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A Choice Worth Making

A RECENT story in BusinessWeek magazine posed a question that seemed routine. Which credit card, the magazine asked, offers the best "value"?The story ran down the usual list of features - interest rates, annual fees, and the like. The assumption was that "value" means just one thing: get the most material benefit while giving the least. But what about values, such as support for clean air and water? Conventional economics keeps the question of value separate from the larger things people care about. But an entrepreneur named Peter Barnes is trying to change that. He's doing it with a new long-distance service that offers something that the marketplace claims to give but usually doesn't: real choice. In the 1970s, Barnes was a cause-minded writer for the New Republic magazine, who left journalism to work on the presidential campaign of Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma. When that campaign fizzled, Barnes did some brooding over his life goals. "I had come to believe that revolution, in the apocalyptic sense, was not likely to occur in America in my lifetime," Barnes wrote later, "nor was it the proper way to transform American society. Rather, it seemed to me that democratic alternatives to corporate capitalism would have to emerge from the womb of capitalism itself, much the way capitalist institutions once sprang to life inside a withering feudalism." His first venture was an employee-owned solar-energy company in San Francisco that grew into a $2 million-a-year business. Then he started Working Assets, a money-market fund and Visa card that sets aside a portion of each purchase for environmental and other causes. Last year the fund gave more than $500,000 to organizations that the 100,000 cardholders themselves select by ballot. Now, Working Assets is launching a long-distance telephone company that puts a new twist on the AT&T slogan "Reach Out and Touch Someone." One day a month - called "Free Speech Day customers will be able to call selected government and corporate officials absolutely free. This phone company will turn consumers into citizens. Working Assets is just one of the socially concerned companies that arose quietly amid the me-first-ism of the Reagan years. Ben & Jerry's, the ice cream company, for example, donate s 7.5 percent of pretax profits to environmental causes. It also pays Vermont dairy farmers a price above the depressed market rate for milk. Working Assets, Ben & Jerry's, and many others are not mere "green marketeers," seeking to cash in on environmental concerns. Rather, they are businesses founded to give value that includes values. One would particularly expect conservatives to applaud this trend: What better alternative to government regulation than businesses that do good on their own? Yet some react as though these new entrepreneurs are breaking economic laws. Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize economist, set forth the orthodoxy in his book "Capitalism and Freedom." The idea that business should strive for anything except to make as much money as possible is, he wrote, "a fundamentally subversive doctrine." Now, let's think about that. If freedom means anything, it means the freedom to bring one's convictions into business. If Ben & Jerry's, say, is compelled by "market forces" to pay a price unfair to local dairy farmers, that's not choice. It's coercion. Freedom is not limited by what Milton Friedman values. It means the freedom to choose what we value - including fairness over personal gain. Besides, most corporations use our money for politics; they just don't admit it. When you pay fees to your current credit card company, part of that money goes to support political candidates you might disagree with. Another portion goes to lobby for bills you might well oppose. Because it has this direct (and hidden) pipeline to our wallets, the corporate sector can support big lobbies in Washington, while environmental and consumer groups have to go begging hat in hand. Imagine that AT&T and American Express told you on your bill the causes your payments are supporting. And then let you vote on those. That's what Working Assets is doing - letting the customers decide. "Why does the marketplace have to be just about products?" Barnes asks. "Why can't it be about ideas too?"

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