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[Review] 'The Clean Money Revolution: Reinventing Power, Purpose, and Capitalism'

October 27, 2017

I'm not sure what to think about The Clean Money Revolution: Reinventing Power, Purpose, and Capitalism, Joel Solomon's memoir-cum-manifesto about the importance of taking "a mission-based" approach to finance and investment. I certainly appreciate Solomon's passion for the environment and his sincere belief that we need to move from an economic system built on exploitation to a more "regenerative" system. But I didn't much care for his omission of the poor and people of color in his call for "revolution," or his apparent blindness to his own white privilege; for the many bold claims backed up by engaging anecdotes but little data; or for his limited understanding of the world of private foundations. To be fair, Solomon, the chair of Renewal Funds, a mission-based venture capital firm, acknowledges that the book is written from the perspective "of an older, rich, white male heterosexual," and he "apologize[s] in advance for [the] narrow context and perspective." Still, the book has some glaring blind spots that undermine its impact and, ultimately, expose the superficiality of its premise.

Cover_The_Clean_Money_Revolution_BookLet's start with the positive. The Clean Money Revolution is full of interesting personal anecdotes, making it read more like a memoir than a self-help investment guide. Solomon has led a very interesting life and has played a part in growing many consumer brands that have become household names, including Stonyfield Farms and Ben & Jerry's. He grew up in Chattanooga and, after graduating from Columbia University, spent his early twenties bumming around the western United States. Following a diagnosis of PKD (polycystic kidney disease), he began to look into organic food and "healthy" living and eventually landed in an "intentional community" of "gypsy gardeners" on Cortes Island,  at the head of Georgia Strait between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island: "I was 25 with long hair and a bushy beard," he writes. "I rarely wore shoes. It was a good time." On the island, at something called Linnaea Farm, "an early model of money transformed by intentional 'cleaning'," Solomon developed an appreciation for the environment and a passion for organic food systems. It's also where he met Drummond Pike, "an early adopter social entrepreneur" who went on to found the Tides Foundation, as well as Robert and Penny Cabot, old-money philanthropists who would later influence his investment strategies.

Solomon eventually accepted a caretaking position at OrcaLab on the even more remote Hanson Island, where he spent months at a time alone, communing with nature and observing the "complexity, diversity, and interdependence" of the island's ecosystem; reading widely in philosophy, history, and anthropology; and developing what would become a lifelong passion for self-reflection and contemplation. Then he received a $50,000 payout from one of his father's real estate investments — which he invested in Hollyhock Farm, a property on Cortes Island that today is a not-for-profit leadership learning center, and Stonyfield, then a nonprofit organic farming school with seven cows.

Soon after, Solomon's father died and he received a $3 million inheritance. The rest of the book details his (usually) successful investments in small businesses focused on natural food systems and local communities. Many of the stories Solomon has to tell are inspiring, and his sincerity is apparent. But it is difficult, at times, not to question his assumption that readers will relate to his adventures in finance, or be interested in his investing advice. About a third of the way through the book, for instance, he observes: "If you have more than enough money, there is a vast opportunity to move capital from stock markets and massive corporations to dynamic small businesses that generat[e]  innovation, relationship, and community."  If is only a two-letter word, but it conveniently elides an assumption that undermines the tale Solomon has to tell: capitalism can be transformed from something inherently exploitative and immoral into something regenerative and moral — but only by those with the capital to do so.

With his father gone, Solomon decides to move to Nashville, where he gets serious about investing, or as he puts it: "I…cut my hair, bought a suit and a Saab, and made my first business card." If he seems oblivious to the privilege that allowed him, an Ivy League graduate, to ignore the ordinary economic concerns that dog most people, adopt a bohemian lifestyle as if it were an old pair of jeans, and, inheritance in hand, seamlessly slide back into the world of business and finance, that's because, well, he is. What's more, the perfunctory way in which he describes those transitions echoes his rather glib call for a makeover of the U.S. economy. Although he uses the term "revolution" in the title of the book, he really is calling for capitalism to be improved, not overthrown, while his definition of "clean money" — "money aligned with a purpose beyond self-interest" — supposes more of an "evolution" than a revolution. Indeed, the winners in the new economy Solomon proposes bear a remarkable resemblance to the winners in our current system, as his investments in Nashville's urban rejuvenation underscore.

Those investments run the gamut from real estate in run-down neighborhoods to "indie entrepreneurs" and small businesses that reflect the city's unique identity and culture. Solomon calls this his "one-mile radius strategy": "Working with business, city government, artists, and community groups, we were able to help bring forth lively, walkable, and creative districts." And he subsequently expands on how this strategy can be scaled from a single-city model to a regional one. Yet while he earnestly sells his readers on the many benefits of urban renewal, he acknowledges that those benefits don't accrue to everyone, writing that while the rejuvenation of a faded urban core "looks good for those who arrive,… it can be a disaster for those who already live there." If gentrification is the price cities must pay for prosperity in the twenty-first century, Solomon has only a shrug to offer those who are marginalized by this new form of capitalism.

The Clean Money Revolution ends with a discussion of "the $100 trillion question." As boomers age into senescence over the next twenty years, Solomon writes, $100 trillion will be passed on to their children and grandchildren. But what Solomon tends to ignore in his analysis are the unseen costs of a system that has generated staggering levels of economic and political inequality. And he wonders whether the beneficiaries of this unprecedented transfer of wealth will behave differently than their parents. He certainly hopes so and appeals to them to embrace his vision of the future, even offering advice from other social entrepreneurs and social finance experts at the end of each chapter.

Solomon is an optimist at heart, and he is optimistic that Gen Xers and millennials will be able to shift from an ecologically destructive form of capitalism to one that is more sustainable. Maybe he's right. Still, the model he is proposing doesn't offer something radically new so much as it repackages old ideas and ways of doing things into something "better." Yes, it may serve to  reduce inequality, alter some power dynamics, and blunt the harshest excesses of neoliberal capitalism. But a reorganization of who is exploiting whom is likely to be of little comfort for most marginalized and vulnerable communities — communities that are unlikely to wield any real power in either model.

Stephen Payne is a PhD candidate at George Washington University. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.

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