I marvel at how many brilliant Jewish minds have significantly contributed to the meltdown and resurrection of the U.S. economy. While the Boeskys, Milkens, Madoffs, Frankels, Bear Stearnses, Kolberg Kravitzes and Goldman Sachs speculated and crashed, the Summerses, Bernankes, Geithners and Krugmans advised and manipulated money supplies and structures to, ironically, set the stage for more worldwide financial speculation, manipulation and crashes. Nearly all of these restlessly competitive players made fabulous fortunes. Yet, none apparently felt what they gained was ever quite enough. Far from understanding the Chassidic proverb, “While we pursue happiness, we flee from contentment,” they appear to operate by F.G. Bonfils’ philosophy: “There is no hope for the satisfied man.”
So as holiday season 2010 arrives, with its expectations of gifting, food, bonuses and more, let’s ask ourselves a first level of questions: “How much is enough?” and “What makes us content?” The answer to the latter can provide the answer to the former, and can change as we develop and mature.
The 19th-century Chassidic movement called for being happy with the minimum (mistapake b’moah), and with our lot in life (sameach b’hakol). How can we do that in our aspirational, consumer-driven society? Start by turning off all cell phones, computers and electronics when you light Hanukkah candles this year (choose beeswax, not paraffin, to reduce indoor air pollution and carbon output). Be present, and just watch the tiny flames.
The good things about restlessness and competition are that they drive us to inquire, discover and innovate. The bad things: They feed greed and hunger for power, which tend to undermine economic and social equity, and degrade environmental health.
The root of our current economic meltdown was in separating the making of goods and services from the making of money. When we can make money on money, in effect, out of thin air, we must re-evaluate money itself: Either we spin it off into its own game, so speculating with it won’t harm our welfare, or we rein it in, and directly connect it to our productivity, so it can effectively serve our greater good.
That brings us to our second level of questions: “How do we protect ourselves from another meltdown?” and “How do we rebuild our economy?” These two questions have a single answer, too: Concentrate our spending in our local and regional economies. The American Independent Business Alliance reports that every dollar spent in a local economy recirculates there, creating a “multiplier effect.” On average, every $100 spent at locally owned businesses generates $45 of secondary local spending, compared to $13 of secondary local spending generated by $100 spent at nationally owned chain stores. In essence, dollars spent at local, independent businesses generate at least three times more direct local economic benefit than dollars spent at absentee-owned chains. Add that to the influence of local employers — job creation, salaries and benefits, tax payments, purchases, charitable giving and volunteerism, and you’ve got a recipe for a strong local economy.
Cooperation holds society together. Even in this era of privatization, libertarianism and free enterprise, more business is done and more people are served worldwide by cooperatives than by any other form of enterprise. They’re the “anti-multi-nationals,” doing the world’s “un-too-big-to-fail” business, led by community-oriented folks rather than bonus-focused executives. And Jewish leaders often provide the brains to help power their triple-bottom-line activities.
Alicia Gravitz, for example, co-founded and is executive director of Green America (www.greenamerica.org), the nation’s largest sustainable business, social and environmental justice co-operative. Green economy maven and author Joel Makower, and Adam Werbach, once the Sierra Club’s youngest national president, both advise Fortune 500 companies on “greening” their products, and creating environment-friendly strategies.
Feel inspired? This Hanukkah, buy your presents, books, furniture, clothing and beeswax Hanukkah candles from local purveyors. Get your home, car and school loans from a credit union or community bank, and buy your groceries at a co-op.
You can’t expect your locality to provide everything its residents need. But the more you can support your local businesses and tap local resources, the more it can stand against external economic forces. And the more likely its residents will be able to weather future storms, and perhaps find contentment in their very own home towns.