Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Downsizing America

I’m not an economist. But in these days of financial upheaval, it behooves us all to pay more attention to what’s going on.

As I understand it, the $700 billion plan to bail out the failing financial services industry is intended mainly to keep the credit system from collapsing. Treasury secretary Hank Paulson warns that failure to approve the plan will mean that Wall Street will be unable to back debts, which will cause the loss of credit to thousands of businesses of all sizes and many millions of Americans, resulting in massive job and home losses.

One of the problems is that the American economy as it is currently structured runs on credit. Debt is ubiquitous and businesses cannot run simply on what they have in their coffers at any one time. Businesses in today’s economy cannot survive without constantly growing, and they cannot grow without substantial credit. As such, businesses survive day-to-day by running on credit. The loss of easy and convenient credit, backed by the solidity of Wall Street, would mean that those businesses would not survive.

Unfortunately, the average American consumer has followed suit. We also live on credit. Mortgages have been with us for a long time, but now most buy their cars, vacations, and even groceries on credit too.

Essentially, even if many individual American families have savings, America on the whole lives paycheck to paycheck, borrowing and borrowing and borrowing. That’s what got us into this mess.

It seems to me that the proposed solution would just be more of the same. We would add close to one trillion dollars to the national debt, as before, counting on better days to come. A bailout of that size would be more of what got us into this mess in the first place.

And all it would do would be to prolong an unsustainable economic structure.

That structure doesn’t just back up the American economy, but the entire world’s economy. America is the powerhouse that drives the international markets, and even now, with American economic prestige falling, the dollar, backed up by no commodity standard, is
still the preferred currency of the world markets. The American economy is intricately intertwined with the world economy.

The cost of living in the US has gone up and up in recent years, in large part because everything we buy is so intertwined with international trade. We export most of what we produce and import most of what we consume. Even when we buy American goods at the store, the markets are too intertwined to keep the costs of those goods down. Essentially, when you buy an apple at the supermarket that was grown only 200 miles away, you’re still subsidizing the apples in the next bin that were grown in New Zealand. And you’re still paying to export American produce to other countries.

And that intertwining of our economy also contributes to pollution and the destruction of our environment. It makes big firms richer and richer, giving them the money and power to dictate deregulation that allows them to go after bigger and bigger spoils, no matter the environmental damage.

But what if it weren’t so? What if all America needed to worry about was its own economy, its own citizens, its own workers? Imagine an America that provided healthcare for all residents,
provided a free college education for all young people, and actually produced goods that supplied its own people?

Is being an economic superpower such a great thing for your average American citizen? Your average person wants what we all want; good jobs, the ability to afford a place to live, buy food, clothes, entertainment, and the occasional vacation, a healthy environment, and good education for our children.

As I said, I’m not an economist, but maybe our economy needs to contract somewhat. Instead of paying for power on the world markets, we should each just be paying to live our own lives. If the dollar wasn’t worshipped but was instead a regional currency, we might actually be able to use it to run our own economy rather than the world’s. We might actually start to manufacture goods in America again.

And for those who still want to play in the financial markets, Wall Street would still be there. It would just follow the Asian and European markets rather than lead them.

Getting back to the immediate financial crisis, what should we do at this point? Despite all I wrote above, doing nothing won’t produce the rosy localized economy I just outlined. Defeating the bailout and doing nothing else will lead to a worsening situation for all of us. And as Paulson warned, it will lead to massive layoffs and many people losing their homes.

But a bailout that just maintains the status quo for as long as possible is also a losing proposition. The economy needs a healthy contraction. We need to worry about local needs first. But a contraction isn’t the same thing as a collapse.

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I’m not an economist. But there are many thousands of them in Washington and around the country. There are many of them advising congress. Surely they can come up with a plan that allows for a quasi-bailout, something that will allow the credit markets to continue operating for now but include a plan to change the basis of our economy from worldwide credit to American profits and savings. Surely they can come up with a plan to downsize without collapsing. The trick is to approach creating a plan not as a way to sustain the current economic structure but rather to wean it from its excesses.

Some will instinctively feel that this is wrong. There is a popular notion among Americans that we are “the greatest nation in the world” and drastically reducing our influence on the world economic stage will likely seem to them as a loss of prestige and a loss of face.

America is a great country in many ways. But its primary responsibility is to its average working citizens, not speculators on Wall Street. And in my opinion, a country that provides financial safety and security for its citizens, rather than wielding economic might in the Asian and European markets, is a country worthy of tremendous pride.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Is Modern Orthodoxy leaning to the right?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how much of the formerly Modern Orthodox community has been leaning to the right, religiously.

The problem is much more pronounced in the big communities where the Orthodox population is dominated by the Ultra Orthodox. The MO in those areas seem to take their cues for everything from the Charedim. Kashrut, education, etc, are all run or organized by Charedim and the Modern Orthodox just use the services provided by them.

I live in a small community that is most decidedly "out of town". Because there are only a handful of Charedim here, the MO rabbis and lay leaders and members of the community all step up to the plate and manage the Vaad Hakashrut, run & teach in the day school, manage the eruv, invite modern speakers, etc.

In the big communities the MO look to the UO for all their community building, by default, and end up thinking about themselves the way the UO think of them - that Modern Orthodoxy is just "Orthodoxy lite" instead of something dynamic and beautiful in its own right.

If anyone’s looking for a truly Modern Orthodox community, I advise you expand your search to more geographically diverse areas.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

In defense of the Upper West Side

I am tired of hearing about the supposed “shidduch crisis” and am even more tired of hearing it being blamed on the singles culture of the Upper West Side.

I met my wife on the UWS, in my early 30's. In my experience, most of the singles on the UWS do eventually get married and most of those within their childbearing years.

There seems to be a tendency for the Yeshivish and Centrist Orthodox communities to lament the "shidduch crisis" among their 20-something children who worry about the color of a boy's shirt or where their parents went to camp. Then those communities turn around and suddenly blame it all on the singles culture of the UWS.

The UWS singles have the healthiest attitudes I know in the Orthodox community. They don't reject potential spouses for nonsensical reasons like family backgrounds and they're not focused on having a boy sit in kollel instead of supporting his family. They don't care if the potential spouse's parents are rich and they don't date when they are far too immature for it. However, all of those things ARE practiced by the dating culture of Flatbush, Passaic, and Lakewood.

So if people choose to stay single longer on the Upper West Side, at least they're not spending time in some bizarrely artificial dating environment and at least they're not being pressured to make bad decisions by parents and mentors who are worried about "keeping up with the Goldbergs."

Instead of feeling lonely and isolated for many years in a community where they are an object of pity and subtle disrespect, thank G-d that UWS singles have the opportunity of participating in a culture that values them as mature adults and gives them a sense of community and belonging.

The Orthodox singles of the Upper West Side have high shul attendance, sit on the boards of those shuls, invite each other to beautiful Shabbat meals where the zmirot go on and on, and go to Torah classes in huge numbers. They have very rich Jewish lives, far more so in my opinion than 24 year old women who live in their parents’ houses and panic because they’re not yet married.

There may indeed be a "shidduch crisis" of sorts, but is entirely artificial and it has nothing to do with the Upper West Side. Rather it is the skewed mentality in Centrist and Yeshivish Orthodox circles of pushing 22 year olds to get married while at the same time putting artificial unethical and un-Torah barriers in their paths to do so.

I admit, it is sad that some older Orthodox singles on the Upper West Side have not yet met the right person to marry when they’ve reached their forties. But the system there is still FAR healthier than the warped sensibilities of Flatbush.