economic philosophy

The Meaning of Money

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Is money the root of all evil? Or is it what makes the world go ‘round? What IS the meaning of money?

Most of us receive most of the money we will ever make in exchange for our efforts. Our labor, our knowledge, our skills may be sold to employers if we are workers. They may be sold to customers or clients if we are in business. For this reason, in large part, money is the residue of the sweat we make while providing value to others.

What could be more noble than this symbol of being worthwhile to the rest of society?

In this framework, a 401(k) balance at retirement may be the end result of a lifetime of effort. An inheritance might represent two or more lifetimes of hard work. What could be more worthy of our best efforts to preserve and extend it?

While its sources are of interest, the uses of money have come into sharp focus for me recently. For the most part, my material needs are few. But money has become a vital factor in securing the health and welfare of loved ones.

The recent severe weather has resulted in hardship, pain, suffering and sometimes death for those who could not avoid its effects, or afford backup systems to meet special health needs. Oxygen concentrators require electricity, which sometimes fails. Refrigeration is needed for some kinds of life-sustaining medicine. Mobility is required to avoid some dangerous situations. All of this takes money.

When the power failed, we had a backup generator. When the storm threatened, we could leave the area. When the oxygen concentrator failed, we had another source. All of these things take money. And we had it.

Cathy’s care for children and work in the corporate world produced some of it. My efforts to help people with their plans and investing made some of it. Being good stewards of the amounts we were able to save provided some of it. The money came from worthy efforts, and it does important and worthy things for us.

Is money (or more properly, the love of money) the root of all evil? I don’t think so. It may be the evidence of lives of service and thrift. Luck? Certainly good fortune plays a role. And ill fortune surely plays a role in some people not having much of the stuff. We each must come to our own understanding of the meaning of money. This is mine.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or any other pertinent topic, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Investing involves risks including possible loss of principal.

Regulation and Common Sense

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There is a tendency in politics for arguments about regulation to boil down to politicians on the left arguing for more regulations and politicians on the right arguing for fewer regulations. Too often what is lost in this debate is the discussion of the quality of regulations, rather than the quantity. Effective regulations are easy to understand, easy to follow, and clearly distinguish between the crooks and honest folk, but many regulations fall short in a variety of ways.

Good regulation provides a clear line as to what is or isn’t allowed. When the line gets fuzzy, it becomes easy for upstanding businesses to fall afoul of regulatory issues unintentionally. It costs a lot of time to figure out the details of a vague regulation. And in the end, it may not become clear where the line is draw until expensive fines get handed down for crossing it. As a result, many companies may choose to err on the side of caution. This turns useful, valuable services into collateral damage of unrelated regulation.

Even when the regulations are written clearly, the costs of complying with them may be high. Increased documentation and oversight may sound like a good idea, but the extra work of supervising and documenting everything doesn’t come for free. Compliance overhead increases costs for businesses and, ultimately, hurts consumers when prices go up to compensate.

These may sound like problems that only big corporations need to worry about, but they have a very real and tangible impact on our everyday lives. I have been privileged in my career to work with many community banks. Sadly, these are a dying breed these days as more and more of them fold under the weight of regulatory burdens. Some are lucky to merge with fine, upstanding regional chains, but some towns have seen the local bank replaced with a megabank. The sad irony is that these regulations were often written to rein in big banks, but wound up driving out many smaller competitors instead.

Some of our politicians talk as though the solution is to do away with regulations altogether and create a Wild West environment for business. We’re not advocating for anything so extreme. But we need to call for simple, elegant rules that can protect the public effectively without undue burden on business. We ask you to join us in promoting common sense policies and leaders.

Are You a Dirty Capitalist Too?

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Since the 2007 financial crisis broke, we’ve been hearing a lot about the carelessness and greed of our financial system. The pursuit of corporate profits, we are told, led our economy to ruin and apparently will do so again in a heartbeat. Big corporations and financial institutions are crushing the middle class underfoot and choking the life out of the American dream. These are the sound bites we hear daily
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Corporate malfeasance certainly played a role in the crisis and we are gratified and relieved when we see it punished. But these excoriations of our financial system overlook one important fact: capitalism is a fundamentally democratic institution. All of us reading this blog can—and in most cases, do—participate fully in the capitalism system.

