"Out with the old, in with the new!"
Rarely have those words been uttered with more enthusiasm than at the beginning of 2009.
2008 was an historic and unsettling year. Our economy imploded, the President abandoned free market principles "in order to save the free market system," and government assumed an unprecedented role in financing our economy. Business magnates, from bankers to automakers, pleaded for a bailout—and got one from Uncle Sugar. Gas prices took a roller coaster ride, soaring, then plunging in the second half of the year. Political and celebrity scandals abounded, from John Edwards' and Eliot Spitzer's infidelities to Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's pay to play scandal to Britney Spear's meltdown and resurgence. Things were so chaotic on the domestic front that some almost forgot that there was a war going on. Not surprisingly, Americans voted for "change" and elected their first African-American as President. The Democrats took control of both houses of Congress and Republicans were kicked to the curb.
But rather than dwell on the best and worst of 2008, it may be a better use of our time to look ahead to what's in store for our country in the new year.
The dawning of a new year is always an exciting time. We celebrate it by popping corks on champagne bottles, lighting sparklers, and watching the big ball drop in Times Square. We get together with friends and loved ones and count down the hours, minutes, and seconds until the new year. The celebration is important, for the advent of a new year is a symbol of what is to come, of new beginnings, resolutions, renewal, and the hopes of all to be better and to live better in the year to come.
This new year provides us with a new opportunity to improve on the sorry state of politics and the economy in our country. Our culture's character was on display during 2008. We paid a high price for the lack of it and we have a chance for reform in 2009.
The new year provides us with the opportunity to reinstitute the notions of virtue and moderation as important guideposts in the conduct of our business and financial affairs. For far too long, the marketplace has been viewed as a virtue-free zone—a place were "self-interest" operated free of moral restraints. This attitude has turned something good (a free market economy) into a system where the interests of others were irrelevant to our economic decision making. As a result, radical self interest and unrestrained greed characterized many of our transactions. The housing debacle provides a good example. Home buyers bought more house than they could afford, unhesitatingly misrepresenting their financial capacity to repay their loans. Lenders encouraged irresponsible loans in exchange for handsome up front fees because they expected to pass the risk to downstream institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who, in turn, packaged the bad loans as securities and sold them to investors who were looking for unprecedented returns. All the way along the line, the participants were looking out only for themselves. They were unconcerned for the welfare of any other party to the transaction. This lack of virtue and restraint was commonplace in the broader markets and resulted in a financial meltdown, the likes of which haven't been seen since The Great Depression.
Aristotle showed great insight into the nature of man when he said, "The virtue of justice consists in moderation, as regulated by wisdom." This moderation (or restraint) which is necessary for a flourishing free market economy has been virtually absent in the business practices which led to our current economic calamity. All of us would do well to adopt it in the new year.
How often have we been tempted to buy something we couldn't afford? To keep up with the Joneses? To regard entertainment as more important than responsible behavior? The new year provides us with an opportunity to reclaim financial responsibility not only for our own interests, but also for the interests of others. Perhaps we will once again realize that our financial decisions impact others, that personal responsibility is good for all people, ourselves included, and that thrift and savings do not merit scorn and derision.
What has been true in the economic arena has been no less true in the political arena. Virtue and moderation have been anything but the hallmarks of American political behavior in the last year. A spirit of hyper partisanship has fostered a continuation of the politics of personal destruction. The smallest amount of blood in the water resulted in a veritable feeding frenzy as each party sought to capitalize on the political peccadilloes of their opponents. The conduct of Ted Stevens, William Jefferson, and Rod Blagojevich were emblematic of public servants who had lost their way and put their own interests ahead of the interests of their constituents. Hopefully, the excesses of the last year will point out the need for a recovery of virtue and moderation in the political arena in the coming new year.
Indeed, this new year presents all of us with the opportunity for the renewal of virtue and restraint in our political and economic affairs. Two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul exhorted his co-worker Titus: "Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men." (Titus 3:1-2 NIV) Paul's advice is as good now as it was then. We will all do well to take his instruction to heart and to pursue these virtues in every dimension of our lives in this coming new year.