Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Day The World Changed

“I think we are headed for a whole lot of turmoil"

It has become a lost art.  We are seldom able to sit down with other adults and discuss world events or any multi-sided issues in an objective fashion.  Political opinions, religious dogma, family traditions and the constant pounding of media sources tend to dictate our positions on the matters of our times.  The smart people are those who agree with us.  The stimulation of listening to, evaluating, and being impacted by new or diverse views slowly fades from our lives.  I think about our dimming ability or desire to engage in legitimate fact-finding and transformative debate as I recall a conversation with the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of one of my clients.

Stan Barrington had been the CFO for a group of related mining and consumer outdoor equipment companies located in central Wyoming for a number of years when I met him in 1989.  I was at the time a new tax manager and MineCo was one of my first engagement leader clients.  MineCo had recently selected Andersen to do its audit and tax work after a competitive proposal process.  Stan liked to tell the story that one of the deciding factors in Andersen's favor was when the Andersen audit partner stopped to straighten a rug in the small local airport as we arrived to pitch our services. Stan and the MineCo CEO noted the humility and attention to detail exhibited in this small, courteous gesture.

Physically Stan reminded me of a 20th century Wyoming-based Benjamin Franklin. Stan was a mild-mannered loyal man and I admired his ability to be direct with diplomacy.  I always enjoyed my conversations with him whether on the phone, when he visited Denver, or my half dozen visits a year to Wyoming. Apart from the typical tax planning tidbits Stan liked to cover the fortunes of the Brigham Young University football team.  Being a bit of a sports junkie at the time I didn't mind seguing from mining development costs to a good college gridiron discussion.

"I can't thank Jack enough for getting me tickets to the Miami game.  I am really looking forward to going to see it. It will be a battle of good vs evil."  Stan smiled as he contrasted the choirboy image of the Cougars with the renegade reputation of the Hurricanes.  Jack Rayburn, the tax engagement partner for MineCo, had pulled some strings to get Stan tickets to the sold out contest.

"I smell upset," I predicted.  "Miami will probably come to Provo as the number one team in the country.  The crowd and the Cougars will be all jazzed up."

"I hope you are right," said Stan, a BYU alumnus.  "Do you mind if I turn on the radio to see if we can find any football talk?" 

It was midnight on a Thursday/Friday in early August 1990 and I was reviewing the fiscal year tax accrual with Stan at MineCo headquarters.  You don't grow up thinking someday I am going to be sitting in Wyoming at midnight reviewing tax accrual workpapers while debating the fortunes of the BYU football team, but such are the unexpected benefits of working at Andersen.

"I don't mind.  I am just about finished here anyway."

Stan set the dial to work but was unable to locate any early morning football discussion. Maybe that indicates we were slightly less devolved twenty-five years ago.  Instead we ended up listening to National Public Radio (NPR).  The NPR broadcast exploded with the evolving first accounts of the details of Iraq invading Kuwait. Stan and I sat riveted listening to the updates, as we tried to decipher the consequences of the invasion and what might happen next.

"Something like this was inevitable," Stan commented.  "There is no way Iraq could ever repay all the money it owes to Kuwait."

I asked Stan to explain the context of his remark.

"When Iraq was fighting Iran for most of the 1980's Kuwait funded a good deal of Iraq's war costs.  Iraq owes Kuwait billions and has no ability or willingness to repay."

Stan and I then went on a rambling dialogue focused on the western world's view of the Middle East.  The images we saw related to oil embargos and gas lines, the hostage crisis, and the millions dead on each side in the long Iran/Iraq war. Most westerners were not attuned to the Middle Eastern complexities of history, culture, and religion that were about to start shaping our world more directly.

Stan and I spent more than an hour discussing our own backgrounds and how that influenced how we viewed events like those unfolding half a world away.  Stan was a devout Mormon.  He had completed his mission in Europe and was much more worldly than I in his knowledge and understanding of different cultures and the way religion influenced politics and negotiations. I was raised Catholic and received my education under the Jesuit tradition from high school through graduate school.  One aspect we shared from our backgrounds was an academic approach to discussing religion.  We were able to talk to the events of that day objectively and from a historical context rather than an inflamed sense of righteousness.

I can't do justice to the specifics of our give and take that night.  There are certain conversations we have that educate and expand our world. My conversation with Stan that morning was one of those memorable conversations. In theory adults should be able to share and exchange ideas about complex and important topics for the sake of gaining greater understanding.  In practice it seems we are losing the willingness to admit new information into the framework of our worldview.

As Stan turned off the radio and we got ready to turn off the lights in the office he said, "I think we are headed for a whole lot of turmoil."

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