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A Spiritual Guide for Economic Bailout

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White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel famously warned in November that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste." But that is exactly what the White House and Congress have allowed to happen. Secular progressives are disappointed, but spiritual progressives are doubly so. This is a crisis that demands the deepest of revisions of our worldview and economics.

Certainly the Democrats have managed to do enough -- in the way of restoring some of the programs cut by the Bush administration, helping the states deal with their own increasing budget deficits, and even initiating several new programs -- for Congressional Democrats to feel they have prevailed. Next comes an even more massive bailout for the banks.

The underlying message of these measures is clear: to get out of a recession bordering on a multi-year depression, ordinary citizens must spend more money on consumer goods. This would generate jobs and help staunch a wave of massive layoffs that threaten to push official (and usually under-estimated) levels of unemployment up to 10 percent or more of the work force this year.

To progressives, this was a tremendously irresponsible misuse of the opportunity created by the crisis. 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 to a level that makes it a "living wage"; grant citizenship and rights to all the current illegal immigrants, making it easier for them too to spend more money on consumption; and fund a single-payer health care plan that would provide care for the 45 million-plus Americans currently uninsured (while simultaneously imposing strict cost controls on hospitals and other health-care providers).

Yet progressives too may be too limited in their thinking. The economic crisis is global and requires a global solution. Spiritual progressives insist that this is the moment for Americans to acknowledge to ourselves that our well-being depends on that of everyone else on the planet. Instead of each nation-state trying to develop policies meant to benefit only its own citizens, we need the world's major economic powers and representatives of the developing countries to cooperatively work out policies that dramatically reshape the way that we, the human race, produce and consume the resources of our planet.

A central part of such global thinking requires 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 and how much we are encouraged to respond to the universe with awe and wonder at the grandeur of all that is. Hundreds of years of capitalist excess made the old more narrow utilitarian attitude seem like "common sense," because it worked to generate an ever increasing accumulation of material goods.

But the societies that have bought into that old bottom line are now reeling from the economic collapse generated when tens of millions of people acted on the assumption that trumping all ethical and spiritual concerns was the obligation to maximize one's own material well-being regardless of environmental and human-relationship consequences.

Only a year ago it might have seemed "unrealistic" or "utopian" to imagine a new bottom line and a society reconstructed on that basis. But it is no longer so far-fetched when the government is spending trillions of dollars to repair a system that based itself on a fundamentalist belief that progress could be judged by how many things we accumulated. In my book The Left Hand of God (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006) I detail what this "new bottom line" might look like in our schools, corporations, health care, legal system and our approach to foreign policy.

Spiritual wisdom and daily spiritual practice may be needed by the entire human race in order of for us to develop the intellectual and psychological foundations for a green economy. There is a difficult balance to negotiate between improving the material well-being of the most oppressed and materially deprived citizens of the planet, while teaching the majority of citizens of the more advanced societies how to reduce their level of material needs. Many today feel deprived if they cannot get a new model car every few years or dramatic escalations in the capacities of their iphones and computers.

People have to get to the point where they no longer believe that their personal success is measured by how many new material gadgets, electronic devices, automobiles, apartments or houses, home furnishings, and exotic vacations they have.

Spiritual progressives believe it is time to bring into the democratic process a discussion of the kinds of consumption that are worth fostering and the kinds that actually contribute to the further erosion of our planet's life support system.

To some the conception of democratic control of an economy is going to be dismissed as nothing more than a slippery slope toward a "command economy" that failed when tried by the communists. Yet market fundamentalism is no longer an unchallengeable element of American faith, and the values of a New Bottom Line resonate not only with those of us whose spiritual consciousness already predisposes us to question the ultimacy of material accumulation but also to millions of Americans who can no longer believe that the planet can survive based on profligate consumption of its raw materials. Thinking through the details of building a society based on shared values and committed to treating the planet as more than a bottomless cookie jar -- from which we can extract whatever we wish without fear of consequences -- will not be easy, and will require the fostering of a new spiritual awareness. Too many liberals and progressives, lacking a spiritual and ethical foundation for making such choices, have simply embraced the notion that any kind of spending will get us out of the current crisis.

No wonder, then, that the Obama bailout seems so completely unfocused on achieving any particular social good (e.g. adequate health care, environmental repair, or elimination of domestic or global poverty). The Obama plan reflects the lack of direction or values orientation that bedevils most progressive thinking, and reminds us of the important role that spiritual progressives from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela have been able to play precisely because they have this other dimension in their thinking.

A spiritual progressive approach to bailout is badly needed for the U.S. This is the moment in which biblical ethics and the wisdom of spiritual traditions are actually more realistic than the plans of the capitalist economists. Ideas like 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, but instead recognized as matters of survival for the human race.

