The Pathetic Truth About Memorial Day and How to Fix It

James Kostohryz
May 27, 2013

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- A few years ago, I visited a town in southern Holland where it is a tradition for children there to "adopt" the grave of one of the thousands of American soldiers that were killed in the struggle to liberate the area from the Nazis during WWII.

On that day, I watched as a young boy carefully plucked weeds, cleared debris and gingerly placed flowers on the grave of a man he never knew.

Noticing that I was observing him, the boy stepped toward me and innocently asked a question that I will never forget: "Do the children in America adopt the graves of soldiers?"

The child looked up at me expectantly, as I hesitated just briefly before uttering my reply: I said, "Yes, American children do that, too."

I lied. I was simply too ashamed to tell this child the truth.

Today I am going to utter a few truths about the condition of Memorial Day in the USA.

The Pathetic Truth

If I had been candid to that young Dutch boy, this is what I would have told him: Would I have been exaggerating? No.

A poll commissioned by the National WWII Museum in 2011 revealed that 80% of Americans are mostly or totally unfamiliar with the meaning of Memorial Day or the reason it is celebrated. A separate poll taken by Gallup in 2000 reported that only 28% of Americans could correctly cite the meaning of Memorial Day.

In an informal survey that I took of American children, not a single one of them had any idea of the meaning of Memorial Day. And children caring for graves? PULEEEESE!

Let's be honest with ourselves, folks: Memorial Day is dead in America. Or at least, it is in a critically morbid condition. And it is very difficult to imagine how it will ever be resurrected.

Why We Don't Care Anymore

Many of us fancy the notion that we "don't have time for that sort of stuff anymore." Is it true? In 1960, each day had 24 hours. In 2013 each day still has 24 hours. So, clearly, the actual amount of time available to us is not the issue.

By saying we "do not have time," we seem to fancy the notion that people in our generation are somehow "busier" than people of previous epochs. Well, it is certainly true that we are very busy doing lots of stuff today that our forbearers never did.

For example, according to Nielsen , the average American above the age of two spends about 6.5 hours per day watching TV; they spend about 4.5 hours surfing the Internet on PCs, smart phones and tablets; they spend about an hour talking on cell phones. And this does not even fully reflect how stressed Americans are, since they are multi-tasking between all of the above for about three of those 11 total hours spent consuming various forms of media!

Some of us like to fancy that many of the 4.5 hours per day spent online is work related -- such as checking email at home and such. But studies show that the vast majority of time online in America is spent on social networking (i.e., Facebook and Twitter), games and other forms of online entertainment. Only about 5% of all online time is actually consumed for business purposes. And every single labor study that I have seen shows that Americans with full-time jobs work fewer total hours today than they did 50 or 100 years ago.

So, not "having time" is just a bad excuse.

The bottom line is, that when it comes to honoring those who died in battle in the service of their nation, Americans just don't give a damn any more.

Why We Don't Care

Let's not fool ourselves. It's not that people 50 years ago "didn't have anything better to do with their time." For example, when you are a farmer, there is simply not enough time in the day to do all the things that one theoretically could do to make a plot of land more productive and earn more money.

While the Internet had not yet been invented, there were plenty of neighborhood bars and Domino tables at friends' houses to keep one entertained with games and social networking.

The difference is not one of available time: It is one of values and culture.

In prior ages, it was implicitly believed that not all available time was entirely our "own" to spend it as we wished in pursuit of our personal enrichment, financial or otherwise.

Prevailing beliefs, widely reinforced through the culture, were that some portions of our time "belonged" to our families, to our communities, and to God. And honoring our forbearers was simply one of those "obligatory" cultural activities by which Americans came into communion with their families, communities and God.

In today's post-modern culture, the quaint notion that we owe any time or effort to anyone or anything beyond our own personal self-interest has almost entirely collapsed. As a result, we are all busy single-mindedly advancing our personal goals and cutting out everything that does not maximize our bottom line.

