It is a simple beer commercial for Coors' Lite. The young folks are hangin' sexy and cool as the visuals pose the existential question, "Why do we...?" In syncopated response, the high-tech background chorus beats incessantly "Because we can!" "Because we can!" "Because we can!"?
A final piece slips into place. It joins priests, accountants, plagiarizing students, investment bankers, corporate managements, myopic government officials and our current glut of forest fires and water abuse in a modern collage of interior failure to grasp the essence of the "good" and "beautiful."
On the surface it seems a bit silly. Obviously, there is so much that we could do. You can eat worms. You can believe that professional wrestling is a genuine sport. You can believe that wishing hard will renew Tinker Bell's life force. And you can attempt to run your life at the raw edges of law, sociability and responsibility. Most likely, nobody will send you to bed without supper or sit you in the corner. Heck, they might even make you CEO. But "Because we can!" thinking is not fertile ground for thriving lives or cultures. It promises only a kind of nasty, legalistic, self-indulgent standard grounded in puerile relativistic notions. In this sort of world, the "sin" is basically in getting caught or not pushing "Because we can!" to the max. "Shame" is deemed old-fashioned, not abridgements of promises, lapses of interior reliability or violations of trust. From any perspective, but most especially in the world of money, this sort of "Because we can!" is literally lethal.
Nowhere is "Because we can!" more poisonous than with those of us who have asked for and received special responsibilities and obvious privileges within the social body. It is here "Because we can!" thinking is especially toxic, confusing legalisms with law, license with freedom, and indulgence with prudence and self-control.
Yet, here we have it. All over. This is the interior stuff of personal ethics and cultural mores, the ligaments of the body social functionally failing. Priests abridge the most fundamental trusts. "Because we can!" CEOs forget why they are there. "Because we can!" Politicians abandon the public weal. "Because we can!" Most important for our purposes, and the legitimacy of their professions, accountants and lawyers stretch pinholes into loopholes and forget the essential underpinnings of their professions' existence. There might even be a few financial planners trading responsibilities for expediencies. Like the "Broken Windows" theory of graffiti and urban reclamation, "Because we can!" tends to be self-generating and self-perpetuating. Look at creative accounting. The more people do it, the more it is done. The more it becomes socially acceptable and philosophically fashionable, it is consequently even more damaging to the body social.
Indeed, those guided by strong ethical navigation systems frequently are derided as "soft," "idealistic" or not in "the real world." Not "team players." These are not fast-track qualities. Neither is this any way to run a social order.
"Because we can!" is impotence made manifest. An ability to "get away with it" is not the functional equivalent of the integrity required to make it all work. There is way too much trust embedded in our economic systems. Indeed, "Because we can!" is antithetical to any healthy notions of stewardship, citizenship, responsibility, freedom or a healthy body social. It eviscerates all viable notions of profession and obliterates infrastructures of lives worth living. It reveals "values free" interiors devoid of senses of responsibility or shame.
The priests and politicians have obviously given us plenty to talk about, but let's stick to business for the moment. In particular, let's look at our cousins in the accounting profession. As fellow professionals with responsibilities to both "the system" and the ineffable that is money, their experience with "Because we can!" is most instructive.
First off, let's be clear. Virtually all accountants are honest, devoted professionals. But let's not gloss over this little nuance: By commission or omission, there has been a generic acceptance of "Because we can!" thinking by both accountants and others of us in the money systems, including me, maybe you. ("I would not do this, but I somehow tolerate and even encourage those who do.")
Think functionally. I suggest that accountants, as accountants, have one essential job: to count, and to report what they have counted within the rules of counting. This is their reason for being. This is their non-negotiable essence, their golden-egg-laying goose. This essence requires trust, not fine lines of arguable distinctions within the world of "Because we can!"
This is where we find our learning, because in our world of abridged ethics, "Because we can!" is revealed as not sophisticated, manly or "the way the world works." Rather, "Because we can!" is the abridgment of intangible responsibilities with manifold ramifications, impacting real lives in real time.
Extraordinary accounting news unfolds daily. More accounting gimmicks are revealed. The cozy relationships between the auditors and the audited are exposed. And so on. Consequences ripple. Yet, so much was avoidable. Had only the counting been done with viable senses of pride and shame in the place of "Because we can!"
The stakes? So very much of what flows into the sewers with "Because we can!" are the livelihoods, hopes and dreams of honest investors, employees, suppliers and strategic allies. With them go local and regional economies, school systems, police forces, marriages, childcare, self-esteem and (dare we say it?) financial plans. Those within the penumbra had lives built around these enterprises and their diverse ramifications. Now what!? Shame. They trusted the people who asked for the job of being trusted. Shame squared. Those controlling the systems have failed. And they have failed for reasons that are apparently rife with greed, dishonesty, pride ... and bad counting-"Because we can!" Shame to infinity.
Here is the deal for those of us in the world of money: Money and vital social functions require certain truths and acts of trust. The markets are about value in exchange, especially if an item of exchange is intangible. Uncertain "plus or minus" values require maximum truth and revealing information. We can judge implications for ourselves, but those base numbers have got to be true. This is an essential element of trade. Purposeful gimmicks hurt everyone and everything. As Scottish banker Thomas Gresham proclaimed long ago regarding coin shaving, "Bad money chases out the good." Shaving fiscal reality is fiscal poison. This is Gresham's law made modern.