When you purchase shares of stock, those shares represent a unit ownership in a corporation. What’s more, the shares you buy are fundamentally identical to the shares that those “greedy” Wall Street banks and hedge funds are buying, with all the same rights and privileges. They might have more shares but the rewards of ownership are divvied out proportionately. When a corporation pays out dividends every share of the company gets its fair piece; they can’t pay out some owners and not others.

Some of our readers may be thinking, “This is all well and good for the rich people who own stocks, but what about us little folks?” The beauty of this system is that many of us little folks also own stocks. Many of us contribute money out of our paycheck towards a retirement or pension plan, through which we are beneficial owners of stock market investments. That makes us capitalists.

And it’s a good thing, too. Through our collective investments, millions of modest savers are pooling their money to create capital. Our investments and retirement savings turn into factories, datacenters, and hospitals—all of the machinery of modern life. Whether you realize it or not, if you have any investments you may very well own a tiny slice of many of those things. So when you feel you’re being gouged by an overly greedy corporation, just remember that their “unfair profits” are also funding the retirements of millions of regular workers just like you—and possibly you, yourself.

We know the system isn’t perfect. We can’t guarantee that corporations will always act wisely or ethically, and it’s important to remain vigilant. We believe the best and surest way to make sure that our interests are represented by the system is to participate in it. If you want to get involved, call or email us.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. No strategy assures success or protects against loss. Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Broken Windows, the Government, and the Economy

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Frederic Bastiat, a 19th century French thinker, gave us a number of enduring ideas including the “broken window fallacy.” His idea went like this:

When the shopkeeper’s son accidently breaks a window, bystanders assure the shopkeeper that it is a good thing, since the glazier will profit, money will circulate, and everyone will be better off. Bastiat names these things as “what is seen.” What is unseen is that the shopkeeper would actually have spent that same money on a pair of shoes or a book or some other good. The glazier’s gain is the cobbler’s loss, and society is poorer by one pair of shoes—after you consider what is unseen.

So imagine a society in which 98 people are gainfully employed in producing goods and services, and 2 people work in necessary, worthwhile and cost-effective ways to regulate the efforts of the 98. If we concede that some level of regulation is necessary, one might conclude that this society shares the output of 100 people.

Now imagine a combination of circumstances that leads to a program to provide better paychecks to five of the workers. The society elects to hire the five to dig holes and fill them in again for generous wages, thus providing “good jobs” for all. What is seen is that everyone has a paycheck, money keeps moving, and thereby everyone benefits. But what is unseen is that society has permanently lost the output of five workers, so the standard of living on average must decline by 5%. No wealth or advantage is created by the digging of holes, when everything is tallied up.

Worse yet, the five might instead be employed in unnecessary regulation of the other workers. If those five spend their days interacting with other workers, the output of five more workers is lost to their oversight. The standard of living on average then must decline by a total of 10%.

Our purpose in writing is not to argue about regulation in general, or the impact of new rules on community banks and financial advisors, or the proper level of government employment. Rather, we are hoping that people will think about what is unseen, as well as what is seen, in matters of public debate. Those of us looking to elevate our economic understanding would do well to start with the Wikipedia article on Bastiat.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Poverty, Prosperity, Optimism, Pessimism

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“What causes poverty? Nothing. It’s the original state, the default and starting point. The real question is, What causes prosperity?” – Per Bylund, Ph.D.

Some believe that my persistent native sense of optimism must be evidence of a traumatic brain injury in my youth. A more pessimistic person once asked me if I wasn’t reading the papers or watching the news. But one of my aims every day is to see and understand the world as it is around us. So let us dispense with talk of being dropped on one’s head, and ponder the megatrends that shape our part of history.

The World Bank calculates that in 1990, 37% of the population of Earth lived in extreme poverty, with incomes of less than $1.90 per day (2011 dollars). One can imagine the privations that accompany such massive and grinding poverty, from poor sanitation and dirty water to disease and lack of basic health infrastructure.

