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The Election as a Metaphor for Financial Planning

Some things to think about as Election Day nears.

David J. Drucker, 10/16/2008

The views expressed in this article are the author's. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Morningstar.

Here's what we know.

1. About 75% of all financial advisors vote Republican.

2. Republicans don't like to fill their heads with nonsense, such as anything that might expose them to how non-Republicans think about the world. Now, I don't really expect to change anyone's mind with this column--that is, get you of the GOP faith to change your vote. But at least hear what I've got to say. Because the election and what the two political parties have come to stand for mirror some of the same issues we grapple with year after year in the financial planning profession--namely, the question of who needs our service, who gets our service, and at what price to all?

Why do we vote the way we do? Because our parents voted that way or, even more encompassing, our family for generations has voted that way. Because our main concern is taxes and one party has always stood for low taxes. Or because our main concern is gay and lesbian rights, and one party has always championed those rights more than the other. Or maybe because one party better represents us in terms of our social standing and wealth profile than the other. Are those good reasons to vote for a particular party? Yes, if you think self-interest, alone, should be the force that guides your vote.

Now before you try and anticipate what I'm going to say or, for that matter, who I am--politically speaking--I want to share my own political odyssey with you. I grew up in a Democratic, Jewish household (most minorities vote Democratic, with some exceptions), but I turned against those beliefs in my early 20s. Business school has a way of doing that to you. After graduating with my MBA, I was thoroughly indoctrinated in the ways of capitalism and free markets, and their greatest defender--the Republican party.  Although I registered as an Independent, I voted Republican about two thirds of the time, a habit that eventually came to a screeching halt.

Why? It took time--maybe too much time--but I eventually learned that the way capitalism really works and what I'd learned from the textbooks used in my MBA program were undeniably different. In textbooks, the free markets work without fail. In the real world, we have the Arthur Andersens, Enrons, AIGs, WorldComs and, most recently, Lehman Brothers, whose common thread, it seems to me, is greed. Free market capitalism may be the best economic system in the world, but it's not a perfect system because human failings undercut the theoretical workings of a capitalistic society. And who gets hurt? The little guy. Any Republican (or Democratic) financial advisor with an empathic bone in his body should be able to feel for the Enron employees who lost 401(k) dollars invested in Enron stock which, for many, was the better part of their life savings.

It was this realization that focused my attention even more tightly on the question of Politics versus What's Really Important. The political process has a way of reducing What's Really Important down to a few key issues--issues that often are of little importance in the total scheme of things: abortion, gay rights, even taxes. Let's face it, the really tough issues are extremely difficult to get our minds around. Understanding (much less resolving) the health-care crisis, for example, seems insurmountable; it's much easier to focus on one or two issues that are more black and white and, hence, tend to be partisan issues. Health-care reform will be extraordinarily complicated; the abortion issue, by comparison, is a straightforward, black and white issue that one either accepts or rejects. If I focus solely on abortion in making my political choice, then I don't have to work my brain overtime trying to deal with the more complicated issue of who's the best candidate to successfully carry out health-care reform (which would require me to at least attempt to understand the failings of our health-care system).

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