Friday, September 19, 2008

S & L Redux

There was an blurb by John Sparks in the September 22, 2008 issue of Newsweek about a new book: Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction by Lisa Chamberlain.( It says:
Not only have those born between the baby boomers and the boomers' kids had to struggle to make themselves felt as a cultural force, they've also got stuck on the wrong side of every big economic trend in the past 30 years. Stagflation of the 1970s meant their parents couldn't afford to indulge them as children. Graduation from college during the "jobless recovery" of the '90s got many careers off on the wrong foot. Boomer-driven bubbles pushed homeownership out of reach just as Xers were looking to settle down.
As a baby boomer (albeit from the tail end of the "boom"), I too have experienced all of the above except for the homeownership bubble although that was made up for by the rampant inflation of the Ford and Carter years, the first oil crisis (I remember swearing that I would never pay more than $0.75/gallon) and the S & L scandals. Even the "jobless recovery" was a factor in my life as I looked to move to a new position in the late 90's and many people did not think of it as a recovery so the number of open rabbinic positions declined. So as I look around me at this latest economic nadir, on the one hand it seems familiar. Large banks failing. American banks and car companies looking for bailouts. On the other hand, it is clear that deregulation, and a seeming return to laissez faire economic policies combined with many unlearned lessons from the 1920's, 70's, 80's and 90's have combined to make this economic "event" much more pronounced.

One intro course in economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) certainly does not make me an economic expert and I do not claim to have pat, easy or complex solutions. However, growing up living on the economic edge and years of working with social service and government agencies dealing with poverty and homelessness give me an appreciation of the consequences of our current economic situation and the impact we will see it have on individuals and communities. Thus I am confused by the administration's plan to bailout the financial institutions, including foreign ones (where are their governments) but not directly help individuals on the brink of homelessness and the edge of bankruptcy. I also do not understand where we are going to get the $700 billion to pay for the program. Borrow more from China and the Arab Emirates?

My recent trip back to Anchorage reinforced the disparity in our society. As a whole, Alaska is in the midst of another boom cycle. Oil prices are high. The State is flush with money. Real estate has risen with the national trends. In 6 years the house we sold in Anchorage was sold again for 2.5 times what we sold it for. The list goes on and on.

(דבר אחר - An aside: I remember in the "bust" that followed the Alaska boom of the late 70's early 80's bumper stickers appeared on cars: "God, please let there be one more boom. This time I promise I won't p%^$ it away." I wonder how many people are keeping that promise.)

Yet, I was told that one of our members went to the Food Bank to help out and saw that the shelves were bare. The question is: Was it because so many people needed food that they emptied the shelves or was it because their donations are down because people are feeling less secure and therefore contributing less and the the governments have fewer resources to make up the difference or some combination of the two?

Since Buffalo missed out on the boom of the 90's and early 2000's and regularly ranks as one of the 5 poorest cities in America, when a bust comes there isn't far for us to fall. The impact on the real estate market in Western New York is minuscule compared to the rest of the United States. These large economic trends impact on Western New York in direct ways because of indirect problems. Since New York State relies so heavily on tax revenues generated by the various parts of the financial sector, in times like these when income is down State aid also must decrease due to the lack of funds.

However, the rise in people's anxiety about their financial future, losing their homes, job security, retirement security, the reliability of their insurance companies is in itself a problem. The less secure we feel, the less we support others whose situations are actually worse than our own. But this is the time when we must find ways to support them.

After 9/11 President Bush told us that the best thing we could do as Americans was to go out and spend money to support an economy suffering from the fallout of the terrorist attacks. Buy more goods. Buy homes and if you already own a home buy a bigger one... And the financial institutions let us by lending us the money. Forget how easy it is to get a new credit card. Upon moving to Buffalo I was shocked at how much money banks were willing to let us borrow to buy a home! What kind of fools would lend that much money to people earning what we earned? Now we know.

I keep hearing talk about how if people are carrying too much debt or bought homes for more than they could afford it is their own fault. Granted, borrowers carry a large share of the responsibility for the situaitons in which they now find themselves. But those who extended the credit to them also bear a large share of the responsibility. I have no MBA or a degree in finance yet, I know that if I were to loan out money it would well secured. Residential real estate found itself sucked into the vortex of a vicious cycle. The higher and faster prices rose, the more money one could easily borrow to buy a home which created a bigger demand for homes which drove prices higher...

