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Global Affairs: A Balancing Act?  Special Report from the World Economic Forum

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

January 28, 2011 | 4:00 pm

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

As global politicians, corporate executives, and thought leaders exchange business cards at a rapid rate here in Davos, two things are clear: on the one hand these brilliant powerful leaders have great influence over the global economy, and on the other hand no one is in control of this extremely complex system. The conversations are empowering and humbling. 

At the World Economic Forum there is still a lingering western pessimism regarding high soaring deficits, aging baby-boomers, and immigration issues. Economic recovery has begun on Wall Street and on the corporate front, but not yet in unemployment. However, it seems that nations in the southern hemisphere are more hopeful about the future. China, India, and Brazil are on the rise, and perhaps most promising is the expectation for Africa’s economy to grow by 5.2% in 2011.

This is a very positive trend, given the growing economic disparity between nations. The income inequality in America itself is staggering with the net worth of the wealthiest 1% of homes being equal to the net worth of the poorest 90%. What is clear is that governments must now move from extremes to moderation, and to better ensuring that the most vulnerable on our planet can most fully access basic resources and opportunities.

The great economist Jeffrey Sachs, here in Davos, suggested that in 2011 we must embrace a new “judicious equilibrium” with five rebalancing acts, between:
1. The rich and the poor
2. The present and the future
3. Production and nature
4. Work and leisure
5. Defense and international development

I would suggest three other priorities, as we move forward. Corporate leaders must seek a greater balance between profit-seeking and social responsibility, as addressing social ills cannot be the burden of government and non-profits alone. Secondly, the US government must clearly find a greater balance between stimulating growth to ensure recovery, and then addressing deficit issues through financial restraint. Additionally, we must balance competition and collaboration in the global marketplace so that our inner-connected relationships do not lead to zero-sum games.

In a conversation about work-life balance a rabbinic colleague wisely shared with me that in his personal life he doesn’t seek balance but integrity. Balance, which can lead to content mediocrity, is not an ideal Jewish value. Rather we must live with the unbalanced tension between core values.

Isaiah Berlin wrote that we must hold to a “pluralism of values,” suggesting a moral pragmatism for navigating this vale of tears: “Principles are no less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed.” We cannot operate responsibility with absolutes nor can we live fully with perfect balance. Rather we must seek to thrive within tension and struggle.

We must re-embrace an ethic of moderation and a perseverance to responsibly operate in a chaotic ambiguous world without retreating to the comforts of simple absolutes or comfortable middle grounds. It’s clear here in Davos that the U.S. government’s failure to properly regulate its financial markets away from extremes and greed has not only harmed American credibility but has also caused great damage worldwide.

Maimonides (Hilkhot Deot 1: 5) taught that there are two praiseworthy paradigms for the virtuous life: the sage and the saint. The sage lives with moderation (pragmatism) while the saint embraces ideals (perfection). I would propose that today our government should operate as the sage finding balance and that individuals should strive to be saints to achieve ideals. Together an ecosystem of sages and saints can heal the world in the coming decade.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, and a fifth-year doctoral candidate in moral psychology and epistemology at Columbia University.

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