Sunday, October 26, 2008

Another Helpful Financial Insight

There is still so much financial security swarming around us! I have this book scheduled to post during a blog tour next month, but I really wanted to post this Q&A with the author. I think it will help some to gain a better understanding of what is taking place in our world right now. I hope you enjoy the insight as much as I did.

In his new book, Charting the Course, Bruce Howard grapples with the dilemma of reconciling fixed, transcendent moral values with an economic system based on relative value. Howard insists there is a way to move forward, that we can influence the economy in a way that will bring positive change to the world. “While it is true that markets have no values, they are wonderful mirrors for reflecting the values that people bring to the marketplace each and every day,” he states.

Q: What factors led you to tackle the topic of markets in Charting the Course?

A: Charting the Course is the result of a personal professional crisis. As a professor of economics at a Christian college, I feel a keen sense of personal responsibility for helping to shape the minds and character of my students. I had long been a strong advocate of the free market as a system for increasing the economic welfare of society. But I soon realized that this system is based upon a world view that is completely humanistic, relativistic, and egocentric. Every day I stood before these bright, impressionable young men and women and offered them something that looked so very wonderful from the outside, but lurking in the core was something very unpalatable to me as a Christian. I brooded over these things for several years before I realized that the inherent weakness of the market system (i.e., that it has no innate sense of morality) could be turned upside down and used to our common advantage. Markets by their very nature deliver the things to which people impute value. Imputed values have as their source our “personal set of values.” To get the right outcomes in the marketplace, we need to draw from the right set of values. There really is a broad consensus of what humanity considers to be “right.” As such, we need encouragement, inspiration, admonition, and reminding to do what we know to be right. This book creates an important “to do” list for getting things right in economic life.

Q: In the book, you stress the fact that the word “marketing” has been largely misunderstood. What does this term really mean?

A: People generally associate the term “marketing” with sales and advertising. Marketing is treated like a noun, but it is better understood as a verb, an action—the action of making markets. Marketing is the process of looking outward in order to discern the needs and wants of society. It also includes looking inward at the resources and skill set of the producer to see how they can be used to meet these identified needs and wants of society. The marketing process includes everything that has to happen in order to first generate an idea and then implement that idea in economically sustainable ways to meet the needs of the targeted segment of society. This is a big job, and it operates on a 24/7 basis. Right now, literally millions of people are thinking about you and me and what they can do to meet some unfulfilled need or want we might have. People are thinking about ways to cure our cancers, treat our diabetes, and cure our heart disease. They are also thinking about new gadgets to help us chop onions, carve a turkey, or secure our homes and automobiles. How many times have you heard the phrase “new and improved”? This is the result of marketing.

Q: How pervasive is the influence of modern markets in our lives?

A: In the book, I ask readers to think for a moment about all of the things they can possibly purchase at a moderate-sized grocery store, and then ask themselves, where does all this stuff come from? Pick up any packaged product, and you will find a list of ingredients on the label; ask the question again: Where did all those ingredients come from? I can’t tell you where all these things came from, but I can tell you that they got there through the power of the marketplace. Embodied in our use of the goods and services we take for granted every day are the acts of literally thousands of economic agents (people doing a job) engaged in millions of acts and making millions of little decisions that collectively add up to the stuff of our lives. It is the power of markets that brings us the things we want—when and where we want them. One of the most amazing aspects of all of this is that we don’t personally have to ask for any of it. Through the power of markets, the vast majority of things we use every single day come to us without our asking. The only thing that is required of us in return is a willingness to part with some of our money in exchange for the stuff of life.

Q: Tell us about the “peculiar schizophrenia” relating to the core of economic value that complicates a discussion of business ethics.

A: Very few people would deny that ethics should play a central role in guiding our economic choices and activities. But if people believe in ethics, then they also believe in the existence of intrinsic and transcendent value as a life-impacting reality. Right and wrong have no meaning apart from some overarching ethical framework. Yet markets operate on a basis of imputed and relative value. You and I, as consumers, both define and measure ultimate value. According to markets, there is no such thing as value that is innate or that transcends the human calculus. Markets cannot distinguish between penicillin or pornography, peanuts or prostitution. And markets will flex the same amount of power to create housing as they do to produce heroin. So we have a dilemma. What do we do with the fact that markets operate on the first principle that all value is imputed?

Q: One of the economic values you promote in Charting the Course is to “leave things a little better than you found them.” What common misconception prevents companies and governments from putting this principle into practice?

A: One of my greatest challenges as a professor of business has been to help students develop an understanding that business is about growing the size of a pie. All too often I encounter the mistaken concept that business is just about getting the biggest slice you can from a pie of fixed size—which means that in order for me to have a bigger slice, everyone else must necessarily have less. Economic systems based on the fixed-pie concept are unproductive and generally repressive. A few individuals may thrive and even become quite wealthy in that environment, but the system as a whole will do a pitiful job of creating goods and services. Businesses operating in a fixed-pie mode make a habit of leaving things worse than they found them. This is true not only in regard to the environment but also in regard to their customers, their employees, their creditors, and anyone else with whom they might have to interface. As we have seen in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, these fixed-pie systems corrode from the inside out and ultimately crumble under the weight of the “me-win-you-lose” mindset.

Charting the Course by Dr. Bruce Howard

Authentic Publishing April 2008

ISBN: 978-1-934068-35-9/177 pages/softcover/$12.99

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