Debating the Impact Economy: What Did the Presidential Candidates Say?  

No, Fran Seegull and Nancy Pfund did not get a shout-out from the debate stage at Hofstra University for their open letter to the presidential candidates promoting “The Impact Economy.”

But a few minutes into Hillary Clinton's opening remarks on “Achieving Prosperity,” a friend texted me, “It sounds like she’s leading The Impact Economy.”

Indeed, Clinton’s prescriptions for job growth and prosperity echoed some of the themes in Seegull's and Pfund's letter on ImpactAlpha, and reflected the excitement driving impact investing. Clinton's comments drew no blood and may sound like so much campaign boilerplate – and thus are unlikely to get much play in the heat of the campaign.

We needed to tear down the silos that prevented us from working creatively and smartly together. We needed to facilitate and scale up the impact economy. Hillary Clinton, Global Impact Economy Forum, 2012

Nonetheless, Clinton did start to lay down a rationale for her candidacy, one that has been implicit but woefully underdeveloped. It’s worth taking note of her argument, to hold her accountable after the election and, more importantly, to flesh out the opportunities she only sketched.

First, we have to build an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top,” Clinton said. “That means we need new jobs, good jobs, with rising incomes.

“I want us to invest in you. I want us to invest in your future. That means jobs in infrastructure, in advanced manufacturing, innovation and technology, clean, renewable energy, and small business, because most of the new jobs will come from small business,” she continued. “We also have to make the economy fairer. That starts with raising the national minimum wage and also guarantee, finally, equal pay for women's work.”

Later, the candidates had an exchange about whether Donald Trump did or did not say global warming was a hoax. “I did not. I did not. I do not say that.” Trump said. “I think science is real,” Clinton responded. “I do not say that,” Trump fumed.

“Take clean energy. Some country is going to be the clean- energy superpower of the 21st century,” Clinton began. “And here's what we can do. We can deploy a half a billion more solar panels. We can have enough clean energy to power every home. We can build a new modern electric grid. That's a lot of jobs; that's a lot of new economic activity.”

False Equivalence

ImpactAlpha is proud to have published Seegull and Pfund’s letter, which has been shared widely across the social media universe to mostly positive reviews. To the extent there was criticism, it fell into two categories.

First, some commentators raised the issue of “false equivalence,” which has lately been cited to criticize the formalistic “balance” in media coverage of the two candidates’ truthiness. But false equivalence can also be dangerous in ascribing to the candidates the same possibilities for positive policies. While Seegull and Pfund were trying to be non-partisan and even-handed in inviting both candidates to lead the Impact Economy, it’s likely that only Clinton even knows what they are talking about.

Trump’s views about the alignment of business and values, or the lack thereof, were captured succinctly in this exchange:

CLINTON: Donald was one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis. He said, back in 2006, “Gee, I hope it does collapse, because then I can go in and buy some and make some money.” Well, it did collapse.

TRUMP: That's called business, by the way.

Clinton's website has details (and more details) on issues ranging from Fixing America's Infrastructure to Rural Communities to Early Childhood Education. Donald Trump's, not so much. 

And it was Clinton who, as secretary of state, convened an Impact Economy Forum in Washington in 2012 with folks like Virgin’s Richard Branson, Peter Knight of Generation Investment Management and Dave Chen of Equilibrium Capital. She highlighted impact investing initiatives from OPIC, USAID and the Inter-American Development Bank.

“In the past, we looked at corporate revenue and corporate responsibility as separate concerns. We looked at government activity and everything else as separate concerns. Now we know that there’s so much out there that is happening but may not be shared broadly enough so that it both inspires and catalyzes others to do the same,” Clinton said in her 2012 remarks. “There is a market waiting to be filled in every corner of this world.

“So if we can open the doors to new markets and new investments, we can tap as many as 1.4 billion new mid-market customers with growing incomes in developing countries. Taken together, they represent more than $12 trillion in spending power. That’s a huge potential customer base, not only for American companies, which is my primary concern, but also for others.

“When we make investments from the three stools of this strategy, official development assistance, not-for-profit philanthropic assistance, private sector investments, we are not only helping to grow and strengthen middle classes in developing nations, we are also supporting the businesses that create jobs here at home,” Clinton said. (You can see the video here.) 

The Impact Moment

The other criticism of the Open Letter dealt not with its substance, but its timing in the heat of the campaign.  Said one curmudgeonly skeptic: “It's ridiculous to suggest impact investing should be part of the discussion right now when we should be talking about not building a wall along our southern border.”

As we’ve argued in other contexts, the convergence of demagoguery and xenophobia with issues such as mass migration and climate disruption makes the impact investing project only more urgent. If we take economic insecurity and dislocation as real and pressing issues, and we further agree on the inadequacy of a naked, narrow conception of business and finance divorced from social and environmental impact, then the need for a new vision of optimistic, inclusive and, yes, global, prosperity has never been greater.  

Impact investing, writ large, has to deliver not only frameworks and pilot projects and marketing hype but billions and ultimately trillions of dollars in private capital for public good. If it can make good on that vision, it certainly deserves a shout-out from the debate stage. And continued leadership from the next president.

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