How money talks
Mother Jones|September/October 2021
MOTHER TONGUE
ROBIN KAISER-SCHATZLEIN

RECENTLY, WHILE volunteering as a union organizer for freelance journalists, I spoke with a skeptical member. “Really, what is my ROI?” he asked. I tried to explain that the union is not a business. There are no customers or investors. His dues would uplift the group, but that process may benefit some more than others. We tend to forget that the word “investment” has a specific technical usage—money spent in pursuit of profit—and that “return on investment” is more technical still, a ratio of profit to invested capital.

This person was using “ROI” in the looser, colloquial sense, so disturbingly widespread in the American lexicon that we hardly notice it. Without batting an eye, a man in New Jersey can sing the praises of a local retiring pastor by noting that his “product was people’s lives” and “his return on investment was off the charts.” Scientists, trying to classify which species need to be saved from extinction, can recommend the use of a “return on investment” approach to taxonomic research. ROI can be and has been applied to early childhood education, physical activity, and the activities of the US military.

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