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 TruthIf I had been candid to that young Dutch boy, this is what I would have told him:
"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."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 AnymoreMany 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.
Why We Don't CareLet'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.
What Is Lost With Economic ThinkingIn 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 ( WMT) and Target ( TGT). 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?
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:
"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).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.
The Wall Street Mindset: An Ironic TwistIn 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.
ConclusionOn a narrow economic view, it is possible to see the time that we spend on Memorial Day texting on our iPhones, watching our Sony ( SNE) flat-screen televisions and shopping at Best Buy ( BBY) and Amazon ( AMZN) 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.
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. Follow @jameskostohryz This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.