaval in Central America. To understand anything about Latin American politics, you need to recognize that Central America was always key in terms of the United States trying to control the rest of the continent, because it was close to the border, with small countries: Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador. Occasionally, the US meddled in other places, Chile, for example.
At the time one senator from Vermont, Patrick Leahy, was in the ascendancy. He was on the Foreign Relations Committee where he remained for a long time, authoring various pieces of legislation especially focused on human rights abuses in the region. So it was a natural that people in Vermont would contact him about what was going on in Latin America.
The parish was also quite active on numerous issues both in the community and regionally and worked across faith traditions and communities to address them. We were blessed to have a number of artists in the community and one in particular, a mime, who was very moved by the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador in 1980. He wrote a play about this event, but had no place to perform it. So we decided, "Why don't we do it in the church for Palm Sunday of 1981?" It proved to be a great success. The play, The Peasant of El Salvador, has been translated into several languages and is still performed.
So the people in the local community were active in lots of different ways, politically, culturally, in music and sports. Brattleboro was a very small town, though large by Vermont standards, with about 12,000 people. It's the first town that you hit once you head north from Connecticut and move north through Massachusetts, a gathering place for lots of progressive migrants from other parts of New England. People from all corners of the world seemed to end up there, even for such a small town and some remained there for years.
So we, and when I say, "we" I mean the clergy at the parish and parishioners, were organizing different events and focusing on what was happening well beyond the parish. People were focused especially on personal responsibility, but often on the collective responsibility of the community and those elected to represent the community at various levels of government. This was reflected in church practice and discussion when people often focused on sinful structures as well as personal sinfulness; which was reflected in the structures and the laws that were adopted by the community; Was it indeed discriminatory that you were excluding a whole bunch of people from the political process? So this starting point was an important part of the conversations and reflections that guided the choice of activities that were adopted.
You started the story in Vermont, but you started a little earlier than that. You were born in Ireland? When did you become a priest, and why?
I left Ireland when I was 14, with my parents. Two of my oldest sisters and my oldest brother lived here in the US. They had immigrated for economic reasons, because there was really no employment, and no way of getting anywhere in Ireland in the late 50's. My parents didn't want the family split by the ocean, so they brought the rest of us over, and I went to high school in Massachusetts, college in New York, one year of novitiate spiritual training in St. Louis, and six years in this fair city [Washington DC] studying at Oblate College, Catholic University, and at the Episcopal Theological seminary in Virginia. After that I served in different pastoral positions in Vermont, Puerto Rico, Miami, and Lowell MA.
Where did this experience in Vermont lead you, personally?
I went from there to Boston University, to reflect and build on my experience in Brattleboro. Because I understood the political and public sides fairly well, I was quite curious about the private side: the government is doing this, governments in other countries are doing that, but what about private companies, like Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Company, McDonald's? That question was always intriguing. I'm part of a religious congregation, with people in about 67 countries around the world. You would hear or read about the ways that companies were treating their workers in the local town, the salaries they were paying, the way they were fighting unions, the way they were destroying the environment. Understanding how these activities applied differently to different companies, depending on the products they were making or the services they were delivering, became a priority.
In Vermont we began to ask, beyond influencing public policy, how might we influence what companies were doing. You can stop buying their product, or organize a demonstration outside their stores, or you ask their employees about how well they were being treated.
As we reflected on these questions, we discovered an organization that is now 51 years old this year: the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR: http://www.iccr.org). It was founded by an ecumenical group in New York City in 1971, primarily to address the issue of apartheid in South Africa. The second focus was dangerous and destructive products like agent orange that companies were producing and that were being used by the American military in the Vietnam War, a defoliant that was sprayed to remove all the cover in the jungle where other military might be hiding.
So you began to work with ICCR. What were the central issues at the time?
The issue was, how do you get access to the people in those companies who make decisions about where they locate their factories, how they pay their workers, what their environmental policy is, how they respected human rights. OMI through ICCR began to focus on their responsibility as owners of shares in these companies. If you're a shareholder in a company, whether you own one share, or whether you own a million shares, one must ask what responsibility do you have, or what kind of ways do you have to influence the direction of a company?
