Friday, February 10, 2012

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Car

Earlier this week, the Federal Reserve released economic data relating to the nation's reliance on loans/credit during the month of December.  According to the report, Americans used 9.3% more credit in December, which was preceded by an increase of 9.9% in November!  According to the government, this was the biggest two month rise in more than a decade.

As with any economic report, there are always at least two way to interpret the data.  On the one hand, this new and marked increase in spending and borrowing on the part of Americans could indicate a real uptick in consumer confidenceApparently, 70% of the country's GDP is made up of consumer according to this theory, the increase borrowing and spending is a good thing.  The more money we spent on cars and TVs, the stronger our economy will become.

Or, as our rabbis say, dvar acher: a completely different interpretation: what if these numbers are frighteningly scary?  What if the increased borrowing numbers indicate that Americans are tired of cutting back and saving responsibly (as they had been doing for most of the recent recession), and that....instead....the numbers indicate that we are irresponsibly relying on credit cards to buy things that we might not actually be able to afford right now?  This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that growth in consumer spending noticeably outpaces growth in personal incomes right now.  We are spending money that we don't exactly have.

Now, I'm all for consumer spending and the positive impact that the former interpretation might augur for our country!  But I do think that this week's Torah portion (Parshat Yitro) does give us a chance to pause and reflect on the questions surrounding the latter interpretation - so that's where I'll be concentrating my energies in this posting.

This week's Torah portion includes the giving of the Ten Commandments.  And I am always taken by the relevance of the Tenth Commandment....the prohibition against coveting.

Our rabbis spend a lot of time debating if coveting happens the moment we lust after an object that doesn't belong to us....or if coveting only happens once we actually give in to our desires and acquire the object.  (I'll be exploring that question in a little more depth during my sermon at Solel tomorrow morning.)

But in the meantime....I think we can all agree that greed and envy are dangerously unhealthy things.  In the words of Rabbeinu Yonah of 13th century Spain: "For the one that covets - all his days are filled with pain, as if the fire of his desire burns in his heart every single day.  And so he shall know no peace."

Greedy envy, or covetousness, is something that we are all in danger of falling victim to.  If we mistakenly indulge those feelings of desire....we run the risk of being mentally and spiritually consumed....we'll never be grateful or satisfied with what we have.  We'll always want more, more, more.

How much of that is reflected in this week's economic data?  Do you think that the numbers indicating Americans' increased use of credit cards is a sign of our society's materialistic envy?  I'd love to hear you thoughts...

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. Rabbi,
    Actually, credit didn't increase by 9.9%, it increased at an annual rate of 9.9%. So up less than 1% in December. I'm not sure it is fair to say this is an example of people coveting more things (new car, etc.). A lot of car purchases were delayed during the recession, so someone buying a car today may be replacing their existing car later than usual. In fact, car sales are up, but are still at a much lower annual rate than in the past. But it is a good sign that confidence is up and people are will to buy a new car instead of holding off a few more months.

  2. Steven: Thanks for your note, and for calling me on this. I had note the term "annualized" in the original article but honestly did not know what that meant. (I'm a rabbi, not an economist!)

    Based on Steven's reading, the actual hard numbers might be a bit lower than I had originally implied, but I think the question that I raised still stands: to what extent does envy drive our choices as consumers? Steven has weiged in with his answer. I'd love to hear from others....privately over email, here on the blog, or @RabbiJBrown.

    Shabbat Shalom.