Matters Column

Our culture of honesty lubricates the tracks of commerce

January 22, 2016
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There was a Playboy cartoon in the late ’50s about the Greek historian Diogenes. A Greek man asks a passerby with an oil lamp if he is Diogenes looking for an honest man. The answer is, “No I am Zorba looking for a crooked accountant.”

What makes it funny? There are people we expect to be honest and fair. A crooked accountant should be as rare as hens’ teeth.

Honesty and the sanctity of contracts is the core of American business and is the reason we have one of the best business climates in the world. The foundation of that system of laws is government, the judiciary, customs and people. We expect honesty almost without question in the judiciary system. When the people we trust to fairly implement our laws and contracts are corrupted, the whole system fails.

Corruption in government is inherent in what it does. Government collects money from various sources and then redistributes those funds to the public. There is going to be a great squabbling over who pays and who receives.

The federal government collects and distributes more than a trillion dollars a year. A situation like that attracts corruption like manure attracts flies. No matter the argument that much of what passes for political contributions is really influence buying.

It would seem the solutions to many of our problems in education, immigration, the economy, etc., are relatively simple. What complicates things is big money can hinder almost any improvement and accelerate any damaging laws. If your district is highly unionized, you cannot win as a conservative. If you are in a district made up of independent business owners and farmers, a liberal is going to be a rare sight in the legislature. 

Unions, chambers of commerce and any other groups organized in a common interest will put their money to use supporting a politician who shares their values and votes with their financial interest in mind.

If you doubt that assertion, read the income tax law and ask yourself why there is ethanol in your gas. Both are the direct result of who gets elected, and who gets elected is a direct result of who collects the most financial support, aka influence peddling.

So we have laws made by government and enforced by the judiciary. Judges are almost always lawyers — therein lay a lot of the problems. A smart lawyer knows the law and the facts of his case. A clever lawyer (like Johnnie Cochran — OJ's lawyer) knows people and persuasion. In reality, the presentation is often more important than the facts.

A really interesting area is a kind of private judiciary called arbitration. The idea is to avoid the expense of legal fees a trial requires. Whoever the judge or arbitrator is, they must be unbiased in their decision making, or the system breaks down. In situations where judges are elected, the judge has been elected due to the support of people with an agenda. If you are facing a judge or arbitrator in a dispute, you need to know that person is unbiased in their opinion. If they are not, you have the right to appeal. That is not true with binding arbitration, so be very careful about using it and in picking the arbitrator.

Our culture is under attack by other cultures. Maybe they are right on some issues, but our culture of honesty and enforcing contracts lubricates the tracks of commerce. We know it isn't perfect. What we do have is a system to address the misunderstandings or deliberate misdeeds that occur in business. That is not true in many countries, and many cultures do not value fairness or honesty. As much as I hate the IRS, at least we attempt to fairly administer our flawed tax system. In many countries, tax avoidance is rampant to the extent of threatening the viability of the country.

People and their beliefs and values determine the quality of life.

Look at West Michigan. I don't know that I would want to live anywhere else. The culture of hard work, community involvement and conservative values gives West Michigan what I have heard referred to as the “Dutch bubble.” Love ’em or hate ’em, we live in an area heavily influenced by Dutch culture. Thank you, Van whoever.

America loves the good guy. Movies like “Erin Brockovich” give us a good feeling as we see the little guy stand up to the corrupt and greedy big corporation. One of our strongest-felt beliefs is the power of being right and fair.

We don't have it perfect yet and probably never will. We will, however, keep trying.

The great philosopher Calvin in “Calvin and Hobbes” states he understands life is not fair and that is OK with him as long as it unfair in his favor. Even though we strive for fairness, there will almost always be events in a small business where you come out on the short end of the stick.

Being betrayed by customers, vendors, relatives, friends, employees and professionals is just a fact of life. Sometimes the betrayal seems overwhelming. When you experience betrayal, it can lead to bitterness and anger, which affects everyone around you negatively and hurts the people who care about you. Get over it. You’re hurting the ones who love you, not the people who betrayed you.

There is a Buddhist fable about a woman who loses a child and feels she cannot live with the grief. She asks a wise monk to help her. He tells her to go through the village, stop at each house and ask what tragedies have befallen that household. From each home that has not suffered a tragedy, she was to collect one mustard seed. She returned to the monk empty-handed.

Everybody experiences grief and everyone experiences betrayal.   

If you suffer what feels like an overwhelming betrayal, seek help from your cleric or explore mindfulness meditation or see a psychologist. As long as you dwell on your self-pity, you are depriving your loved ones of your company — and, remember, stress kills.

And while you’re feeling low, think of how you would feel if you were Jewish in Europe in 1944, or if you were driven off your land in Georgia because you were a Cherokee and suffered on the Trail of Tears in the 1839 forced move west of the Mississippi.

Whatever is eating at you pales in comparison. Get over it and keep on keeping on.

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates and past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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