There are simply times and places where we must believe in the information in front of us. If we do not or cannot, we must consequently discount the value claimed. We can mess with money on its edges but not for long. We can even engage in some practices that would probably not pass muster with our mothers. But we absolutely cannot, cannot, cannot endure tampering with money's core. We cannot withstand baseline uncertainties. We cannot shave little slivers of gold from our primary currencies, including stocks and bonds, without reducing the inherent value of those currencies. This is why Alexander Hamilton made good on Revolutionary War bonds. This is why nobody believes Argentina or its money.
Hence accountants. No one else can do what they do. Like lawyers, doctors, priests, police, primary decision makers and others entrusted with essential, vital social functions, they literally enable our civilization as we know it. No accountants, no reliable numbers. No reliable numbers, no stock market, no business, no ... [fill in the blank]. We barter or we beg. Fact is, bean counters rock, or at least they should. But the green eyeshaders don't just serve to make more money through gimmickry for the folks that pay them. No, no, no. They make money for them by serving as their employers' legitimizing agents. When they, or we, disregard necessary interior values-our professionally necessary notions of the good and the beautiful-to indulge in shaving little slivers of truth "Because we can!", we all lose a form of critical support. Anything less invokes Gresham's law, and folks get hurt.
Accountants jobs are to count. That's it. CEO bonuses are not their concern. Options values ought not be on the radar screen. Earnings reports are on the company, not them. Their social function is telling the truth about the numbers and validating their employers' claims for trust in the public market place. Their inherent value is their interior integrity, not in their skills of exterior manipulation. Their immeasurable, interior value is the literal antithesis of "Because we can!" thinking. Truly, their interior integrity is part and parcel of what they sell. I am thinking that "Because we can!" ought to be their proudly declared archenemy.
In the illusory world of exterior finance, it is sometimes difficult to remember that numbers are intangible. Numbers are just concepts created by humans solely for the purpose of serving human functions. Has anyone ever seen "five?" Did you have "profit" for dinner last night? Have you ever gone infinity or zero hunting for weekend recreation? What are the newest R-ratings for "gross domestic products?" "Hard?" "Real World?" Laughable sophistry. Numbers are what we say they are-and saying what they are is a function the collective "we" has delegated to accountants, and those of us who must rely upon their professionalism. These numbers constitute the spine of a market economy, the structural support of the social body. How can we even stand if we cannot rely upon GAAP and believe its essence?
Of course, accountants "can." Accountants can hide intangibles. Shavings can sometimes go undetected.
So it is throughout our "hard" exterior world. "Because we can!" thinking pervades industry, law, scholarship, investment research, financial product sales and, yes, even financial advisory work. Might we seek to resurrect "Because we should!" in the place of "Because we can!"?
Implications? There are no laws that can effectively vaccinate against "Because we can!", but we can talk about it. We can accept responsibility and look in our personal and social mirrors. We can ponder those places where our own value systems rub up against "Because we can!" ethics. We can reintroduce the word "shame" into our personal and collective vocabularies and be increasingly intolerant of the coin shavers. We can reintroduce the word "accountability" and strive to grasp its essence.
This is all within the world of interior finance. For genuine professions and others accepting a public trust, "Because we can!" is unacceptable.
Because we can't.
Richard B. Wagner, JD, CFP, is the principal of WorthLiving LLC, based in Denver.
Terrorists' New Allies
Look no further than corporate America.
By William P. Bengen
Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda don't need a network of terrorists in this country to topple us. He already has fearsome allies within our borders. They are: accounting fraud, executive greed and impotent corporate boards of directors.
The success and fairness of our economic system depends on managerial integrity, forthrightness and accuracy in reporting financial results, and a sense of responsibility and accountability to shareholders. All of the above have been trampled in recent years, with some notable examples recently making headlines.
In many ways, the confidence of ordinary Americans in our American system has been shaken far more severely by these financial debacles than by the toppling of the World Trade Center. The question is: What will be required to restore the shaken faith of Americans in their capitalist system?
This is no idle, metaphysical question. My clients are contacting me every day with one variation or another of that query. They are deeply, fundamentally troubled. How can scoundrels cause so much damage? How many more Enrons lie in wait for unsuspecting investors? Should we sell all our equity investments until the smoke clears? Will the authorities take any meaningful action to prevent future recurrences? Will the crooks get away with just a "slap on the wrist"?
It is critical that those with the power to effect required changes respect the depth and seriousness of the concerns of Americans on these issues. Band-Aid solutions and political expediencies will not do. Yes, those responsible must be sufficiently punished. But more important, the incentives and weaknesses in the system that permitted the abuses to flourish must endure radical surgery.
This is more than just the result of lax practices during a long bull market, as some would have us believe. This is perversion of the American character by those who were entrusted with preserving some of its most vital and enduring values. This is a destruction of America by Americans. It can not be allowed to continue any longer.
Osama Bin Laden, wherever you are, we still aim to bring you and your cohorts to justice. But we have a little cleaning of our own house to do. If we fail, you may not need to do anything. Through inaction, we are capable of doing far more damage to ourselves than you could ever do.
William P. Bengen is owner of Bengen Financial Services Inc. in El Cajon, Calif.