From the Despair of the Present, a Great Society will Arise

By Ari Bussel

I often recount the story of where I used to bank. At one point they considered us the fastest growing company in their portfolio, and we were treated like royalty. All the fake elements were there, including fascination, envy, need to extol and become close. None real or long lasting, they would all change in a heartbeat.

We were customers of that bank for many years, and I expected to be treated no differently than in years past or future. Little did I know that the time was near when the bank’s headquarters in Israel would choose to eliminate all smaller customers. True, our relationship stood until we remained the very last, but then they forced us to leave as well.

Each year following that move left me with a bad taste. We were still part of the very same community but now completely forgotten and ignored by those we considered “family” until then. The handsome returns the bank generated from us over the years were stricken as if they did not exist, but worse, the relationship, solid and never-to-change-or-wither, was proven for what it really was: They did not even send us a card, or an e-card, for the high holidays.

I realized it had nothing to do with us. This is the bank’s culture and its approach. Attract and retain new business only as long as it is very beneficial, then dump. Some would say that this is “business.” I would retort that this is only a very shortsighted way of looking at business. [Anyone reminded of the rush to lure customers for a second and third mortgage or for a new credit card or line of credit? Some things, apparently, never change and are not unique to Israeli banks.]

It is the system whereby everything is justified, all in the name of greed. When the underlying structure of responsibility is lacking, the most beautiful, awe-aspiring edifice built may collapse when it looks strongest. Exactly what happened during the financial meltdown of the last quarter of 2008. It is only when the basic behavior multiplies and pervades the culture that society wakes up astonished and disgusted and “courses on ethics in the workplace” are added to the curriculum in graduate schools of business.

Character is not built on the pleasures of the moment, rather on the hardships and difficult choices one faces. As J. K. Rowling writes in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Year IV) in schoolmaster Dumbledore’s words [Dumbledore eulogized a student who, while engaged in a multi-school competition, was murdered by the most evil of all, Lord Voldemort]:

“Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort.”

We have become a society that predominantly recognizes what is easy, not what is right. We then package it to suit our taste buds and our outward image, we become holier than all, just (or is it justified) in all we do. We see no one, nothing, unless a utility is derived, then we dump that person or company, that country, alliance or friendship. But we lack the very heart, essence and substance that will help us survive the hardships life will undoubtedly, and with absolute certainty, find a way of presenting.

The financial markets collapsed, crumbled faster than a house of cards, and the American taxpayer via scare tactics was called to bail out the banks and other financial institutions rather than allow them to collapse (as would be correct to do in a free marketplace). At that point we were still able to borrow from China and others, so our national debt expanded faster than ever.

Our leaders flooded the market with money, but the basics have not changed. The banks blame others, and have kept their ways. They get money at close to zero percent and loan it out at more than 20%. They have no shame, and they continue their party. Someone (you and I) will pay for it, but that will happen tomorrow. For today, let us be nasty, greedy and think we are the kings who rule the world. Wait until China decides to require our house be in order.

Who will bail us next time?

We once went through an Industrial Revolution that brought about increased productivity while making life easier. Then came a period of great disgust at workers’ subjugation to conditions unimaginable and a culture gone astray. It was best captured by author Upton Sinclair and other muckrakers of that era and led to the Progressive Movement.

Theodore Roosevelt talked about “many and grave evils” in the body politic, economic and social requiring “the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business or in social life.”

The Progressive Era, the “great age of reform” took place exactly one century ago, and it seems that now we are living on the bottom of a great abyss, that we cannot go lower, but lower we continue to go. It is always “someone else’s fault.” We are never responsible. Life is wonderful when we distance ourselves from any consequences to our actions.

Events that happened just over a century ago brought about some great American achievements and new social reforms. Yet, the American landscape is now engaged in a repeat performance of those ills once corrected. One may thus expect the rise—out of dire necessity—of a great leader, like President Theodore Roosevelt.

I do not know what the world will look like at the end of the next transformation, although I am certain it may bring the country back to basics, things from which we have long distanced ourselves. To name just a few, and most important ones: responsibility, leadership by example, action rather than rhetoric, the greater good, helping the other, education and values (including religion).

Israel, similar in so many ways to the United States, has gone through a transformation similar to that of its greater sibling. Israel has been affected by the financial meltdown to a much smaller extent and is enjoying financial strength both the envy of others and one that can be matched only by very few. I am reminded of the time when our company was so considered by the Israeli bank.

Are the fundamentals there? Was our company solid and built on unwavering values? It was, and thus the cyclical performance, the ups and downs characteristic of every business, has not affected the underlying basics. We are still in business, and the bank wants us back (so I reminded them the past they conveniently ignored).

In Israel today, however, one discovers the top of the financial elite wealthy beyond any imagination. Condominiums in Tel Aviv are selling for tens of millions of dollars, and daily financial transactions occur in the billions. Yet, also there is an “inner city” of foreigners who have very little and are treated very badly. Young Israelis, married couples with two above-average salaries, cannot afford housing, and a huge weaker segment that lives well below poverty line.

Israel feels strong and mighty, but this is temporary rather than eternal. Without a strong and healthy social fabric, how will Israel withstand the hardships in store for her? Without an educational system (K-12) that teaches one knowledge, values and behavior, how will tomorrow’s innovators grow and develop?

With a growing reliance on foreign aid and outside philanthropy, Israel’s inner strength is being replaced with dependency. It should be augmented and enhanced by outside resources, not become addicted to them.

Israel is experiencing corruption at the highest levels. Even the best person, when that person arrives in the ruling elites, seems to succumb to a system of corruption without bounds, without a judge or jury.

And what Israel lacks most is leadership by example, leadership that puts God and Country first, that mobilizes the masses in a forward direction based on Israel’s very foundation. Or possibly the masses are disconnected with the notion of being an example, a light unto the nations, a nation residing in a place where God resides, where His words are carried out in everyday practice.

The reason the next financial meltdown, an occurrence that will be worse than the previous, is that we have not improved our ways in the USA. Likewise in Israel, when the next war erupts, then all these amazing high-rise structures of multi-million dollar condos will collapse, for the very moral fabric, the very blood vessels, muscles and tissues have been corrupted for far too long.

Human beings seem to ignore their past and thus are bound to repeat it. Both as individuals and as a society, we tend to choose what is easy rather than what is right. A hundred years have passed since the Progressive Era. Two World Wars and numerous conflicts have ensued.

We are on the verge of a new reformation that may ultimately arise out of World War Three. Wealth will be erased, structures massively shaken to their foundations, infrastructure destroyed and the dead too numerous to count. Millions will be displaced. New boundaries will be drawn, countries disappear and new ones emerge. Out of the ashes, growth will commence, a new garden for humanity.

Both the USA and Israel possess the potential for a great future. Out of the abyss of historical events, they will emerge victorious and will change and grow. But to achieve such lofty goals, each will need a leader worthy of the challenge and able to rise to the occasion and lead his or her people.