Exodus 22 teaches us:
24 If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them. 25 If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; 26it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.

Leviticus 25 echoes this:
35 If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side: 36 do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman. 37 Do not lend him your money at advance interest, or give him your food at accrued interest.
And Proverbs 28:
8 He who increases his wealth by loans at discountor interest
Amasses it for one who is generous to the poor.

(Biblical translations from: JPS HEBREW-ENGLISH TANAKH THE TRADITIONAL HEBREW TEXT AND THE NEW JPS TRANSLATION-electronic version of Second Edition)

The texts seem clear to me. It lender has the responsibility for consequences of the loans s/he makes. One can take advantage of borrowers and therefore should suffer a negative consequence, or, one can get a bigger return by making loans that help people sustain themselves.

To quote the great Yogi Berra: "This is like deja vu all over again." And I would add: "Only worse."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Back to the future

Here I sit again in Anchorage. This time I came back to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the congregation. The current Rabbi, Michael Oblath, my predecessor here, Lester Polonsky, and their recent interim Rabbi, Fred Wenger are all here for the festivities. Many of the living past presidents and some former residents along with the current members of the congregation are all here to celebrate as well.

Before Shabbat evening services the organizing committee set out three notebooks containing the congregation's history. Just out of curiosity, I have been keeping an eye on how many people have flipped through them. To my surprise, they have sat largely untouched.

For me, observances like these provide opportunities to reflect and learn the past which then gives us insight on the present and the foundation to build toward the future. My teacher Dr. Eugene Mihaly, z"l, used the phrase "our moorings and our reach" to describe this process. Like a ship we are moored in our past. It grounds us, teaches us and hopefully inspires us but does not tie us down. Rather, our past provides the steady base upon which we stand as we reach out in the present to create the future.

Mashal (A story) - A new rabbi comes to a community and finds the community split over whether or not to stand for the Shema. Each side lobbies the rabbi to back its position. The rabbi, being wise, (Aren't all rabbis in these stories wise?) sought out the most senior member of the congregation to determine the origin of the dispute. This member tells him that the congregation fights this fight because it has always fought this fight. It is part of the congregation's identity.

Knowing the past enables us to see the system in place. Once we know how the system developed to its present state, we begin to see the path to moving the system, in this case the congregation, forward.

In reality though, there are "many pasts". That is different people experienced the past differently and remember it even more differently. Therefore, it is important to learn as many different views of the history of the congregation as we can.

Another lesson from this weekend is that people may not change but they do move on. People are often creatures of habit. We like continuity and often find change, no matter how positive, disconcerting or alienating. But as it has been said, change is the one constant in the universe. As we grow, or at least as we age, our primary interests change and we move on to places that fulfill that new place. And as we know nature hates a vacuum, our movement from the center allows space for others who now find themselves where we were to fill our former place. However, even when our primary interest moves on, a part of us remains connected to where we came from, to our moorings and when we pass near those places, we are drawn to them and seem to want to feel the warmth and welcome our moorings provided us in days gone by. When we find that the tides of time have change the moorings we remember, we can feel lost or ill at ease. At those times we need to see with fresh eyes the beauty that those who followed us have added to where we once were and bask in the glow of knowing that we added to the foundation upon which they now stand and build. We can share our stories with them but we need to listen and hear theirs as well.

Over the weekend many people reflected on why they feel they "are Congregation Beth Sholom." Reflecting on what first drew me to CBS I see it is still there today and is stronger than ever. CBS is a place that empowers and allows it diverse membership to explore, develop and determine its life. CBS is a congregation of doers who desire to be self-sufficient and loved for that quality. If more congregations had that same desire, Judaism would be much stronger and more vibrant.

The last lesson for this post: Congregations are more alike than they are different. As I look at Temple Beth Zion and look back at Congregation Beth Sholom the same people are in both places. The actual people are obviously different but in each place someone fills each role. As we move to new places, it behooves us to use the lessons we learned about how best to deal with each person and their role to move more easily through our new home.