What if…?

What if the future of the human race depended on the financial planning profession? This means those of you serving as individual practitioners. Too much pressure? Because I am not kidding.

I know you probably did not ask for this level of responsibility when you enlisted. No matter. In many respects, our work engages the functional equivalent of war. Lives are at stake. In other words, we can’t just phone it in.

Take a breath. Look in the mirror. Do your best Daniel Craig or Angelina Jolie. Envision the world with the clock ticking down to its moment of doom should the hero (yes, that’s us all right) fail to act. As in the movies, there is but one world saver in the room. Take another look in the mirror. Who else is there? That’s right—no one. Remember, the clock is ticking. For real.

I suggest that this one and only world saver is the financial planning profession and its vanguard of worthy professionals. To put it plainly, the financial planning profession (or a linguistic variation of appropriate inclusivity) could be/is the most important authentic profession of the 21st century. We merit such stature because we work with extraordinary forces. These forces challenge individuals and societies with complexities beyond most people’s ranges of comprehension—think ultrasonic dog whistles.

Don’t call me crazy. Clearly this is an audacious claim. You may rightly ask, “What about all those other folks doing such important work? Doctors save lives. Lawyers serve civility. Theologians save souls and engage human dignity while inventors, scientists, psychologists, engineers and other like folk move humanity through its evolutionary labyrinths. We are just a bunch of salesmen little removed from Monday night phone calls. Are you insane? More important than them? “

Breathe again. Yes. Obviously, these are all important professions, but they each require healthy relationships with money to function effectively and efficiently. They need us to help them with that.

You may ask, “Why me/us?”

My answer: Our work is ultimately the most important of all professions because it affects everything else at the roots. It is essential to the peace, freedom and prosperity of the human species individually and collectively—and, frankly, because this work is mostly inadequate and/or undone. In 2013, most folks have successfully proved they are mostly incapable of achieving a healthy relationship with their financial resources or realizing an adequate understanding of their relationships with money. In other words, they need professional assistance.

The clear alternatives to money and a healthy financial planning profession are neither gentle nor kind. They include unproductive and destructive dependencies and the deterioration of vital social units, on the one hand. On the other, the alternatives to healthy money relationships appear to be waste, violence, antisocial behaviors and increased government controls. Money works best when it serves individual decision-makers. The bigger the decision-maker, generally speaking, the more waste can be anticipated.

Strong, vigorous relationships with money generate flourishing families, communities and nations. With a healthy financial planning profession in the game, individuals can get the help they need to engage money healthily and holistically.

I further suggest that money is conceptually embedded in each critical issue facing humanity. The absence of healthy understandings with respect to money is killer to too many good ideas and potentially productive efforts.

Finally, I suggest that the financial planning profession, and only the financial planning profession, is capable of bringing appropriate perspective to money and its roles in the lives of individuals. It is the financial planner’s privilege and duty to work with individual human beings and our relationships with money. Done right, we are futurists, counselors and sources of literal survival skills. Our duties are not just fiduciary duties but so much more.

I know many of us don’t want to hear this. “I’m just a salesman” is the plea. Too bad. We’re past that. For most people, the financial planner may be the one and only source of quality financial perspective. Sales have made a good life and a great living for many, but they should not be confused with the fiduciary profession that is emerging. With great reward comes great responsibility.

A bit of housekeeping: By “financial planners” I am talking about individual fiduciary advisors working one on one with individuals and families with respect to their relationships with money and the awesome forces that it generates.

For now, I am using the term “financial planner” because this group has the most numbers and the best internal political structures. These circumstances being duly noted, the class could include numerous others, including subsets of other fields related to finance, provided they are accepting fiduciary responsibilities and work with individuals with real faces, unique stories and relationships with money that are as individualized as their fingerprints.

If you have read other articles of mine, you know that I believe academic and corporate indifference to individuals has been institutionalized by macroeconomists. First, there is no word in the English language to describe the relationships between individuals and money. Second, macroeconomists dismiss individual human beings as mere units of consumption motivated only to maximize our supposed “utilities.” Finally, macroeconomists have declared money to be “value neutral”—a “related adjective suggesting independence from a value system.”

The absence of words to describe our relationship with money is simply crippling. It is probably job one for the next phase of our development. Macroeconomists have failed humanity miserably by focusing on mathematics and envying the white coats of authentic scientists rather than developing tools that would help humanity (like useful words!) Finally, financial planners know money is value-laden, not value-neutral. Indeed, this is where our work gets juicy.

Regardless of how we describe ourselves, those of us working with individuals are the ones in a position to make money personal and grasp where it fits into discrete lives. We are the ones who are in a position to help individuals develop healthy and satisfying relationships with the stuff to the benefit of their own lives and the lives they touch.

