Aspects of Dutch culture have profited this region

March 16, 2009
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Peter the Great, the czar of Russia, spent two years in The Netherlands observing Dutch culture. His observations were an attempt to understand how such a small country could be so powerful.

I moved to Grand Rapids in 1972 and also observed the effects of Dutch culture. Having no palace to return to in Flint, I stayed here.

Much of the financial plague visited upon us today could have been avoided had the principles that Peter the Great and I learned from the Dutch been followed. There were more than 300 years separating our experiences, but the lessons were the same: Culture is destiny.

There are certain aspects of Dutch culture that naturally lead to good economic results. For instance: Neither a (stupid) borrower nor a (stupid) lender be. How arguable is that?

It seems that so many of the lessons could be classified as common sense. Think about it for a minute. Only thieves (meaning Wall Street) and fools (meaning politicians) could ever have conjured up this mess.

What the Russian Czar and I both saw in Dutch culture was simple common sense. Russia had, and maybe still has, a culture of blind political loyalty and rampant alcohol abuse. Eastern Michigan will vote predominately Democratic until the last employer leaves Michigan. Having the majority population, they tend to dominate our state’s politics. Hopefully, before we reach the point of no return, Michigan residents will wake up to the shell game they are experiencing now.

I asked a banker years ago what the difference was between banking in east and West Michigan. He said people in West Michigan distinguish between earned and borrowed money.

I don’t think financial guru Dave Ramsey is Dutch, but he might be an honorary Hollander. If you use long-term financing for consumption, you are eventually going to hit a brick wall financially. Long after the tropical vacation, the debt remains. Add years of accumulated expensive vacations to your long-term debt and you’d better enjoy the memories, because that’s all you’re going to have.

Another lesson from Dutch culture: Keep what you earn. Maybe it is because the Dutch believe in earning their money through hard work that they like to hang on to it.

Small business is a large part of the West Michigan economy. In big business, you can get ahead by knowing how to manipulate the organization. My proof is the former “Big Three” — there is a term that I do not like.

I have heard people say that they work smart, not hard. Bernie Madoff subscribed to that philosophy. In the words of an old song from the 1950s, “Work your fingers to the bone, what do you get? Bony fingers.”

You must combine working hard and working smart. Working smart usually indicates you’re a charlatan. Working hard without smart is usually servitude.

Yet another lesson from Dutch culture: Community counts. Look around at Kent and Ottawa counties. Then take a trip driving south on I-75 from Saginaw County through Wayne County. Thank our local entrepreneurs, many of whom are of Dutch descent, for the difference.

If seeing their names on so many of the buildings annoys you, put a few million dollars of your own wealth into the community and you can put your name on something. Executives in Grand Rapids have heavily re-invested their earnings into the community. If you’re jealous of their success, go out and make your own fortune. Nobody is stopping you.

Culture is destiny. There are many successful people in West Michigan who are not Dutch. That being said, the foundation of what makes West Michigan work was laid by the Dutch settlers in the mid-19th century.

They may still feel that if you’re not Dutch, you’re not much, but we can forgive them for that attitude. We should be thankful they came here and established this community.

The culture that drew those of us who were not born here to West Michigan still makes this a superior community in which to thrive.

Paul A. Hense, CPA, is president of Hense & Associates, a local accounting firm. He also is past chairman of the National Small Business Association and of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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