Corporate capitalism seems more complicated now than when I was twenty-two years old, thought the WTO, IMF and World Bank were evil incarnate, and didn’t want to admit that corporations could be an effective organizational form, markets a dynamic wealth-generating system, and capital guided by ethics as well as greed.
But a few industries and professions remain unambiguously villainous, and they converge in a story told in the New York Times Magazine by Ben Heller, a hedge fund executive responsible for his firm’s investments in “emerging markets.”
Of course, just as a mask and gun don’t make someone a robber, it’s possible that Heller did his work without enabling the plunder of the world’s poorest regions, where labor and environmental protections — if not basic human rights — are non-existent. But it seems unlikely.
In lamenting the carelessness that had sickened his profession, Heller describes how it finally infected him. Projects that he would once have dismissed as economically dubious he now approved. “Some of these decisions today make me blush,” he writes. “Anybody out there care for a small Argentine oil field? I’ve been assured that the angry gang of Mapuche activists blockading it will be gone soon.”
The Mapuche are an indigenous group who live in Chile and Argentina. Impoverished and historically oppressed, they’re currently engaged in lawsuits against Pioneer Natural Resources and the Apache Corporation — two American oil companies charged with stealing their land — and Repsol-YPF, a Spanish-Argentinian combine who want to drill near the headwaters of the rivers that feed the Mapuche’s ancestral lands. Their claims echo those made against Chevron, who over several decades turned swaths of the Amazon rainforest into a cancerous pit.
Heller was probably — hopefully — making a joke, not describing one of his investments. It wasn’t very funny, and hints at something easily forgotten now: fiscal mistakes staggered the global financial system, but its flaws were often moral, too.