The answer to this question differs in different jurisdictions because shareholder roles are regulated differently from country to country. In the United States, which is where we were working, every publicly owned company is required to have an annual general meeting, where all of the shareholders are invited. There are rules whereby they do the agenda, and all of that. So we asked, "Who gets to decide what's on the agenda?" It can't just be all management, because then there's no sense in having the meeting; they wouldn’t put anything controversial on the agenda. There is a process whereby shareholders, if you hold a certain number of shares, and you do it in a timely fashion, according to the regulations that are laid out, can file what's called a stockholder resolution. It has to be 200 words or less. It needs to not interfere with ordinary business. But it ends up saying, "Resolved that the board of directors of this company do this and that." So that was the tool.
We found that very interesting and started to explore: who owns the shares? Fast forward to now—practically every person walking around the United States has some access to shares and companies. They may not know that, but if they're in a pension fund, if they're connected to a school that has an endowment, or connected to an organization or institution that has any kind of foundational monies behind it, they're all connected in some way. Or simply, your grandmother may have left you two shares of Exxon Mobil 40 years ago that you didn't notice. You are thereby a part owner with ownership responsibilities. The big pension funds for New York state and California own millions of shares. We worked to get them to wake up, asking whether, instead of trying to address the worker's issues through collective bargaining, debating with the company about salaries, regulations, and safety when negotiating a contract, can you also address these issues through the share owning process?
Where did that lead ICCR?
That piece of the research and action started in the early 1970s, and today in ICCR, we probably cover some 45 different issues. The members come together and they decide on, say, four priorities to work on. We have a couple of general meetings during the year to decide on what those priorities should be, as views may differ. The strategy is basically the same: As you own shares, you have some claim or agency, so you can actually go ahead and act. From year to year, different resolutions are proposed; it varies by year but last year there were 275 resolutions filed with about 125 companies. They often focus on environmental issues, social issues, protecting animals, the quality of your food, obesity: how much sugar is in drinks, you name it. We’re in that part of the year right now.
How did you personally get into this?
We started to look around within our own church: the Oblates, and Catholic churches that we worked with, and others, too. Did they have any holdings? Did they have any funds? And were they invested in the market? And so, lo and behold, we found that many were.
Up until the mid 1960s, early 1970s, most people who had savings or capital, usually put it in the bank, because that was considered the safest place to put it. And they counted on the 2% or 3% interest that they would get annually, that went into their operating budget. Then through more awareness and experience with the stock market they dreamed of returns of 7%, or 8%, or 9%. People said: "I could make a lot more money if I had those funds." If you're doing investments, there's a number of formulas out there. You are trying to get as high a return as you can possibly get with the lowest risk you're willing to take. So you probably won’t put money immediately into effort of Elon Musk to go into space. That's a very risky business, all there in that capsule, that rocket that's lying on the platform; if that blows up, you've lost a lot of money. So, your goal is to diversify where you put the money. You might put it into 200 different companies, or into fixed income. You may buy US or UK treasuries. The rate of return on treasuries is much lower. The rate on equities is higher, because you're taking more risk. So it is only natural to look around in search of increased returns.
With your colleagues in the Oblates?
We have holdings in about 700 companies. We get a list of all of those companies in July and August of every year. We scour through the list, looking for issues. What are some of the concerns that we have? Who's working on it? How much time do we have? And then we file resolutions. Filing resolutions used to be seen as a very adversarial act, because if you were the boss of the company or the vice president for management, basically you came back saying, "So, you don't like the way I'm running the company, or you don't think I'm doing a good enough job?" And we would say, "Well maybe a little bit on some areas. So that was tough in the beginning, because they have lots of ways in which they can exclude you as a shareholder, teams of lawyers who go through every line of your resolution to find a reason to get you off the docket or off the agenda.
But we've also learned along the way, and have become pretty proficient at getting around that. If the company wants to complain, they go to the Securities and Exchange Commission, saying, "We think that the resolution that the Oblates filed can be excluded for these reasons." The Commission acts as the judge. We get to respond: "For these reasons, we don't think so." And then in 30 days, they'll rule, agree with us, or agree with the company. That's the process.
What was your role in ICCR? You chaired the Board for many years.
I became involved in 1985, 15 years after they started, on behalf of my own organization. Individual groups decide if they want to be members or not. It is a membership organization. To be a full member, you have to be faith-based. You can be an associate member if you were not connected to faith: a labor union would be an example, or the Ford Foundation, McArthur Foundation, any of those foundations.
How does faith play into the work that you're doing?
