That is the question one of my highly enlightened museletter readers asked me after reading my last two editions – one filled with scary news of eminent financial collapse from the Aspen Ideas Festival and the other telling inspiring stories of good guys who give me hope.
Ever since I wrote those two chapters, I have been listening for opinions from some very smart people. I’ll try to give you a feel for what I have heard.
It’s Going to be a Long Slog
One sophisticated hedge fund operator actually called me to beg me to write a more alarming museletter. He said, “I manage money for lots of Christians and I believe they have no idea how bad it is going to be. Investors will be lucky to make 2% a year for the next five years. And most of them are going to get killed in the stock market.” Wow!
Another investment maven I make it a point to talk to each year in Aspen managed to capture almost the same point of view in seven words: “It’s going to be a long slog.” He told me two years ago that we were definitely heading into a new world that would last 25 years. Hmmmmm.
A Nasty Crawl
The best short analysis from one of the smartest people alive, David Brooks of The New York Times (July 29), puts it this way:
“We could be in for a long, slow decade. There’s a confluence of forces that are probably going to retard economic vitality.
“Consumers are still overindebted, and it will take years of curtailed spending before households are back on a sustainable path. Federal and state governments also will have to pull back. Labor markets were ill before the recession and are worse now.
“Our trading partners in Europe and Japan are stagnant or in peril. Banks in this country are not lending to small businesses and banks elsewhere have huge write-downs to endure. The psychological war between business and the Obama administration also is taking a toll. Business types think the administration is stuffed with clueless professors. Some administration officials think corporate honchos are free-market hypocrites prowling for corporate welfare.
“What we have is not just a cycle but a condition. We could look back on the period between 1980 and 2006 as the long boom and the period between 2007 and 2014 or so as the nasty crawl.”
I Refuse to Live in Fear
A North Dakota reader said, “Frightened or encouraged? I am neither one. I refuse to live in fear because the Lord is trustworthy in all conditions. If my trust was in the temporal, I would be scared out of my mind. I am not encouraged about the state of our nation. Economically, socially, and spiritually, we are in terrible shape … I have come to the conclusion that the most important investment for the tough times is in deep, meaningful relationships. If things turn out rosy, we still come out way ahead!!!
This response was mirrored by one of the most energetic people I know, Pamela Hawley, a bright young person who is Founder and CEO of Universal Giving, who said, “I can see the fear if I want to. And yet, I am resolutely encouraged. Giving is being pushed down. It is no longer about the 50-year old who has it made and wants to give back. Giving is taking place at the age of 10. College students are using their spring vacation to build homes. Media stations are using their news stations to get people involved. Good people, good things, good partnerships are transpiring. Find them, see them, stoke them, cherish them. And goodness will begin to explode across the world in the most wonderful way. It already is.”
Unwavering faith that we will figure it out and do well
Every year I manage to have dinner with Jim Collins. This time was in Chicago. Collins is the most curious person I know. He and his team of “Chimps” have spent the last seven years doing what he calls “turbulence research.” He has a big book coming out. He said, “We need to understand what separates those who do well from those who don’t do well when the world spins completely out of our control. There is no New Normal. We are now dealing with a world that is going to be ferocious. The volatilities, the turbulence, the uncertainties of the world will probably define the second half of my life.”
But Collins is optimistic and a lot of that has to do with the young generation, a group of people I am still trying to figure out. Collins said this in an article from Inc magazine (April 2009) that I read on my flight back from Chicago:
“A general at West Point told me, “This is the most inspired and inspiring generation to come through West Point since 1945.” I see the same thing with the young people who come to work for me. They have a sense of responsibility and service and a lack of cynicism that is remarkable and wonderful. It’s an ethos, and it’s collective. That’s what’s really powerful. It’s connected technologically. It’s not grandiose, but there is a fundamental assumption of being part of a much larger world and a much larger set of aspirations. The world can be a really awful, brutal, turbulent place. And yet I’m hopeful precisely because of this generation of kids. I really think we ought to just give them the keys as soon as we can. Let them run it.”
The Giving Pledge
I was surprised that several readers – none of them well off – two of them leading nonprofit organizations and one with four kids, expressed a willingness to sign the Gates/Buffett Giving Pledge to give 50% of their net worth to charitable pursuits. Gates and Buffett, of course, define net worth in money terms for their billionaires.
I personally believe the Giving Pledge is applicable to anyone. What they are giving might be whatever is most valuable to them – their money, their time invested to serve others, and frequently their executive skills. Someone needs to pick up the banner on this idea for the rest of us non-billionaire folks. Jim Collins’ favorite Social Entrepreneur of this decade is Wendy Kopp, Teach for America, who began as a student in Princeton. Teach for America had 46,000 applications this past year. Tom Tierney’s Bridgespan (consulting for nonprofits) had 2,500 applications for 25 slots. Tierney and Kopp represent two people with talent and energy who started their enterprises from scratch.
My own conclusion
I would have to join those who say I am both/and. I really believe all the stuff I am hearing about the world being totally unpredictable. Two years ago, we had $50 trillion worth of asset value being supported by $25 trillion worth of debt. Today, according to the calculation of another of my money mavens, we have $25 trillion worth of assets being supported by $25 trillion worth of debt. The country feels like we are deeply committed to becoming European welfare state. But as one other reader said, “The level of energy among leaders like those you described in your second letter is incredibly high. I feel compelled to believe ‘we will get there’ – almost as a matter of faith.”
And finally, in the words of reader from Arizona, “Only because I know where I am going when this earth ends, I am encouraged.” It is probably the only certainty that those of us who know Christ have in a world defined by instability.
So What about You? — Are you encouraged, scared, or both?
Bob Buford is chairman of the board of The Buford Foundation/Leadership Network and, until the sale of his company in July 1999, served as chairman of the board and CEO of Buford Television, Inc., a family-owned business that started with a single ABC affiliate in Tyler, Texas, in the early fifties, and grew to a network of cable systems across the country. A classic entrepreneur, Bob has authored four books – HalfTime, Game Plan, Stuck in Halftime (Zondervan), and Finishing Well (Integrity). Bob was the founder and initial chairman of the board of the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management, now Leader to Leader Institute. He and his wife Linda make their home in Dallas, Texas.