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The Muddle We Are In

by Dave Kahle
copyright (2010)

I’m on the board of one of my clients.  A fellow board member, a financial services professional, opinionated at the last board meeting that the economy was in a “muddle.”  Not growing at any substantial rate, not sliding backwards dramatically, just muddling along. His prediction for the near term?  More muddle.

How did we get here?  More importantly, how do we get out of it?  How do we adjust our job performances and our businesses to survive and thrive in this muddle?

Here’s one person’s opinion.

There is a lot of blame being thrown around.  Politically, those on the left continue to blame George Bush; those on the right blame Obama and the Democratic congress.  Educators whose budgets have been reduced blame the local politicians who have made those decisions. In business, those out of work blame the companies with whom they used to be employed.  Those who are underemployed, or whose incomes have been dramatically and negatively impacted, blame the market place and their bosses. 

As for me, I blame us.

Now, before I make the case that you and I are the problem, let me share a recent experience.

Earlier this month, I attended a leadership conference in which one of the speakers was Dr.  Peter Zhoo Xiao, Chinese PhD economist, who was sent to the US in 2002 to study the free market system and make some recommendations to the Chinese government.  Operating from purely an economic perspective, Dr. Xiao came to the conclusion that the reason the free market system works so well in the US is because it is undergirded and supported by Christian values. Other countries who have not had the benefit of a Christian foundation and a Christian culture have not faired nearly as well.  Think Russia and the Near East countries, for example.

America continues to be a place of great admiration around the world, and great attraction for people globally, because of its commitment to Christian values, according to Dr. Xiao.

File that away for a minute.

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Back to the cause of the muddle.  The direct cause of the economic collapse was hundreds of thousands of people trying to live beyond their means.  They bought houses they couldn’t afford, with loans that were, at best, ill-advised and at worst, fraudulent.  Thousands of loan officers and financial service professionals took the path of least resistance as well, packaging those very shaky loans into packages and then selling them for the commissions they generated.   They, too, compromised their values for the sake of easy money.

Politicians, in the quest for more voters, looked the other way.  The quest for power overwhelmed their common sense and they voted for laws that encouraged the excess.

There is enough blame for the now-famous real estate bubble to tarnish almost everyone in the system.

While the real estate bubble and its subsequent collapse will go down as one of history’s most significant economic events, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Remember Enron?  And the string of high-profile corporate malfeasance news stories that prompted another round of even greater regulation?  It seems that a good piece of the business community has given up the discipline of adherence to good values, and took the short cuts to strive for more easy money.

Look at every component of our economy, and you see a similar story.  Education, business, government, entertainment, the news media, etc.  It seems like every where we look, our institutions and organizations are spinning out of control, infested with people willing to do whatever it takes to gain easy money at the expense of someone else.  Most people don’t see much hope in the changes going on.

The problem isn’t them.  It’s us. 

Well, Okay, it is them, too.

As a nation, we have slowly given up our adherence to the Christian values that have undergirded this country’s prosperity for the sake of the pursuit of power and easy money.  Why work hard for something, when you can do an ill-advised loan and get it now?  Why work at all, when the government will take money from others and give it to you?  Why stick with values like integrity, hard work, and deferred gratification when you can charge it to MasterCard and worry about it later?

The consequences keep compounding, way beyond just our own lives and incomes.  Arnold Toynbee reflected: “Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed when they reached the moral state the United States is in now”

Our problems aren’t economic.  They are spiritual.

The solution isn’t more government debt; it is a return to Christian values on the part of the mass of the population. We’ve all heard the old adage: America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great. As long as we try to find solutions in the superficial symptoms of our muddle, and not in the deeper causes, we will continue to flounder.

The symptom is people out of work.  The cause, on a massive scale, is a lack of faith in the future by business people.  The symptom is unprecedented government debt.  The cause, on a national level, is a quest for power and a lack of belief in the power of an individual.  I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  Our problems aren’t economic.  They are spiritual.
It is time for this generation to rise up out of the muddle caused by spiritual indifference, and begin to live lives committed to the values that produced the prosperity. 

While I applaud the movements in the country to become more active politically, I’d like to see just as much, if not more, energy applied to moving the country back to its roots.

The place to start is with each one of us, individually. Every single one of us should begin (or continue) to live every day committed to those values.  When a couple of hundred million people refuse to go into excess debt, refuse to compromise their integrity for the sake of easy money, stop chasing money and power in place of more substantial values, then, our institutions will begin to heal themselves, our government will reflect our values, and the economy, as well as our personal affluence, will rebound.

The problem is us.  And so is the solution.

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