The challenge always was to say, "How do you integrate what you believe in, or the teachings of the Church in this instance, or the temple, or the organization into your investment policy. How are those teachings impacting the decisions your institution or organization is making?" In terms of finance, but also well beyond. How do you behave as a responsible citizen, or in terms of the environment, how do you choose where to put your money, in what bank, or do you want to invest in Coca-Cola, but not in McDonald's or Starbucks. Those are questions you're trying to tease out. Some will decide one way, because they think the people who are running a company are highly ethical, and have a solid track record, and a good reputation, whereas the crew that's running another company has had any number of accusations against them, of fraud, or delinquency, or whatever. Decisions can be on that level. But it could be that you saw something on television about the use of child labor in the factories in Cambodia and Vietnam by Nike and decide not to buy any more Nike tennis shoes, unless they can guarantee to me that there's no child labor in the factory, or in the t-shirt company. That's what we were looking at.
You could take the set of beliefs of the faith tradition, whether it's Catholic, or Methodist, or Jewish, or Baha'is. You're looking for principles and teaching about human dignity, human rights. What does it tell you about the way one should behave towards one's fellow human beings? And more recently, obviously, in terms of our relationship with the environment, which Pope Francis calls our common home. You're going to be looking at companies, not only their human rights policies, but what are their environmental policies? Some will have the potential to be exposed to serious liabilities like oil companies, or energy companies, or mining companies. But you might also think about the dye that's used in clothing. It could be small company with a single product or service that impacts large groups of people. For Ford Motor Company, do they know where the steel that they're putting in their automobiles is coming from? Is it mined in some places where there's huge abuse of human rights, where there is no respect for the people that own the land where they're mining the iron ore, or whatever other minerals they're using?
For the company, the central question quite often is the supply chain, where they get the stuff that goes into their product, upstream, and downstream; how is it marketed etc. after they produce the product, and making sure that, after the end of its life, whether it's a washing machine or a car, somebody just doesn't dump it in the river. Europe is much further ahead than we are in end-of-life responsibility. Whether it's a car, or a washing machine, or a dishwasher, the company bears some responsibility. Every company has to deal with these supply chain issues, both upstream and downstream.
Investment policies go beyond finance. It could involve personnel or administration. If you're an investor in the market, you give your money over to somebody to manage it, unless you're going to do it yourself; do you want to be concerned about the ethical reputation of the company? But they're always going to ask you, "What is the investment policy of the fund? The asset? That forces you to write down how much risk you want to take, what kind of companies you want to invest in. More often, it forces you to say what kind of companies or sectors you don't want to invest in. For instance, I know people who will not have US treasury bonds in their portfolio, even though they're quite profitable, and quite secure, with full faith in the US dollar. And why? Basically, because they disagree with the American military policy and the size of the military in the United States, which is what mostly stands behind this treasury bond. I know other people who won't invest in mining companies, as they feel they're destroying the environment, and thus are totally unethical, with a long legacy of abuse of people working in mines, and of the environment where they do the mining. That's part of the investment policy. You, as an individual, or a family, or a group will come up with a policy, as more and more people are doing. They'll do it on the financial side, which is the risk side but also on the social or environmental side. They'll say, "I've read the holy books: the Koran, or the holy books of Baha'i, or another wisdom tradition, and their teaching says to me that to be consistent with that faith, I need to apply that teaching to the way I do investments.”
A number of my colleagues in the Europe will say, "We don't want to invest in any country that still practices the death penalty." According to their tradition and constitutions, the death penalty has been outlawed. And so, that creates a problem for them, because that eliminates the United States as a country to invest in. Thus a big slice of the investable world is excluded. But some will apply these kinds of exclusions. It could be on pesticides. It could be, you name it. That’s been the easiest thing for investors to implement over the years.
How do you see matters changing over the years?
Around the year 2000, and I connect this specifically to globalization, and to technology, and to big data, there was an important change. The approaches I’ve been talking about in the 1980s and the 1990s, led to lots of sleepless nights; lots of analysis. You had stacks of paper everywhere, and machines weren't working very fast. Now, technology, communication, and speed of operations allows this kind of work to be realized in a few hours and can be done seven days a week. I could put in a code here right now and pull up the control number for the shares that we have in Citigroup, which is having an annual meeting tomorrow morning in New York at 9:30, and vote for the resolution. Previously, if I was going to vote, the vote would've had to be in a week ago, put it in the mailbox, or delivered in person in New York. Somebody would have to count it. Citi has at the moment close to 25 million shareholders, and someone has to count the votes. You can see the difference that technology makes, which accounts for some of the speed. The deadlines are much less rigorous now than they were. And it is easier, less painful. With an assist from software, you might circle, in red, the two or three things in a document that you think are questionable, rather than doing a rewrite of a long document. Thus, after about the year 2000, with technology, with speed, with access to more data, we're able to come up with more clarity and depth of information and chose more readily of what you think the prudent or the faith person, whether it's Catholic, or Protestant, or anybody else, sees as some of the principles that emerge from their tradition and how it should impact their investments.
