When White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel reportedly warned that it would be a big mistake to waste a crisis moment, he was presumably thinking of the opportunity for Washington Democrats to use the current global economic meltdown as justification for restoring some of the programs cut by the Bush administration, helping states deal with their own increasing budget deficits, and even initiating several new programs. And though a potpourri of small initiatives ended up being trimmed from the final version of the economic stimulus bill, funds were allocated for enough new local programs for Congressional Democrats to feel they had prevailed. Next comes an even more massive bailout for the banks.
The underlying message of these measures is clear: In order to get out of a recession bordering on a multi-year depression, we need to get ordinary citizens to spend more money on consumer goods, something that would generate jobs and help staunch massive layoffs.
From the standpoint of progressives, this was actually a tremendously irresponsible misuse of the opportunity presented by the crisis. First, progressives argued, the bank bailout was based on the old trickle-down economics that had been discredited by the years of Republican and neo-liberal policies that actually yielded the current meltdown. If you want to stimulate spending, progressives insist, give the money directly to those in need: Create a national bank to give loans to people who wish to buy homes or expand their businesses; provide funding to banks willing to forgive bad mortgages and renegotiate them to affordable levels; raise the minimum wage; grant citizenship and rights to all the current illegal immigrants, making it easier for them, too, to spend more money; and fund a single-payer health care plan that would provide care for the 45 million-plus Americans currently uninsured.
Yet progressives may also be too limited in their thinking. The economic crisis is global and requires a global solution. Spiritual progressives insist this is the moment for Americans to admit to themselves that their well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet. Instead of each nation-state trying to develop policies meant to benefit only its own citizens, we need both the world's major economic powers and representatives of the developing countries to cooperatively work out policies that dramatically reshape the way we, the human race, produce and consume our planet's resources.
Central to such global thinking is a new conception of efficiency, rationality and productivity. The old bottom line measured productivity and efficiency by how much money or material goods were produced. We need a "new bottom line" that evaluates corporations, government programs, laws, social policies, and even personal behavior by how much love and kindness, generosity and caring, ethical and ecological sensitivity are produced, rather than the more narrow utilitarian attitude that hundreds of years of capitalist excess has made appear to be "realistic." In my book "The Left Hand of God" (2006), I detailed what this "new bottom line" might look like in our schools, corporations, health care, legal system and our approach to foreign policy.
Indeed, this is the time when biblical ethics and the wisdom of spiritual traditions are actually more realistic than the plans of capitalist economists. Ideas like a global sabbatical year, in which the entire planet stops non-essential production and billions of people dedicate their time to thinking through what we as a human race really need and what we do not; the biblical prohibitions against waste; the command to be stewards of the planet; a legal system that obligates us to care for others (which thus transcends a system of rights based only on self-protection) - all these should no longer seem utopian, having instead become matters of survival for the human race.
The world may need to turn to the wisdom of Jewish tradition to get an alternative framework to that which has dominated the global economy over the past few decades. And I'd like to invite Jewish thinkers to join us at Tikkun in developing more explicitly what such a global economy would look like.
Similarly, we need a new conception of how to achieve "homeland security" that supplements military spending with a recognition that we will be far safer if we show genuine concern for others. In practical terms, this should include a global Marshall Plan, in which the advanced industrial societies dedicate 1-5 percent of their gross domestic product over the next 20 years to finally eradicate global poverty, homelessness and hunger, provide all with adequate education and health care, and systematically repair the global environment while ending unnecessary and wasteful forms of production. While a market mechanism should remain a central part of this process, global planning, democratically controlled, must become a major priority for the human race.
Congressman Keith Ellison proposed the idea of a Global Marshall Plan in the last Congress. That idea should seem far more plausible to a Congress already imagining spending trillions to help a failed banking system. And it is an indispensable part of building and sustaining a global economic recovery.
Here we see that spiritual values like generosity, reciprocity and caring for others have very practical implications, and can become the cornerstone of a sustainable global economy. Indeed, unless our economic recovery is directed by a larger spiritual vision, rather than a return to the profligate consumption of the past, we will have missed what may well be the last best opportunity to create a sustainable and ethically coherent world.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine (www.tikkun.org), rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco, and chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives (www.spiritualprogressives.org).
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