Willingdon Views

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Thursday, 29 June 2017 00:00

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Peaches and Plums

I penned this version of Willingdon Views from Slippery Rock, PA, in the heart of Amish country. With some irony, I wrote the first draft on my iPad, and then emailed it to our website design team for formatting and graphics. The final version will be stored on the cloud, so they tell me. Throughout this process I kept thinking about the simpler life of the Amish... 

Amazing and ever-changing technology makes writing a newsletter a very routine process for anyone, except perhaps the Amish, who tend not to embrace leading technologies, or at least they are not inclined to be as dependent on technology as the rest of us are. I wonder whether we will eventually reach a point where a simpler, more basic lifestyle will become more popular across mainstream society... 

On this note, by now I am sure everyone has heard about Amazon's bid to acquire Whole Foods. Since it is already possible to shop for groceries on-line, and even have personalized meals prepared and delivered to your door, I'm not sure what this much talked about combination brings to the table, so to speak. 

Today, there is no question that technology companies like Amazon, Apple, and Tesla are leading an endless push into more and more areas of everyday life. I'm not sure I like this trend. Actions by these leading companies affect a wide swath of domestic and international companies. For example, virtually all major auto manufacturers are working on driverless car technology in response to a perceived threat from Tesla. Who really wants a driverless car? I sure don't. 

Can technology go too far? When it does what can we do about it? 

Traditional grocery stores, in what has been a very competitive and low-margin business, are certainly under attack from Amazon, and some may not survive. Eventually, will our only option be to have our groceries selected for us by a robot in some enormous distribution center and delivered to our doorstep? Do we want this? 

When I was a young boy, long before email, iPads, and cloud computing, one of my favorite places to ride my bicycle to was TJ's Fruit Stand on South Caroline Street. TJ's sold the best fruit and vegetables in town, and moreover it was connected to Lovier's Dairy, which produced on-site, the best-tasting ice cream on the planet. Both were family-owned businesses offering unsurpassed quality and customer service.

WV internal fruit stand

Tony, the owner of TJ's, personally taught me how to pick out all kinds of fruit at the pinnacle of ripeness and flavor. He was a true craftsman who took pride in his products, and took great joy in sharing his knowledge with me. I listened intently to learn all his secrets. Under his watchful eye I would sort through the dark purple plums and golden red peaches to find the very best ones. Tony would nod and smile affirming my final selections. Amazon will never be able to replicate his invaluable personal touch. Actually, I would rather they not even try, as I still prefer to select my own produce, thank you very much... 

I guess I'm a dinosaur when it comes to driving a car, as well. While I still have most of my faculties I would rather steer, brake, accelerate, and decide when to pass the car in front of me, without computer intervention. 

Technological advancements never stop, but innovation doesn't always make things better. Worse over, technology is increasingly being developed and controlled by a few behemoths like the companies previously mentioned. Should we fear them becoming too powerful? Perhaps my ramblings beg this question - Are there aspects of life that need less technology? My biggest fear is that technology is becoming an insurmountable impediment to effective communication and relationship building. 

Just last week, the Republican senators unveiled their proposal for health care reform after deliberating behind closed doors. Not surprisingly, not one Democrat is expected to vote in favor of the proposed legislation. Much of the current political debate occurs via social media or through individual press releases. Technology, in a sense, allows for constant political posturing, hyperbole, and one-sided sound bites. What seems absent, in my view, is compromise, thorough and open dialogue, and accountability. For these guiding principles, technology is unnecessary, if not a hindrance. 

If both sides of Congress can't find common ground on important matters like health care and tax reform, the future of our country is suspect. Technology can't fix this problem. What can? 

Selfless leadership, based on solid principles, is the only path I see toward unifying our country. United we can solve any challenge. United we can achieve any worthwhile goal. 

I've long advocated for term limits, but maybe what we should try instead is to set aside a particular day for all congressmen to do their grocery shopping together. It might force them to actually talk to each other. As they sort through peaches and plums side by side, they might just learn to work together for the good of the country. I know, this is a silly idea, but given the path we are on, what do we have to lose? 

Michael Kayes, CFA

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