Human dignity and protecting human rights are important. If a company has an egregious record in terms of human rights, for example Vale, at the tailings dam of the mine in Brumadinho, in Brazil, two or three years ago that collapsed and killed 250 people; or if you were Walmart, or Target, or any other company that had workers in the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh ten years ago, where more than a 1,200, mostly young people lost their lives, you're probably going to conclude, "Those companies don't care about your rights," or, "Protecting and safety of their workers is not something important." We knew some of those companies and immediately asked how they planned to respond. If we didn't like the response, we advanced some suggestions. We are still working with those companies, and they did sign some agreements and the families were compensated. But it's a messy business trying to figure out what the value of a human life is, and how much you should compensate parents who just lost a 17 or 19-year-old child.
The big change has been speed, computers, data, and the fact that you can do this anywhere and in the middle of the night. There’s a huge amount of increased activity now by responsible shareholders.
Do you actively encourage more attention to investments?
I preached about it this past Sunday.
To give you a current example, one of the most discussed companies at the moment is Amazon. Amazon has resisted any efforts on our part to talk about any issues. Because they're so big, they feel they can set the standard, and set the agenda. We've tried in any number of ways. This year, there are 17 stockholder resolutions on the Amazon annual general meeting, which takes place May 25th. That's unheard of. You would usually probably have about five at the most. They will all have to be presented, like any resolution you make at a public meeting. Somebody makes the resolution, somebody gets to second it. Somebody gets to ask a question, and you can do the math: 17, and 10 minutes for each one. That's 170 minutes right there. We have a resolution which is getting a lot of press. It's a very pressing and longstanding issue, one that I've been following for a long time, about tax transparency and accountability. The debate on taxation, particularly among sovereign countries, is, are you paying the appropriate amount of tax, according to our laws? Many companies are operating in about 100 countries, so, the expectation is that they're being transparent about the tax that they owe and that they're paying it. according to each country's laws. But you can't calculate that if they don't disclose it, and most of them don't. A new piece of legislation passed by the European Union two years ago, (a similar one passed here in Washington last December), requires companies to disclose what their tax liabilities were in a number of different countries and make payments that they owe. Ireland had a corporate tax rate of 12%, which was 25% less than the European average. In Dublin, you see all the high-rise buildings put up there by banks, by Microsoft, by Amazon. They've all got headquarters in Dublin. For what reason? There's only 3 million people in the country so it’s not like they're doing a booming retail business there every day. But as long as they have a physical location in the country, they can fulfill their tax bill for the European Union by paying it through Ireland: that’s called profit shifting. These two pieces of legislation, the one in Europe and the one in the United States, are behind our resolution: I think it's number 14 on the list of resolutions.
And this is ICCR?
You'll see the Oblates' name on the resolution. The issue is of longstanding interest to me, because nobody likes taxes, whether it's social security, or value added taxes, whether it's federal or state tax, or the local government. But the reality is, that's how governments function, how they get resources for their budget to be able to pay all the things we want governments to do, whether it's running schools, guaranteeing safe water, enforcing traffic, building better railways. If you're going to exec them to provide those services, they can't do it without the resources. And we expect in fairness that all the citizens of that jurisdiction are contributing to that budget.
Companies were always a part of that. But the problem is that the global financial system is leaky and has many loopholes in this area. It's good for people who do work on Hong Kong, or London, or Frankfurt, or Wall Street, because they're very fast, and they make quick decisions, and they're able to move the capital around to their benefit. The global financial system has all sorts of tax havens. There are about 32 of them: Luxembourg, Ireland, Cayman Islands, Liechtenstein, Guernsey, etc.. If you are creating a fund that you want others to invest in, you look at most of the fine line paperwork, and you'll see that it's housed in a tax haven, and the only thing they have in the tax haven is a post office box. In that building where you find the mailbox, there are hundreds of them. And the only reason they're there is because it helps them to avoid paying taxes. And it's legal. They're not doing anything illegal, but that's the way the system has been hot-wired to continue to benefit people who are in power, and the people who have the wherewithal to spend time hiring lawyers to move their money to a tax efficient or lenient jurisdiction.