In twenty-five short years, the population count in extreme poverty declined to less than 10% of the people—down from 37%. These 700 million have all the same challenges and problems of the nearly 2 billion poor back in 1990, and we cannot minimize the gravity of the situation for these people. Yet never in history has so much progress been made in such a short amount of time for so many people—hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of extreme poverty.

Measuring progress another way over a longer time frame, global life expectancies have been calculated to be less than 30 years in 1870, and around 71 years in 2013. Life spans more than doubling in 150 years! In either of these cases, poverty and longevity, it seems unlikely that anyone around at the beginning could have believed the progress that was about to unfold.

One naturally wonders about the factors behind the wonders of modern times. I’d like to think our progress depends on the degree of freedom that each of us has to make the most of our own potential, in societies with the rule of law and respect for the rights of the people. My idealized concept of our economic system is that the surest path to prosperity is being of value and service to others, a sustainable and ever-improving system.
We have challenges, problems, issues, aggravations, and troubles—as always. But my optimism remains based on reality.

Is the Market Just A Casino?

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Some people experience a lingering reluctance to invest because they suspect Wall Street is a giant casino. Most of us understand that a casino will, on average, fleece its customers of their hard-earned money. But does the market actually function like that?

In reality, a share of common stock listed on a stock exchange represents a percentage ownership interest in a large enterprise. A bond represents money loaned to an enterprise or government for the promise of stated interest and a return of the face amount on the maturity date.

Shares of a successful business or bonds issued by a solvent company tend to reward long-term holders by returning amounts in excess of the original investment. These increases may be in the form of interest on bonds or dividends on stock, plus preservation or growth of the principal invested. These kinds of investments are not like a slot machine or a roulette wheel, games rigged by casinos to pay out only a fraction of the money wagered.

The amazing thing about a share of stock is that an owner receives the same proportional benefits whether a single share or millions of shares are owned. The companies associated with Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and the Walton family are well known to many. And anyone who wishes may invest in those companies on exactly the same basis as Buffett or Gates or
the Waltons—and enjoy the same percentage results.

(We are not recommending or advocating the purchase of any specific company to anyone, of course.)

The flawed casino analogy may seem plausible since some investors engage in short-term trading, speculation, and other aggressive tactics. But how one uses the market is within one’s control, and the practices of short-term traders have nothing to do with long term investors.

One person may use an automobile as a getaway car after bank robberies, while the next one uses a car to commute to work. The misuse of a vehicle by the robber has nothing to do with the usefulness of the vehicle to the commuter.

So for you and for us, the answer is, “NO!” the market is not a casino.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All investments involve risk and may lose value.

Investing: A Moral Good?

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It is unquestionably good that we have farmers to raise our food, shopkeepers to bring the things we need within reach, nurses to nurture us back to health, and so forth. We know instinctively that any pursuit that benefits others, or helps to meet the needs of society at large, is a worthy pursuit.

Is investing in the same category as worthy labor? Some people tend to think it is not. We offer the following perspective for your consideration.

Many of us have known route drivers for overnight and package delivery companies; long-tenured ones become part of the fabric of a community, well known to all. They clearly perform a worthy service. Yet how valuable would their efforts be without the trucks, planes, terminals, software systems, and the rest of the capital investment that supports their jobs? How much delivery could get done if the only equipment was handcarts?

The two largest such companies have billions of dollars of assets invested so that hundreds of thousands of employees have the tools and resources they need to do their jobs. This capital at work, about $100,000 per employee, is what makes the efforts of the workers so valuable. Where did the money come from?

Companies issue stock and bonds to finance their capital investments. The buyers of those investments, the investors, are ultimately the ones who provide the tools used by the workers to increase the value of their efforts.

And who are these “investors?” We know hundreds of them personally. They are workers saving for retirement, the retired, widows, families saving for college expenses, and everyone else trying to put money away for a rainy day or leave a legacy.

So do these friends and relatives and neighbors deserve a return on their investment? Presumably we all agree that a return on investment is only fair.

People at work and investments at work are to the world as teachers and classrooms are to education. Both are needed, both are useful. In the sense that necessary and useful things are good, both are worthy.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All investments involve risk and may lose value.