We are the ones who can help put money in its place.

It seems to me financial planners must come to understand the importance of money in the current era. Money is not as it ever was. Ancient literature often conflated money with greed, power and abuse in class systems and tyrannies. Most people had little or no access to money; much less were they dependent upon it. Moreover, their issues were different. Money was exposed to huge risks of theft and catastrophe. Physical losses of treasure due to robbery or natural disasters were pervasive. For the most part, physical labor generated new riches, including food, health care, shelter and clothing. Both work and retirement plans were in the backyard; family was local and “retirement” meant incapacity soon followed by death.

It was also before money became core to literal survival. Twenty-first century money is different than money has ever been. Today, money has itself at the center of our social realities.

Indeed, it is my belief that the financial planning profession has emerged as a matter of historical imperative. As money came to be the primary vehicle of human interaction, society and individuals came to need objective financial advisors. Therein, we find the seeds of the financial planning profession—seeds that are still evolving.

The first order of business is to give money the profound respect it deserves. That means understanding it. I suggest the following are elemental tenets of modern money:

1. Money is the most powerful and pervasive secular force on the planet.

2. Money skills are 21st century survival skills. It is impossible to function in 21st century America without some basic financial skills, even if they are only the skills of begging or working the various subsidy systems.

3.  Money skills do not come naturally to human beings. We eat, drink, sleep and process without thought. Not so with money.

4. Money is humanity’s primary vehicle of mutual relationships and self-organization. It enables humans to arrange necessary functions, to work together freely and productively and to face each other (mostly) nonviolently.

5. The support of 7 billion people would be impossible without money. Imagine the world functioning without money.

6. Everybody is weird about money. Since money is spent by individuals—i.e., someone approves the checks—individual weirdness translates into social and political weirdness.

7. In free countries, the default policy must be for individuals to accept the possibilities and responsibilities of self-care. This means they must address money in the contexts of their whole lives, not just the immediate, foreseeable future.

8. Compassion is appropriate for those not capable of meeting money’s demands. A significant portion of the population is quite literally incapable of earning its own living. Children, the elderly, the mentally and physically incapacitated, and the like cannot earn as the rest of the population might prefer. That said, however, “compassion” is a mutable concept with significant political implications.

9. Money requires healthy notions of wealth and wealth building. That said, the financial planning profession, together with individuals and society at large, must come to understand that “money” does not equal wealth. “Wealth” is a state of being, sufficiency and mind. “Money” is just money.

10. Money’s nature with respect to individuals is not clearly understood. Macroeconomists generally describe money as having three essential social functions. There are no equivalents for individuals at this juncture. That’s our job.

11. There is nothing more intimate than money. Money reflects one’s authentic values with clarity and accuracy.

12. Money mutates constantly and dramatically. The money that we have today, fiat money, bears little resemblance to the money of ancient times—or even Depression-era money.

13. Intelligent money management requires future-think—namely, knowing facts about the future that are inherently unknowable. No other advisory profession must take this unknown and unknowable future into account as extensively as financial planners.

14. Money is the lifeblood of the body social.

15. Money is an ultimate form of sharing. The phrase “my money” is an oxymoron. Money requires contexts of reciprocity and exchange.

16. Money is value-rich, not value-neutral. “Where your treasure is, your heart shall also be.”

17. It is not in the nature of money to ever be “enough.” Enough said.

18. It is not in the nature of money to ever provide reliable security for individuals or social units. Likewise.

19. Money is key to the most important decisions of an individual’s life. Indeed.

20. Money is generally a peaceful means of human interaction. This is a profound concept.

21. Money is humanity’s most profound creation. Used appropriately, it garners unused energies to address unmet needs. It unlocks human wealth-building capacities unlike any other force.

All this speaks to the importance of the financial planning profession. I suggest that money can be efficiently and productively used only when users understand it. Right now, they don’t. They need us.

Financial planners are necessarily futurists. What are the implications of money? What should we do when politicians start viewing qualified plans as found money?

When do we share our insights with public policy decision-makers? When is it appropriate to engage in politics? When and how can we stand in against the macroeconomists’ assault on individuals?

As time unfolds, financial planners will likely be serving roles that are beyond current conceptions. Concepts of money can be expanded to include social functions such as child care, education and elder care. Our current conceptions of money unnecessarily limit its possibilities. Where should financial planners play in the development and transmission of complementary currencies?

As much as we might like one, there is no road map for developing the financial planning profession. Nonetheless, the future beckons imperiously. Financial planning will be part of it in ways yet unimagined but likely glorious.

World saving may be scary, but the profession has already met significant challenges in its 44 short years. The future’s demands are profound. So are we. We can do this. The answers are in the room.