Everybody these days wants to talk about reforming the global financial system so that the responsibility and the burden of paying for public services and caring for the planet is shared by all. Pope Francis has spoken often about "rewiring the global financial system," so that the environment and the poor have stronger leverage in the system and they can make sure that it is serving their needs, not only benefitting the very wealthy and powerful like the Jeff Bezos's, or the Elon Musk's, or the Bill Gates's of the world
We've got US oligarchs, just as well as Russian and Chinese oligarchs. How many of them have taken a tax pledge, to pay what they legally should pay in terms of taxes in the jurisdictions where they operate? Some have, but it's very few. Most have a team of lawyers behind them somewhere, looking for ways to avoid paying the taxes that they're supposed to pay. Some of this history goes back to battles we had in Latin America, as capital flight was a tool that the rich and powerful used to avoid paying their fair share. If you were a big landowner, or a factory owner, or a producer in Chile, Brazil, you name it, and you hear that the IMF is about to come out with some predictions, on economic growth, or settlement of debts, you immediately take your money and fly with it: capital flight. You take it out of the country, to a tax haven. Over the years, we have filed a number of resolutions on capital flight. Banks or other financial institutions enable this activity, sometimes unknowingly, so we file the resolution with the financial institutions to say, what policies do you have in place to, first of all, disclose capital flight practices, and refuse to cooperate. Banks these days have two very important principles, first, know your clients (KYC), and second, AML, anti-money laundering. A way to move money, whether it is the Congo, or Namibia, or Malawi, or any country in the world, is to launder it. It comes out somewhere else, and well laundered. These are examples of some of the loopholes in the financial system.
How large is ICCR?
We've got about 370 institutional faith-based members. You have to be an institutional faith-based investor. We have a staff of about 25. There are membership dues, about $10,000 a year. Others, who have larger assets, would probably pay 30 or 40. And we do some fundraising, to fund most projects.
Can you point to some particular achievements?
I would say the Nike victory was big. We looked for factories that are hiring children who shouldn't be working in factories, because it was dangerous. And Nike basically said, "we give up, because you're going to keep following us and hunting us down around the world." Their next decision was, "We will publish publicly every factory in the world and where it is that we make our products." That was in the mid 1990s, and that was key. A newspaper reporter or a photographer could point to so and so, who's 13, and Mary who's 12, and here are their pictures, and here are the factories. The company realized they were going to spend money repairing the damage to their reputation, the loss of customers, or the loss of shareholders, so you saw a new push for transparency. Some legislation has been important: the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, for example, also the Alien Tort Claims Act. That's a strange piece of legislation, passed in 1767 in the United States to go after pirates. About 15 or 25 years ago, a group of very creative lawyers looked at the statute and said, "This could apply in this instance to these kinds of behaviors," and they were successful. It had something to do with repatriation of goods that were deemed to have been stolen or illicitly gathered. A lot of that kind of new legislation is going on, both in the European Union and in the US, around instruments in the financial world, such as derivatives or credit default swaps, because those are the two big markets. If you get harmonization between those two bodies on how derivatives, or credit default swaps, death nature swaps, any that appear on your balance sheet, then you've got a lot of leverage. They're only slowly defining some of that legislation in the last 15 or 20 years, and that has been a huge boom to our work. The UN has been fantastic on legislation, treaties, particularly on human rights, with John Ruggie, defining the duty that the countries or companies have to protect and promote human rights within its jurisdiction or operations.
Alongside the obligations of governments, those of the private sector are of equal import. Business never goes along quietly. They've created voluntary associations that come together as a sector: mining sector, apparel sector, food sector. They define a certain set of criteria and principles to which they commit themselves. That’s all fine, but then comes the challenge: show us how you're verifying this. What's the criteria? And do you ever kick anybody out of the club, because they're not following the principles? The business and human rights sectors are huge. Companies prefer to come up with a code of conduct on any area and define it, rather than have it defined in a piece of legislation. If there is a piece of legislation, the Justice Department and the judiciary has to get involved and they come under a lot of pressure. If it's a voluntary code they can report on things they are doing and it is less onerous. It gives them a bit more control over the process.
Where do you see this going?
