Prometheus went up to heaven and lighted his torch at the chariot of the sun and brought down fire to man. With this gift, man was more than a match for all other animals. It enabled him to make weapons wherewith to subdue them; to create tools with which to cultivate the earth; to warm his dwelling, so as to be comparatively independent of climate; and finally, to introduce the arts and to coin money, the means of trade and commerce.
Prometheus was quite the Titan. Among other claims to fame, he brought fire to humans. As described by Mr. Bulfinch, he just went up there into the heavens and brought it down to ordinary folks. Through Prometheus' generosity, our team got the edge over all the other species.
Fire. Imagine life without it. It gave humans the ability to be superior to all other animals, that's all. It found its way into every aspect of human life, including negative ones. With fire, humans can destroy, maim and terrorize. Conversely, lack of fire skills can be fatal. Without them, for example, you can freeze to death.
However, the allegory stands for more than mere explanation for fire's presence among us. It also clarifies how the gods lost their monopoly over it. Fire is a very big deal. Its introduction to humans was as big as it gets.
Of course, as a result of his audacity, Prometheus paid a price. He ended up chained to a cliff getting his liver pecked out for eternity. He had offended the gods with his messing about.
The Prometheus story is metaphorically instructive for those of us working as personal financial advisors.
Money. Imagine life without it. Money's capacity to empower and ruin seems to be increasing daily. While money permits humans to maintain control over the Earth, it also places us squarely in the crosshairs of some powerfully negative potentialities. As with Prometheus, it behooves us to understand this primal element and both grasp and accept the notion that we are working with the sorts of powers mythologically reserved for the supernaturals. Conceptually speaking, money gives humans powers traditionally reserved for the gods. As financial advisors, we work with money forces that should put us in the positions of critical power and vitality.
Personally, I like to think Prometheus would have liked, respected and understood personal financial advisors. His story has such profound implications for us that I would hope that he would see the synchronicity. At the very least, it is worth our while to spend some time grasping his mythology. Let's explore.
Money and fire have common qualities. As with fire, money enables without conscience and destroys without remorse. It can serve as weaponry. It can be a tool for creation or destruction. It can be a source of comfort. Money facilitates art and commerce. Like fire, failure to understand it, contain it and control it can lead to disaster.
Like Prometheus, at our best, we bring to people the gift of a powerful force. We enable money's energy for them and help them to control it. This works through the fabrics of ourselves, families, communities, nations and planet. With our current leadership and national priorities, the impact of money and its ripples are highlighted. We are addressing issues that go straight to the fundamentals of our national identity. Where and how do we work ourselves into these issues?
Financial literacy is a 21st-Century survival tool. How are humans supposed to function within systems of these complexities? The financial-planning profession provides the best ways.
Sometimes, we seem to forget. We seem to forget that we are dealing with the most powerful secular force on the planet. We seem to forget that lives are in our hands. We seem to forget that society seems to be entrusting us to be the intelligent, knowledgeable and ethical guardians of its lifeblood on behalf of its constituent souls-or at least is extending the challenge. And then we fail to acknowledge that being an advisor is something more than sales and that partaking of the benefits and esteem of a learned profession is something more than just a job.
Or do we simply forget the power, the force and the majesty of the money forces and how they play through every aspect of our personal, communal and national lives?
Here are some areas currently at the forefront of debate in which money plays a crucial role:
1. Our tax systems, including reductions of income-tax rates and possibilities for dramatic alterations to our estate-tax systems.
2. Our public school systems, with wide-ranging implications.
3. Our health-care systems and our abilities to deal with powerful technologies, even as we grasp our inabilities to provide equal access to them.
4 Our mutating definitions of class and our notions of wealth, poverty and opportunity-including how these issues are played by our politicians and business leaders.
5. Our increasing understanding of the implications of off-balance sheet issues and full accounting for critical costs, including opportunity costs.
6. Our allocations of scarce resources and our education and training to address the separation of wants from needs.
7. Our need to review and modernize legal systems.
8. Our public policies for growth, protection of property rights and support of public amusements.
9. Our care for the least among us, including the poor, the sick, the young, the old and the inept.
10. Our grasp of the relationship between money and our intimate psychological and spiritual issues.
11. Our grasp of the impacts of globalization, internationalization and immigration.
12. Most important, our collective abilities to master the most basic aspects of financial literacy and personal money management.
Where do we fit into these debates? The fact is that these issues circle around philosophical dialectics going to the hearts of our social, governmental and economic systems. How are we helping to make this national debate informed, intelligent and productive?
My goodness, do we know how important we are? Or what that means to how we do our business? Or what is demanded of us in the course of our work? Detectives train to "follow the money." Lawyers joke that when clients say it is about principle, not money," it's about the money." For us, the money is at our core.
I suggest that money is the key to modern civilization and makes it possible to enjoy living on a planet with 6 billion others. I also suggest that money provides the only acceptable system for rationally allocating goods and services and achieving realistic degrees of cooperation among us. Yet doing this right requires knowledge, understanding and vigor. Is this not the work of our profession? If not us, then who?
These issues are complex. There is competition for the philosophical and moral high ground, particularly for those sensitized to the human tragedies that unfold for those without access to sufficient funds. For the past hundred years or so, these discussions have taken place within the capitalist/communist dialectic. This dialectic is played out. There is little to be gained from continuing arguments engaging concepts of class, rich vs. poor, government vs. the free market and the like. Communism and its redistributive offshoots are incapable of creating and maintaining the kind of wealth that would provide sufficient basics to all.
Yet the "marketplace" has not shown itself capable of addressing such needs effectively or compassionately. Continuing old and tired arguments on the subject makes about as much sense as holding a national debate over whether we should legislate fire to be made cooler so it does less damage when it gets out of control. It ignores the nature of the forces being addressed.
I further suggest that there is only one genuine systemic alternative to money and market forces-military power and its limited ability to force distributions. Truthfully, military power has never been proved to be a particularly effective long-term systemic option. It may rearrange deck chairs, but it does not do much to create wealth. Producers have a way of not producing when there are no incentives. Without their efforts, we are left without much-as an economy. We are talking about creation and distribution systems to raise, cultivate, harvest, process and distribute food to more than 6 billion people. I suggest that money does that job more efficiently and effectively than any other medium at this juncture. Perfect? Hardly. But if you can find a better mechanism in this world, please share it. The world is waiting.
Again, remember, these are very large stakes. This leads us back to money and our friend Prometheus. What is the money about? As a force, what is its nature? How can it be contained and managed? How can its beneficial properties be controlled and made accessible? How can we work with its capacities to both destroy and bring life?
Money matches up well with fables of fire. The Prometheus mythology is instructive. Personally, I suspect most of us could pass on the possibility of spending eternity getting our liver pecked out. Yet we pay our own prices. As we go about our work with the most powerful secular force on the planet, can we take care to understand the full implications of our undertakings? Prometheus may have been a Titan and we mere human beings, but if we take a close look at what we bring to humanity, we can note that we are keeping some pretty fancy company. We are special. If we are to build this profession and assume our proper place on the world stage and within the learned professions, we must grasp the magnitude of what we are about-that we are messing about with forces of the sort others have ascribed to the gods. We risk bringing money skills to humanity.