We Pledge Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor…

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” From American Heritage magazine: When the Continental Congress opened its session of Friday, August 2, 1776, in Philadelphia, the major business of the day was to continue a somewhat moribund debate on the Articles of Confederation. An incidental piece of business was the signing, by all the delegates to the Congress, of an engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence—a matter which John Adams did not consider sufficiently important to mention in his diary of the day’s events. There is little evidence that the actual signing struck any delegates, other than the impressionable Ellery and the dramaturgic Hancock, as one of the great moments in history. The delegation from Massachusetts, where the war had been going on for well over a year, thought it was long overdue, and Samuel Adams grumbled constantly about its lateness. The fifty-six men who were to achieve an immortality, the true dimensions of which seem clearly to have escaped all of them, represented no single stratum of colonial life. They were of varied backgrounds, ages, education, property, and experience. But none signed casually. They were clearly aware, as Abraham Clark of New Jersey put it, that they would have “freedom or a halter.” All but four signers risked their lives and fortunes in spite of considerable family obligations. There is no doubt that the signers of the Declaration knew they were up to something far more serious than making a brave gesture when they put their signatures on the document. Indeed, for reasons of security, the Declaration with the signatures was not published until January, 1777—six months after the signing—for it was fully understood that if the Revolution failed, the signers would be rounded up, their property confiscated, and their lives forfeited. Altogether seventeen of the signers suffered extreme, and in some cases total, property losses. One in nine of them lost his life. But not one man of the fifty six lost his “sacred honor.”  Throughout the long ordeal of an often-floundering war, in a cause that at times seemed hopelessly lost, there was not among the fifty-six men a single defection—despite the reservations that some had had about independence at the beginning and despite the repeated sagging of popular support for the war.

Sacred honor, what an archaic idea, at least by the “standards” of modern times. Honor is what? Military colleges like West Point, paramilitary colleges like The Citadel, religious colleges like Notre Dame have honor codes, which they tend to enforce. Other types of colleges also have honor codes, though enforcement is more lax. Certain religions believe in honor killings, though whose, and what kind of honor is at stake is questionable. At the very least, honor is truthfulness. But how can honor be sacred? Sacred to whom? Perhaps the hint is contained in those concluding words of the Declaration, “with a firm reliance on Divine Providence.” In other words, maybe God, Divine Providence, sanctifies honor and makes it sacred. These colonists, militarily unschooled, lacking in resources, divided in their loyalties, with patriots against tories, by this Declaration of Independence, went to war against the world’s preeminent military power, Great Britain. Darn right they needed to rely on Divine intervention.

That was then. Now we have the proof that our model constitution, copied by other nations, works, at least for over 240 years, but we also have a surfeit of politicians and politics. The servants of the people are awash in perquisites, privileges and pandering, but honor? Not so much. I have no hesitation saying that George Washington is my favorite President. He’s the only one who didn’t want the job, resisted being acclaimed king, and wanted nothing more than to return to his home and provide for his family. Compare that to politicians today. Where did honor go?

Income Inequality, a shibboleth for our time!

In late October, 2018, someone in South Carolina won the mega millions lottery prize of $1.356 billion. Almost everyone else who bought tickets won nothing. In fact, they lost what they had spent on the tickets. As the amount of the prize grew, more and more people bought tickets, thus increasing the odds of their winning. I haven’t heard any complaints about income inequality. It must be a great system. The more people who participate by buying tickets, the higher the prize climbs while simultaneously the chance of any individual winning the prize diminishes proportionally. Could there be a greater example of income inequality than one person winning $1.356 billion and millions of others winning zero while paying for the privilege?

Jeff Bezos, the founder and chairman of Amazon, is currently, at least momentarily, the world’s wealthiest person, as measured by the market value of Amazon stock he owns. I hedge my position by using the words “currently” and “momentarily”, because equity wealth, as in stocks or real estate, is based on a somewhat arbitrary concept of “market value”, which is formally defined as “what a willing and informed buyer is willing to pay a willing seller.” While use of “willing” three times in a single sentence no doubt violates editorial standards, it is apt, because it denotes the following: it is temporary, it can change, it is subjective, and it is voluntary. Mr. Bezos’ stock value is based on the decisions of millions of shareholders, each of whom believe that the purchase of Amazon stock will increase their own wealth. So far, they are right. I bought amazon stock in 1998, when the share price was $4.79. On September, 2018, share price is $2,003. I should be rich! But I’m not. Thinking that the world was going to collapse on January 1, 2000 due to Y2K, I sold my Amazon stock for about $64 a share in 1999. Then I invested the proceeds in a small startup company that proposed to create a non-addictive analgesic from the venom of a poisonous snail. Eventually that company went under and I never recovered my investment. I bet on the wrong horse. The looming question now is, “whom should I blame?” Perhaps even a better question, for those who trust in God, is “am I a steward worthy of having my wealth management responsibilities increased?

Jeff is a billionaire, I not, despite all my 50+ years of hard work and my graduate level education. Shall I blame “structural discrimination”, you know, racism, sexism, ageism, genderism and assorted other “isms”? Nope! I’m white, old and not rich, born Jewish to boot, so there’s no excuse for me. The real structural problem is between my ears, and yours. I was riding a bus one day, and picked up a copy of Inc Magazine that someone had left behind. I read an article about a computer company that some university of Texas student named Michael Dell started out of his dorm room. The article predicted his model would really take off, and the company would soon be going public. As it turned out, the initial public offering price, which the general public usually can’t buy, was $8.50 a share in 1988. The stock quadrupled in value the next 4 years. I thought, when I read the article, “what a dumb idea”. Who’s dumb now?

But material wealth is a measure of what? If you believe in God who owns everything and who created you, material wealth is not something you own, rather something you manage as a steward for the real owner, God. The story of Robert LeTourneau is instructive. God gave him the ability to design powerful earth moving equipment, and he in turn resolved to give back to God’s work 90% of his income. But behold, as his income, and thus his management ability grew, no matter how much he gave away, the 10% he retained just kept growing. The miserly experience the opposite phenomenon. Are you generous? You will be able to grow in generosity. Are you miserly? You will grow in that too!

If you want to reduce your own income inequality, here’s the simple steps that will make all the difference. Save either 5% or 10% of your earnings before spending anything; create a budget which tracks your income, all spending, and allots a certain percentage of income for saving and giving (here’s where you will find out how much you can save without pinching your lifestyle); as your savings increase, decide how much needs to remain in savings as a cash reserve for emergencies–three to six months worth of expenses is recommended–and invest the rest. When I use the terms “save and “invest”, here’s what I mean: savings are very low or no risk of loss of value, very easily accessible without penalties, and consequently very low prospect of growth, like bank accounts; investments are the opposite of those characteristics, with prominent examples being stock mutual funds. If you want details consult with a financial planner, but following these steps WILL build wealth and cure your own structural inequality! That is, as long as you show yourself to God as a worthy steward.