Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Run Away Turn Away Run Away

Back in the seventies, when talk was cheap unless it was impossible, Dad took the change on his dresser and bought a few shares each of a utility stock for Daria, Todd and me. Because we were young, stupid and interested in other young, stupid people, we forgot all about the stocks until about ten years ago, when our names turned up on one of those lost property lists and we just about had aneurysms trying to remember a time before Travolta.

Don't get excited. Dad's pocket change is still pocket change. What makes this interesting is that now the utility sends me annual reports and I, with my tiny handful of shares and even tinier capacity for listening to grownups talk, try to read them.

The timing of this year's report is also interesting. Last week, I looked over the utility's website for information about green energy programs. The site seemed strangely dense to me, by which I mean it was particularly opaque and lacking information I could clearly and simply grasp. I just plain didn't understand what I was reading, I thought, so I wrote the utility's investor relations department a letter asking simple questions like, "Where are descriptions of your green energy programs?" and "What do you mean, you're proud of being the third largest nuclear energy producer in the country when there is not now and never will be a safe place on the planet to put nuclear waste?" This letter has not yet received a response.

So I try to read the annual report. It comes with voting materials. Every year, stockholders are supposed to elect a board of directors. The candidates all look alike to me: they're all old white men. Even the women are white men. The lone black man looks like an old white man. Is that ideology or bad lighting? The first time through the annual report, I look specifically for green energy accomplishments. You'd think these folks would be anxious to crow about how they're helping us move toward a healthier planet - but no. I find nothing, so I look for green energy proposals and still find nothing. I'm starting to think I need stronger glasses or a stiff drink and can't decide which would help more but it doesn't matter because I have neither.

So I'm supposed to vote on stuff. Fourteen people want to be on the board. I immediately decide I can't smell sulfur well enough from this distance to decide who's more and who's less evil, so I skip over that and hope someday the utility fields a slate of less voracious lower mammals. Herbivores, even. I might be able to distinguish them from the old white men.

Question 2 is about ratifying independent auditors. The board thoughtfully tells me it wants me to vote in favor of this proposal. I'll...read that proposal again. Nobody in their right mind wants you to watch them, and hire other people to watch them. So I'm suspicious.

Question 3 might as well be written in Welsh.

Question 4 starts out sounding like more impenetrable hooey about scientific...wait! It's the environmental questions and answers I've been looking for, but it's only a proposal for a report and the board recommends I vote against it. Wait, what? The question is long and worded like any blog entry at Hullabaloo, which may only be inches over my head. The board responds that it's doing plenty on environmental issues. I would transcribe the proposal, the resolution and the board's response but I suspect I'd need a legal team by suppertime. Anyway, the arrogance of the board's response is freaking unbelievable. It reads a lot like, "Hush, shareholders! Don't you worry your pretty little heads about it." By the time I slogged through the whole thing and got to the end of it, I wondered if I should go outside and picket my own damn house for investing in an eeeeeeeevil empire.

Question 5 seals the deal: executive compensation. For the life of me, I can't figure out what I'm reading until I get to one line I hear clear as a bell: "In our opinion, [the utility] already provides Mr. [Old White Man] very generous compensation." A list of unbelievably shameful, gigantic numbers with lots of zeros follows. Jill's recent Brilliant@Breakfast post about horseshit executive overcompensation packages bleeding the middle class and the poor dry came to mind and I felt a little like I might faint. I didn't faint. The board advises me to vote against this proposal.

There just aren't words for how special this makes me feel. It's as if everything I speak, write, protest and vote against came to my house and asked for my blessing before it fucked over its customers, of whom I will never be one. So I'm going to read the annual reports again, read the questions again and I'm going to vote against this douchebaggery but I have bigger questions now.

If you've come this far, you're interested in the political ramifications of decisions in daily life. That - and melted cheese - is what Poor Impulse Control is about, and so I find myself with a decision to make and I just don't have the knowledge to make it. I have no vast fortune to make or lose here. Do I hang onto this stock so I can vote against this company's firmly 1970 policies? Should I sell this stock and invest my pocket change into companies more in line with my politics? I think there must be companies that treat their employees decently and don't fuck up the planet to turn a profit but where? How does one find them?

I am kind of moving toward the idea that this company is so completely backward I can't justify associating with it in any form but I don't know. The idea of being an environmentally conscious fifth column is appealing.

What's the buzz? What do you think? I'd love to hear better ideas.


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