It’s never been busier. Before, we would be happy if we got 3% supporting shareholders who were voting for the resolution; the 3% threshold allows you to bring it back next year. Then the Supreme Court came down with the ruling Citizens United, which deemed corporations to be persons, that therefore had certain protective rights. That woke up a lot of investors and people who are shareholders. Suddenly on certain resolutions, particularly on environmental matters, we were looking at 30%, 40%, even 75%. Many resolutions don't compel the company to do something, because they're advisory and you would generally say to them, "Well you better read the tea leaves, or you better read the writing on the wall. Because if you think it's going to go away next year, it's coming back! Last year, Engine No1, a very small hedge fund, did a terrific organizing campaign against Exxon Mobil. We've been at them for years to diversify their board of directors. For some time, companies wouldn't put the pictures of the board of directors on the website. You have to vote for members of the board of directors individually. They tried all sorts of ways, so you wouldn't be able to find out who was who. Last year this little hedge fund got enough votes to replace three members of Exxon’s board of directors. It was unheard of, a first time, unprecedented. So now Exxon is trying to figure out what to do with three new board members. You'll probably see more of that. I have thoroughly enjoyed the last three or four years, because it's been much easier to do, and much more engaging. And the business community takes us much more seriously.
Another area we've put effort in to is the amount of money that companies spend on contributions to politicians and lobbying legislation. They would give you the gross number, the aggregate number, and then funnel it through the Chamber of Commerce or through trade associations. But they would never actually tell you, "Oh, we spent $500 million on that piece of legislation to make sure it didn't pass." Now, there are new rules and they have to disclose the aggregate money that they spend on lobbying, which is actually shareholder money, but they're just taking it off the top, contributions they give to politicians. You're looking for much more disclosure with some of these companies. There are thousands of companies out there that we haven't even touched, but we feel that if we get at some of the bigger ones, the leaders, Ford Motor Company, Volkswagen, whatever, maybe it will trickle down. No guarantee that it will, but at least it raises the bar in terms of where this goes.
Is there more that can be done to make people care, within church communities? I've just never really heard this being preached in churches to any extent.
It's been slow. You don't want to be seen as biased. In a congregation, you've got people want to vote for Macron, or people who want to vote for Marine Le Pen, or want to vote for Trump, and are opposed to Biden. So political stuff is important to stay away from. On the private side, you have to make sure that you connect what you are saying in some way to the beliefs, the teachings of faith, whether it's on human rights, on caring for the environment, on the issues of health. Obesity is a huge problem in the United States. About six companies (soft drinks, fast food) fight questioning around food, like reducing the size of drinks sold in New York City, or how much sugar Coca-Cola has in its formula for Coke. The battles have not impacted the number of people who buy Coca-Cola much, but to move a trend forward, you really need only about 15%.
In terms of international policy, politics, and political science, the role of the private sector needs an awful lot more attention. People focus on what's going on in Congress, and what policy makers and the political leaders are doing. But when you look at the balance sheets of companies, they dwarf the money that countries spend. Multinational companies have larger budgets than all but 50 countries. They have far more leverage and an awful lot more influence. Marketing is the key. They show you something on television and suddenly you think you have to have it, or it's better than what you have at home, so you sacrifice to buy a different computer from Apple, or from Dell, or whoever you're going with. That's huge leverage.
We are not seeing yet a mass revolution in terms of hundreds of thousands becoming active through churches. It's the quality of the leadership in the churches, and in civil society. One positive example is the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury has done great work recently with mining companies (he used to work for the oil industry). Many of the larger mining companies have their headquarters in London. The Vatican is slow. I've been working with them on some guidelines and maybe they will soon come out with them. It's a big bureaucracy, and it's been around for a couple of thousand years, so transitioning to more active ownership and activity in this sphere is slow in coming. But more and more faith groups are looking at how their faith informs the decisions they make in financial markets. From the beginning in any wisdom books of the faith traditions, many of them would say, "If I had $500 and I was going to lend it, I would lend it to you at a different rate, if you were a member of the church or the temple. If you're not, the interest rate would be higher." As you read some of the old teachings, that's how they felt they could trust you, if you were a member of church or the community. If they didn't really know you, then the risk was going to go up. So, the way you cover risk is to charge more interest.
So you take those principles or basic anecdotes and say, "How does that apply in 2022?" There were heated debates in Florence, and Venice, and that part of the world, where the banking industry started in the 14th century, Questions about how much interest, or how much insurance do I have to charge to be able to safely get back the goods that I put on the ship? They did not discuss that only in financial terms, but in terms of ethical and moral responsibility. While we rarely have those debates in public today, similar fundamental questions are surfacing. So I'm very hopeful.