Even the amazing biblical view of a society-wide sabbatical takes on an attractive allure. Imagine an entire society that stops its production for a given year, and relies on the food, fuel and wealth that has been accumulated during the other six years and now gets redistributed equally to everyone for the sabbatical year, meanwhile freeing the entire population from work so that they can participate in everything from job retraining to get new skills to pure vacationing with the planet to democratic assemblies in which people collectively define their societal priorities for the coming six years. A sabbatical year for every person once in seven years is a practical work benefit that should be a right of all workers. But this takes on a whole different meaning and opens up amazing possibilities for everyone if everyone takes off the same year, creating a festival of freedom and creativity that would be experienced by many as a far greater reward than any material benefits that they were giving up because their society had taken itself off the productivity grid for a year. Yes, there could be enough food and fuel and health care -- though this will take careful planning for many years before implementation. But the idea itself points us into unexplored terrain: what if we really didn't have to work all the time, what if the world and our own personal world could survive on less? If, instead of appearing to be a huge sacrifice, the reduction of consumption was experienced as part of an exciting spiritual journey, it might just be possible for us to get off the juggernaut of endless material "progress" before it destroys everything.

Don't we need to work to have enough money to buy food? Well, this begs the question. We have enough food for everyone on the planet. Money has become the distribution mechanism, making it possible for some people to have way more food than they need or is good for them, while others living only miles away, don't have enough money to buy the food they need. The same is true of health care, education, and even energy. By having a year in which these goods are distributed equally and for free may be the necessary first step toward making it possible for people on the planet to imagine a world in which money is no longer the arbiter of essential goods and services.

The West, indeed all of the world, may need to turn to the wisdom of the Biblical traditions to get an alternative framework to that which has predominated in the past few decades in the global economy. We at Tikkun are putting a challenge to the wise women and men of all spiritual traditions: bring your spiritual wisdom into the public sphere and tell us how specifically you would run our economy, our corporations, our legal and medical and educational systems, our banks, our money-economy, our approach to wealth-creation, and every other aspect of the society. If ever there was a moment in which that thinking is needed, it is now.

This is the "moment of truth" for all the spiritual traditions of the world: if you have something to teach us about how to live, apply that wisdom concretely to developing a spiritual bailout vision for the entire planet. We urge you to find the people in your own communities who have the most to say about the ongoing relevance of your tradition and join us as we try to combine and refine the wisdom of these various traditions in a way that will help our policy makers reshape what they mean by a bailout, its goals, and its methods. Our first gathering to discuss this in greater detail will take place in Washington, D.C. April 29-May 2nd -- please be there if this message speaks to you. And help us create this discussion in your church or synagogue or mosque or ashram, labor union, professional organization, college or university campus.

And as we watch the Obama Administration begin to slide down a disastrous path toward endless war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we recognize that this is precisely the moment to acknowledge our need for a new conception of how to achieve "homeland security" that no longer gives primary attention to "the strategy of domination" (as in: security comes from getting power over the other guy because if you don't, he'll seek to get power to dominate you). Instead, we need a fundamentally new paradigm: the strategy of generosity (as in: care for others, make them feel that you genuinely want their well-being, and they will feel the desire for their activities to contribute to your well-being).

In practical terms, a global strategy of Generosity would translate into a Domestic and Global Marshall Plan, in which the advanced industrial societies dedicate 1-5 percent of their gross domestic product each year of 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 the production of 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. Otherwise, government spending to increase consumption may simply accelerate the production of environmentally destructive consumption.

Congressman Keith Ellison introduced HR 1078 in the last Congress endorsing the idea of a Global Marshall Plan and it has been cosponsored by twenty Congressional leaders including Barbara Lee, James Moran, Emanuel Cleaver, Barney Frank, John Conyers, Dennis Kucinich and more. 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.

It may be that in the first few years of the Obama Administration a strategy of generosity will only gain political traction if it is sold to the public as an addition to rather than total replacement for a strategy of domination. Similar political constraints may make it opportune to insist on calling for a Domestic as well as Global Marshall Plan in order to overcome the fear of many who are suffering in the current meltdown that we are taking away from them supports that they need to get past the immediate downturn in employment and in social benefits. Yet it is precisely at this moment that we must help people understand that there is no way to overcome the local meltdown without healing the global meltdown, and that a global strategy of generosity is both a moral necessity as well as a practical self-interest plan for the American people.

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.

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, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco, and chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives. Rabbi Lerner is author of 11 books, including The Poltiics of Meaning, Jewish Renewal, Healing Israel/Palestine, and with Cornel West: Blacks and Jews--Let the Healing Begin. For more information on the conference of spiritual sprogressives, contact www.spiritualprogressives.org or call 1 510 644 1200. Info will be available by March 11, 2009. RabbiLerner@Tikkun.org