Unanswered Questions

I wrote my very first newsletter in 1994, attempting to offer a unique and insightful message instead of a regurgitation of what most people had already read elsewhere. Selfishly, I wanted to share what was on my mind, or at least what I thought were important issues impacting the economy and markets.

The over-riding themes of most of my newsletters over the past few years have focused on four major points. First, that free-market capitalism is and has been the most effective economic system to improve the standard of living of millions of people around the world. Second, that free-market capitalism has been replaced by crony-capitalism and government over-regulation. Third, our country faces a moral dilemma at all levels, witnessed by the continual decline of traditional values – family, faith, individual responsibility and community. The titles of two articles in the October 17th Wall Street Journal are telling… “Youth Suicide Rate Increased 56% in Decade” and “Religion is on the Decline as More Adults Check ‘none’.”  Fourth, our country is starving for new leadership at the highest level. Self-absorbed egotists, and corrupt bureaucrats need to be replaced by individuals who can demonstrate the principles of integrity, service before self, mutual respect and commitment to hard work. Globally, our country needs to clearly and authoritatively, stake claim to the moral high ground and then walk the walk, consistently.

A very wise friend once said to me, “If everybody would sweep the mat by their own front door the world would be a much cleaner place.” That’s very true, but what do we do when one of our neighbors refuses to do so? Do we ignore it and hope he changes? Do we ask the authorities to intervene? Or do we go to his house and clean it for him or better yet, with him? Controlling the moral high ground today requires interactions and relationship-building, and a renewed sense of community. Moreover, to maintain the moral high ground over the long term, we must develop and adhere to principles with accountability at all levels. Forgiveness and tough love play important roles.

When I was a young boy, milk was delivered to our back door and placed in a small metal box by a milkman from Lovier’s Dairy. Fresh milk never tasted so good. One of the owners of that thriving local business lived next door. Lovier’s Dairy made the best ice cream I have ever tasted, and I was fortunate to work there as a teenager. Many years later, after I had left my small, upstate New York hometown, seeking fame and fortune, Wal Mart opened. It changed the entire feel of the town. When I asked my Uncle Frank, who was elderly at the time, what he thought of Wal Mart he said, “I don’t like it, you have to walk a half mile to find a carton of milk.” How best to address this problem?  Since there seems to be a sense that government can and should solve every problem.  Should an ordinance be passed making Wal Mart move the milk closer to the front of the store? Or should a friend pick up an extra carton of milk and bring it to an elderly neighbor? I have no doubt that this is what happens in many places across our nation. Helping others in need is a principle most people embrace and try to live out each day. Still, we might benefit from asking two questions –

Can we be better neighbors? Just how big is our neighborhood? Existential questions perhaps, but we need to answer them, don’t we?

Which brings me to the crux of this edition of Willingdon Views… The more control we cede to government the less obligated we feel toward contributing to the welfare of our communities. This isn’t a universal statement, but I believe it holds true in most cases. Our founding fathers knew that government could not legislate morality, and that our republic would only survive if moral principles were upheld.

If the best days for our country are ahead of us and not in the past, we need less government involvement and a recommitment to moral principles. Yes, there is a role for government and yes, we need open discussion about and how best to teach moral principles.

An important distinction… Principles are different than beliefs and values. The later change with the times while principles do not. Principles include integrity, loyalty, and the importance of hard work. All discussions about policy, cultural norms, rules and regulations should start from core principles, not from self-interests or hatred of “the other side.”

So, where are the leaders that can help us reclaim the moral high ground and reverse the current trend of ever-growing, inefficient and often corrupt, government bureaucracy? They are in our midst, but none of them are willing to run for president. How can we motivate them to serve when we need them so desperately? I wish I had an answer to that question.

Michael Kayes, CFA