What Is Lost With Economic Thinking

In the singular pursuit of our personal goals, we have discovered that the field of economics offers us a vocabulary and a comprehensive conceptual framework that is very useful to us thinking about how to maximize our personal utility.

Indeed, the entire field of modern economics is largely defined by conceptual framework that assumes that we will all be happiest if we behave as perfectly rational beings that continually strive to maximize our personal utilities. It's a mode of thinking that is tailor-made for and by our post-modern culture.

Yet there are at least two problems with this mode of thinking that increasingly dominates our society. First, humans are not perfectly rational -- and, as it turns out, much of human happiness depends on incommensurably complex factors that are supportive of vital emotions and sentiments that cannot be reduced to calculations of utility at all.

Second, while the economic mindset may enable us to quickly assess what is good for us in a given situation within a clearly visible period of time, it often does not serve as a particularly good heuristic for achieving long-run happiness.

For example, it is easy to measure how much we can save from taking advantage of the latest Memorial Day discount offered at Wal-Mart and Target . But how do we account for the long-term loss to our collective well-being from failing to honor those who gave their lives in the service of their country?

Thus, any model of life based on a thoroughgoing rational maximization of personal utility will ultimately prove incompatible with the nature of human beings and the fullest realization of their happiness.

Something is clearly lost when we manage all of our lives by way of standard economic analysis.

When we neglect our fallen soldiers, we become alienated from the sort of emotional and spiritual forces that inspired our forbearers to undertake the sort of self-sacrifices necessary to create and preserve the flourishing civilization that we are all beneficiaries of today.

What Can Be Done?

The very scheduling of Memorial Day on our calendar has been driven by commercial logic. For more than a century, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30. However, in 1971, largely at the behest of various interest groups that benefit economically from extended holidays (airlines, hotels, retailers, and etc.) the celebration was moved by Congress to the last Friday of May in order to create another three-day weekend.

Even on purely economic terms, it is difficult to see how a nation that suffers from a dangerously low savings rate ultimately benefits from legislation designed to encourage more consumerism. However, savings and investment are not all that have potentially been lost.

For well over a decade, Senator Daniel Inouye tirelessly introduced legislation, supported by many groups concerned with Memorial Day, to return this day of remembrance to the traditional date on the 30th of May. This was his logic:

Predictably, given the commercial interests at stake, his proposals were ignored, and nothing ever came of them.

For my own part, I doubt whether moving Memorial Day back to the 30th of May would have made that much of a difference in terms of focusing U.S. citizens on the true purpose of this day of remembrance. As I alluded to earlier, the problem is not so much the consumerism (actually, over one quarter of American's work on Memorial Day); the problem is that we have adopted a cultural mindset that does not enable us to recognize any real benefit that accrues to us from taking time and effort to honor fallen soldiers.

Therefore, if we do not see and feel the value in honoring those who died in the service of our country, then we simply will not do it, no matter what date we designate as Memorial Day.

The change that is required is spiritual; not material.

The Wall Street Mindset: An Ironic Twist

In my view, one of America's most challenging problems is that its citizens do not understand and/or feel the need for cultivating different spheres of life beyond those that directly maximize their self-interest in the short term.

In this respect, the economic mode of thought, which is both an effect and a cause of this cultural shift, contributes to this problem by influencing and/or dominating our thinking about spheres of life in which this manner of analysis is not appropriate.

In effect, what Americans require in order to address this fundamental confusion is an enhanced capacity for distinguishing various incommensurate spheres in their lives and to appropriately compartmentalize the economic mode of thought to those spheres in which it is best applied, while unleashing other emotional and spiritual forces in the spheres of life that most require them.

This is where what I will loosely call the "investment mindset" can be very useful intellectually, emotionally and spiritually to those investors who have cultivated it.

It may seem ironic to some, but investment is a craft that, when properly practiced, is a spirit-building activity. It is craft -- acquired only with great dedication -- that requires the conscious compartmentalization of rational and emotional processes into different spheres as well as the ability to harness these disparate forces toward the achievement of highly specific ends.

