Money Left on the Table

As an entrepreneur and a civic activist, I hear this often. The perfect phrase for getting your brain’s amygdala all worked up over loss aversion, the psychological fear of losing (reportedly twice as powerful as the desire to gain). I’ve been told by potential investors my company is leaving money on the table by not outsourcing at every corner, by barring customers that we know won’t benefit from our services, and by only taking investors that share our social mission.

More recently, I heard the phrase at a City Council hearing in my community of Portland, OR. We were discussing divesting our city funds from corporate securities and, in the part where we were trying to understand the financial implications, the city’s Treasurer gave an estimate based on last year’s performance. But before leaving the number to hang in midair, she added the caveat that judging by the strength of corporate investments in Q1 of this year, she “would anticipate we’d be leaving more than that on the table”. I flinched in my seat.

Our investigations into these corporate securities had revealed Thai fishing boat slaves, melting glaciers, and privatized prison victims. None of those aspects of the exchange get to be left on the table. We only get to leave money on the table. And you’re a bona fide idiot for leaving it there. With this example, let’s say rather than supporting some of the horrendous practices we uncovered, we invested all those city funds into homegrown entrepreneurs with typical main street businesses. Study after study shows that investment in this often-overlooked sector creates good jobs, increases neighborhood walkability, increases tax revenue…even increases public health and safety. So how much are we leaving on the table when we invest in Wall Street? How do we put all these ingredients of community into a pan and pull one number out of the oven to say, “Ah! Look what you would have left on the table!”?

What about when “dollarizing” is wholly inappropriate like child slaves working chocolate plantations on the Ivory coast? Do we value each individual life like the US government death benefit of $500,000 given to families of fallen soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan or the $50,000 as that’s the international standard health insurance plans use worldwide to establish whether they should fund a procedure? Or maybe we use the going rate for an Ivory coast child slave, which is approximately $30. How much money is Nestlé or Mars Inc leaving on the table by having child slaves in their supply chains? Do those lives matter or just the revenue lost if/when first world customers start giving a damn?

We need to learn to leave the money on the table or get a new table that reflects real exchanges and true costs. While this would be lovely as a global or national movement, it really just starts with each of us adopting a broader exchange mindset that incorporates more of our values. Even something simple like paying a little extra for a locally-made bag (if you can) that’ll keep more money local–and long outlast any cheap bag you might’ve purchased–is a move towards this new architecture. Name why you’re leaving money on the table. Tell others that you’re doing it. Reality is a construct, right? So let’s use our brains to construct one with less suffering in the world by truly supporting each other.