VICE Discovers Capitalism, Finds Itself Both Horrified And Aroused

Strangely, VICE is not into vice stocks.
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Lurching into adulthood is big and scary and hard. If this holds true for millennials, it's doubly so for that self-appointed organ of youthful indiscretion and lifestyle-brand subversion, VICE Magazine. What began as a scrappy Canadian counter-culture rag has grown into a full-blown media empire, with all the contradictions that entails.

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As VICE grows up, so too does its audience and contributor base. Alongside those perennial adulthood concerns – e.g., giving up wild party drugs for more refinedadult ones, or (horror of horrors) going to actual weddings – there's that whole problem of money, particularly how to make it grow. As one VICE writer recently learned after inheriting some cash and dumping it into mutual funds, stewarding one's wealth entails participating in some aspects of capitalism that might not exactly follow counter-cultural principles. Here he is after first buying into some funds:

After an hour or two, I got really bored of waiting to get rich and decided to find out more about the funds I'd invested in. The website I used has a handy "x-ray" feature that can look inside the funds you've put money in and tell you which companies you have the biggest stakes in. The results were a bit of a shock.

In my top ten were BP, Shell Oil, British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco, GlaxoSmithKline, and AstraZeneca. That's Big Oil, Big Tobacco, and Big Pharma. All I needed to round out my evil capitalist portfolio were a couple of arms companies and a stake in News International.

Although over-educated millennials have been taught to believe that oil and tobacco are both going the way of the pay phone, our VICE guy is shocked to learn that both have proved solid investments of late. Yet he didn't manage to note the irony that he had literally invested in what the market sometimes calls “vice stocks” (and which, to be fair, do kind of fit a kind of early-VICE nihilist ethos).

Even worse, according to our novice rentier, was that macro events that spell disaster for the liberal imagination – Trump's election, Brexit moving forward – actually benefited his portfolio:

Something weird was happening. Every time good things happened in the news, I lost money. Every time bad things happened, I got richer. It was like I'd taken some weird bet against the world. And in a way, I suppose I had.

You might expect VICE guy to give up here and just return his cash to a shoebox under the bed with his principles intact. But aside from ditching “some of the more evil stocks,” he stayed invested. Such is modern life. You might not have a choice about participating at some level, but at least you can gripe about it. There is no ethical investment under capitalism, he concludes:

Even if you don't directly invest in bad companies, the world is so interconnected that you'll probably benefit from them somehow anyway. All you can do is try to be as unethical as possible and take comfort from the fact that the next time something terrible happens, it's probably helping out your retirement fund.

VICE guy isn't the only one doing some soul-searching over the morality of investing these days. In fact, his grudging agnosticism might end up being more coherent than the efforts of certain fund companies to market ethical ESG investments to touchy investors. See, for instance, the Wall Street Journal's recent peek into State Street's SPDR S&P 500 Fossil Fuel Free ETF:

Despite the ETF’s name, it owned stakes in, for example, Transocean Ltd., the offshore-drilling company implicated in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; Southern Co. , a utility that relies on coal and natural gas for 80% of its generating capacity; and Valero Energy Corp., a major gasoline refiner.

Oops! Surely it wasn't the intention of the do-gooders concerned with the slow boiling of the planet to extract surplus from those helping boil it. But the world is a complicated place. Sometimes ETFs promising to be fossil fuel free invest in companies that dig up fossil fuels and sell them to be burned.

Anyway, State Street ended up ameliorating that issue by changing the fund's name to the more accurate SPDR S&P 500 Fossil Fuel Reserves Free ETF. Consider those contradictions overcome.

How I Accidentally Invested in Big Tobacco [VICE]
How Oil, Coal and Wal-Mart Became Part of ‘Socially Responsible’ ETFs [WSJ]

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