This ability to compartmentalize various rational and emotional impulses and to clearly discern and apply their usefulness within various spheres is precisely the sort of ability that needs to be cultivated more widely in the citizenry of the U.S. -- or at least amongst the intellectual and spiritual leadership of the nation -- if there is any hope of resurrecting the values that are meant to be exalted in society through Memorial Day.

Successful investors know when to ignore surrounding emotionalism and become hyper-rational; at the same time, they must know when to "turn-off" the logic-parsing and take the sort of bold actions that can only be successfully executed by harnessing emotions such as fear and transforming them into courage.

Similarly, to be successful in the long run, Americans need to turn off their Apple iPhones for a moment and create sufficient time and mental space to meditate upon the noble values and sentiments that inspired others to create and defend the great civilization in which they live. And in particular, it behooves Americans to reflect upon the emotional and spiritual forces that inspired many thousands of men to give their lives for a cause greater than their narrow self-interest.

If these noble sentiments that exalt the values of service and self-sacrifice are not cultivated amongst her citizenry through traditions such as Memorial Day, America is unlikely to remain a great nation.

Conclusion

On a narrow economic view, it is possible to see the time that we spend on Memorial Day texting on our iPhones, watching our Sony flat-screen televisions and shopping at Best Buy and Amazon as a very good thing.

This all apparently good for the earnings of those companies, good for the S&P 500 and good for the GDP of the economy.

At the same time, based on the sort of personal-utility-maximizing thinking that has come to dominate our culture, it is difficult to see that an alternative use of time, such as tending to the graves of dead soldiers, is anything other than a waste of time.

However, many practitioners of the investment craft that have become adroit at recognizing the intellectual and emotional complexity of human affairs can probably see the fallacy of this way of thinking. Fundamental analysts know that there is more that affects the value of a company than the latest fluctuation in its market cap. And technical analysts know that humans are spurred to action based on factors that are far more complex than a rational calculation of next quarter's earnings.

It's not that the economic values of a society necessarily must conflict with other social and spiritual values. Values that appear on first sight to be in conflict really do not compete to the extent that one limits their influence to their proper spheres.

Economic values can help human advancement in the economic sphere. And other values drive human flourishing in other spheres.

The ability to discriminate between the intellectual and emotional drivers of human behavior and enduring human value can perhaps enable those who have mastered the investment craft to understand and feel the immense value of what the parents of that child in Holland were creating in encouraging their little boy to tend to the grave of that fallen soldier.

The value created through the observance of this tradition goes far beyond what can be gleaned from a calculus of the personal utility (economic or otherwise) obtained from that activity at that particular point in time.


Because of the intellectual and emotional demands of their trade, it is my belief that many investors are able, perhaps more than many others in today's age, to recognize the complex and intangible value created through proper observation of Memorial Day rituals.

Based on this sort of knowledge, which comes as much from the head as from the heart, it is my hope that they will take action and devote the time and effort necessary to truly honor those who have died in battle in the service of their country, and in this way inculcate in their own children and those in their communities, the sorts of habits and moral sentiments that have enabled the creation and preservation of a wonderful civilization in America. Without this, it's greatness cannot long endure.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

"Son, Americans don't honor the graves of their fallen soldiers. Americans have one single day each year that they call "Memorial Day," when people used to commemorate the soldiers that died in the service of their country by placing flags or flowers on their graves. But hardly anybody does that anymore, even on Memorial Day. In the USA, the lives of the people are too busy. They have lots of shopping, texting and social networking to do."

"Mr. President, in our effort to accommodate many Americans by making the last Monday in May, Memorial Day, we have lost sight of the significance of this day to our nation. Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration of the beginning of summer. My bill would restore Memorial Day to May 30 and authorize our flag to fly at half mast on that day. In addition, this legislation would authorize the President to issue a proclamation designating Memorial Day and Veterans Day as days for prayer and ceremonies honoring American veterans. This legislation would help restore the recognition our veterans deserve for the sacrifices they have made on behalf of our nation." (1999 Congressional Record, page S621).

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