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08/05/2014

John Lennon Said It Best: “Living is Easy with Eyes Closed"


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I was floored by this* Saturday’s New York Times article, “Seeing a Supersize Yacht as a Job Engine, Not a Self-Indulgence.”  I was amazed not only by how the subject of the article, Mr. Jones, rationalized his extraordinary consumption habits, but also by the mere fact that the article was published.

Mr. Jones of St. Louis, we learn, is living the “American dream.”  Now in his mid 70s, still married to his high school sweetheart, and apparently a natural born salesman, he built Jones Pharma and sold it for $3.4 billion in 2000 (well done, and good timing).  From an earlier 2010 article, it appears that Jones’s personal take from the sale was about $500 million, of which he put 10 percent in a family foundation.  I guess tithing is alive and well in St. Louis.  With the remaining $450 million, the Joneses are living large in a 33,000- square-foot house in St. Louis, and with several other homes, a Gulfsteam V, and, the subject of the article, a $34 million, 164-foot, custom-built yacht.

To be fair, such a yacht is not extravagant by billionaire oligarch standards. Larry Ellison recently downsized, and sold his 452-foot Rising Sun to David Geffen, his second super yacht.  Paul Allen's Octopus measures in at 414 feet - his second boat is only 300 feet.  Who knew you needed two?

Mr. Jones sounds like a nice man.  Charitable toward the underprivileged in St. Louis in particular, focused on education, and the homeless.  And he shares his good fortune with his old “pre-success” friends, inviting them on his jet and yacht all over the world.  Nice.

What floored me was how he rationalized spending $34 million on his new yacht and how uncritically the author Paul Sullivan bought into that rationalization.  According to Sullivan, “Mr. Jones said he wanted to encourage other wealthy people to think about how their opulent lifestyles could provide jobs just as their charity helps people in need.”  The story goes on to report how his $34 million purchase order in 2013 helped revive the Christensen Yachts, which had been forced, out of necessity, to diversify into manufacturing wind turbines and smaller vessels.  I guess until Mr. Jones got his mojo back, the mega-yacht purchasing crowd was still laying low following the Wall Street-induced economic collapse.  Now that’s the leadership we’ve been waiting for!

Mr. Jones is, however, on to something.  Both investment and consumption decisions have broad implications and multiplier effects, including the job creation that is at the heart of Mr. Jones’s argument.  But in the 21st century, a new and far more nuanced understanding of financial stewardship than Mr. Jones’s is required of the very wealthy.  And it can, and must, change the course of history.  Let me explain:

  • As we know, inequality has reached levels not seen since feudal times in this country.  History teaches that such highly unequal societies devolve into either a police state or revolution.  This reality alone demands, among other things, “conspicuous under-consumption” by the wealthy, and vastly more strategically directed philanthropy. 
  • We are in ecological overshoot, using up more nature every year than the earth regenerates on its own.  This means excessive consumption “because they can” by the “most successful Americans” among us impedes others now and in the future from having access to a fair share of nature, including a safe climate to carry on life as we know it.  Because of the scale of today’s global economy, this is our new reality, and it is unlike anything we have encountered in the past.
  • Few things are more wasteful of our atmosphere’s finite ability to absorb greenhouse gases than a large, fossil-fuel powered yacht.  Mr. Jones’s boat burns 3.75 gallons of diesel per nautical mile (not miles per gallon).  The fuel tanks of Mr. Allen’s Octopus cost $900,000 to fill up (in the U.S., twice that on the French Riviera) and burns a grotesque 28 gallons per nautical mile (more if it’s in a hurry).  Imagine a gluttonous man in a lifeboat dumping water over his head to keep cool knowing it would cause others to die of thirst later.  Someday soon, this will not seem like a strained analogy.
  • Never in the history of civilization has there been such an investment imperative as the transition off our fossil-fuel energy system and onto renewables, estimated at $30 trillion over the next decades.  This investment imperative, not consumption, is where we need leadership from the Mr. Joneses of the world.
  • Which leads to my final point.  Mr. Jones missed a great opportunity.  The shipyard had already diversified into wind turbine blades and smaller (more fuel efficient) boats.  Imagine if he had opted for a smaller boat, perhaps crafted out of sustainably harvested wood rather than toxic and unrecyclable composites and with an innovative hybrid electric power system that needs price insensitive early adopters.  Perhaps even a sailboat of all things! Either way, he could have put in an order for five of them, and shared them with all his friends so they could still go cruising together (and put them out for charter in the "sharing economy") while helping stimulate the vital transition of the cruising boat industry in the process.  At the same time, he could have invested in the company and helped them accelerate their diversification into wind turbines as a second line of business and actually survive long-term, since manufacturing 160-foot yachts is likely a dead end in the real world.  Think how much more valuable and empowering those jobs could have been if the company was at the vanguard of two industry transitions. 

There are many entrepreneurs busy at work all around the world helping drive the transition to more regenerative economies supporting healthy and resilient livelihoods.  Spencer Beebe, head of Ecotrust across the river from the shipyard in Portland, Oregon, is one such entrepreneur who writes in the latest issue of Commonplace magazine, “My forty years of conservation work has focused on practical ways to integrate ecology and economics, to promote conservation, while creating jobs.”

We need more such leadership and “job creation” that regenerates natural and social capital.  And please save the rationalization of excessive consumption, which is just the example we don’t need to admire at this time. I can’t think of a better way to bring out the pitchforks than by burning that much fuel as a luxury in the carbon constrained world we are heading into, a world where we must figure out how not to burn 80% of the fossil fuel reserves we’ve already discovered if we are to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. 

But it is not altogether fair to single out Mr. Jones as our whipping boy.  We are all, in the developed world, complicit in a lifestyle that, when analyzed objectively, is immoral, given the carbon budget truth we must face up to, and the inequities of our current economic system.  This truth hits harder as the assets we have the responsibility to steward grows.  All outlets have inescapable consequences, whether the money is channeled into consumption, investment, or philanthropy.

Welcome to the new meaning and awesome responsibility of financial stewardship in the 21st century.  

—John Fullerton

John Fullerton is the founder and president of the Capital Institute. He is also the principal of Level 3 Capital Advisors, LLC, an investment firm focused on high impact sustainable private investments. This article originally appeared 7/30/14*, on his blog, The Future of Finance.


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