Three weeks ago I withdrew most of my retirement savings, paid my taxes up front, and paid off the mortgage on our family home, the balance on a car loan and most family credit card debt. Interestingly, the banker who handled our mortgage pay-off revealed that we were the fourth family to pay off a home mortgage that month. He lauded us for our choice to go debt free.
Our family now lives on a cash basis, spending only what we can afford. At least for now, we are also saving a significant portion of our monthly income. If, however, it continues to look as though savings accounts, too, are threatened by machinations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), our family may use the banks even less.
I chose to do this in spite of so-called experts who insist this decision will cost me money. On the contrary, this decision has brought great benefits to our family.
Before I made this choice, our family simplified its life as much as it could. We sold a big house and moved to a much smaller one. We began to grow much of our own produce and put in a small fruit garden. I traded a job that kept me away from the family for one that gives me much more time with my husband and son. All these were good choices. But I continued to be disturbed by what I felt was my complicit participation in an unjust system. My retirement account was 'banking' on the world continuing in its present way, at least long enough for me to draw upon this investment strategy tied to global realities contributing to great social and environmental ills.
The current culture of fear has paralyzed our middle-class, which used to be a significant participant in the shaping of our country's approach to life. Now we allow ourselves to live as if we are powerless and must wait for others to safeguard our future.
At this moment, some participants at the Climate Conference in Peru are emphasizing the need for universities and banks to divest themselves of all fossil fuel investments. I tried to do this on a personal level by working with financial advisors who promised to "green" my investing strategy. Unfortunately, given the current investment system, even they could not completely eliminate my retirement account's connections to fossil fuels. Or to weapons. Or to a myriad of companies that contribute to our planet's present compromised state. For example, you can't develop oil and gas without the large machines that make these operations possible.
Also, colleagues and I had experienced over the past years the intensely worrying losses caused by one investment 'bubble' after another. I grew tired of hoping all would be well in the long term. Gambling has never interested me. And what a strange system we have. Corporate law protects corporate officers from prosecution, corporations that bring harm are seldom penalized sufficiently to make them rethink their strategies, and yet--individual investors must again and again absorb losses from the reckless investment and business practices of the companies to which their investment accounts are tied.
I must report that replacing so-called investments with an end to debt and the knowledge that our family is living within its means has liberated me from the unvoiced hope that, somehow, the current socio-economic system could remain largely intact even as we attempt to address the huge problems of population growth, economic disparity, corporate greed, ineffective/complicit/cowardly national and state governments, and climate change--all of which need to be addressed immediately. The current systems are more invested in their own survival than they are in the wellbeing of this planet and its life.
This has been scary. I won't lie. But I find it empowering to unplug from that aspect of the economic system significantly responsible for our current state of affairs. Now when I fight 'the system,' I no longer have the nagging sense of being two-faced. I can now whole-heartedly work for this world's transformation.
If enough middle-class people choose to turn their backs on contemporary, and risky, investment strategies, we could exert significant pressure on wealthy individuals and businesses that rely on a sea of middle-class investment accounts to make their financial games, and gains, possible. Why should we shore up the very people who are robbing us and destroying the planet?
What would be amazing would be a middle-class revolution in which we all withdrew our dollars from a corrupt investment system and redirected those funds in ways that brought tangible and permanent benefits to us. Our choice to abandon Wall Street, in whole or in part, could effect change in this country more powerfully and more quickly than any corporate self-regulation, congressional oversight, legislation or rule making could do.
I have grown tired of waiting for electeds, judges and bureaucrats to represent the people. We the people are this country. We have options. We can claim our power. And in so doing we can help each other and ourselves. How crazy is this time that what I am proposing is considered 'riskier' than leaving investments in the hands of a system that has demonstrated for years its willingness to gamble and lose our money?
If you are middle-class and own stocks and bonds, maybe it's time to stop worrying about if they will 'recover.' Perhaps there is a new way for us to show our love for this land and its people. We can turn our back on Wall Street. We can still pressure universities and banks to divest themselves of fossil fuel accounts, but there is actually a lot more to be done than that. We can buy and invest locally. We can live as much as possible without debt. We can live within our means.
The middle-class could lead the charge in a new approach to the 21st century.