Friday, October 28, 2011

Advice for the 99%

Like many of you, I suspect, I’ve only been vaguely aware of the Occupy Wall Street people camped out in Zuccotti Park for the last six weeks or so. I don’t even think I knew where Zuccotti Park was until just recently. (It’s in Lower Manhattan between Broadway, Trinity Place, and Liberty and Cedar Streets. It was called Liberty Plaza Park until 2006, but I don’t believe I knew where that was either.) Maybe some of you know all about it, but I certainly cannot agree with Douglas Rushkoff, the CNN columnist who wrote the other week that, at least in his opinion, “anyone who says he has no idea what these folks are protesting is not being truthful.” Yet, if there’s one thing Jewish history has taught me, it’s never to shrug off large numbers of unhappy people demonstrating in the street as irrelevant or unimportant merely because they don’t overtly appear to have anything to do with me personally. And so I set myself to attempting to figure out what this is all about. (And the numbers are not inconsequential. A few weeks ago there were, by police estimates, 15,000 people in the park. And they were joined by tens of thousands of others demonstrating across the globe in places as diverse as Auckland, Sydney, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, São Paulo, Paris, Madrid, Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Phoenix, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Were we to understand that these were all spontaneous demonstrations of support for the people in Zuccotti Park? That was how the media depicted the demonstrations…but that too caught my attention. What, I asked myself, could possibly have inspired all these people simultaneously to mount the barricades? Or is that just the kind of question someone would ask who neither has a Twitter account nor understands why anyone would want to have one? Maybe that is just how the world works now! But can someone really tweet and get tens of thousands across the world to respond? Apparently!)

As far as I can tell, the single theme that unifies all the protesters has to do with the unequal distribution of wealth in our country (and, for that matter, in every other country). The slogan “We are the 99%” references the claim, endlessly repeated in the media, that the wealthiest 1% of Americans earn 24% of our nation’s income. (I keep hearing the statistic quoted as 40%, but I believe that not to be correct.) It’s hard to know what to do with that number, however. By any measure, 24% of the earned income of Americans in any given year is a huge amount of money. But it’s not that dramatically different from how things have been historically in our country: in 1915, the year of my mother’s birth, the richest 1% of Americans earned 18% of the nation’s income. Still, it’s easy to amass statistics and difficult intelligently to analyze them. In 2010, for example, the wealthiest 20% of our nation’s citizens earned 49.4% of the nation’s income, while the poorest 15% of Americans earned 3.4%. (Those 15% of Americans are, not coincidentally, those who live beneath the poverty line.) Is that more or less significant than the 1% earning 24%? And yet another way to view the disparity between wealthy and poor is to observe that the mean after-tax income of the nation’s wealthiest 1% rose 176% between 1979 and 2005, compared to a growth over those same years of just 6% for the poorest 20% of Americans. Is that a sign of the degeneracy of American culture? Or is impressive that even the poorest are better off now than a quarter-century ago?

I am not an economist and I therefore find it difficult to find these statistics as arresting as the demonstrators clearly expect me to. Do the demonstrators have a point that things have changed in our country, and for the dramatically worse? Or is that just how things have always been, that rich people with plenty of money to invest have the means to make even more money while the poor—who spend their income on groceries and rent—do not. In a sense, the real question behind all of this is whether the disparity between rich and poor is itself a societal evil we should be working to eradicate or whether it is the specific width of the chasm that separates the wealthiest from the least wealthy Americans that we should be finding outrageous (i.e., and not the simple fact that such a chasm exists at all). Among Christians, Jesus’ comment that there will always be poor people in the world (found at Matthew 26:11, where Jesus justifies someone wasting a bottle of expensive perfume to anoint his head even though the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor by observing that there will always be poor people no matter how much charity anyone gives away), has been used over and over—especially just lately, it seems to me—to justify the right of the wealthy to live lives of luxury when others have almost nothing. I suspect that’s a misreading of Christian tradition, but what do I know? It’s hardly my place to critique other people’s gospels…but instead I’d like to challenge myself here to say what our Torah actually does teach about the fact of income disparity. It’s not as simple a question as it sounds as though it should be!

On the one hand, our Torah seems clearly to suppose that poor people will permanently exist within Israelite society. Many laws, in fact, seem naturally to presuppose such a situation. A law in Exodus regarding the sabbatical year, for example, specifically discusses the land that must be left fallow every seventh year and, addressing the Israelites, says that they must “let it rest and lie still so that the poor of your people may eat…and so shall you deal also with your vineyard, and with your olive trees.” Another law, also in Exodus, cautions judges against favoring poor people when they appear in court as litigants going up against wealthy adversaries, the clear point being that the justice system derives its authority at least in part from its supreme impartiality and that this quality cannot be compromised merely because one litigant is less well-off than the other. Still a third law, this one from Deuteronomy, cautions against taking the tools of a poor person’s trade as collateral when lending him or her a sum of money. There the logic is obvious and impeccable: if you take away the tools of a debtor’s trade, how can that person be expected ever to earn the money to pay back the loan? And in a similar vein is the law, also in Deuteronomy, requiring employers to pay their poorest employees on a daily basis no matter how inconvenient that might be: if someone needs his or her daily wages to feed a family or to purchase basic necessities, then the inconvenience of the employer is not taken into account and the worker’s wages must be paid out daily.

All of the above-mentioned laws seems to suppose easily that the existence of poor people is a basic feature of society, and a permanent one. But there is one extended passage in the Torah that attempts to depict the process whereby people slip into poverty. The portrait is a moving one, beginning with someone short of funds who sells off some of his family’s land to raise some cash. He retains the right to redeem the land—that is, to buy it back—but even if he cannot afford to do so the land reverts to his possession in the jubilee year. That doesn’t sound so bad—he gets the land back and keeps the purchase price! (On the other hand, there are jubilee years only twice a century. So it’s not as good a deal in the third year of the cycle as it would be, say, in the forty-seventh.) But then the Torah moves forward and imagines a man with no more land to sell. This person has to borrow money, and then must pay it back. He does not have to pay interest—it is forbidden for one Israelite to charge interest when lending money to another—but neither is he working for himself any longer: whatever he earns must go not to raising his own standard of living but to paying back his debt. And then we imagine a third stage in the descent into poverty, the one in which a person can no longer borrow money in the normal way. Perhaps he lacks anything to use as collateral. Perhaps his debt load is already too high for anyone to risk lending him more money. Or perhaps he is deemed unlikely to pay back whatever money he borrows for some other reason. Once borrowing in the regular way is no longer an option, there is always another way however, one even less desirable than going into debt, to raise funds, and so this man sells himself into indentured servitude by agreeing to give up his freedom by being the unpaid employee of another Israelite to raise the money to pay back his previous debts. And finally, when there simply is no other way, the Torah imagines the worst of all fates for a faithful Israelite by imagining someone brought so low by circumstances to have to sell himself to a non-Jew who, not being bound by the laws of the Torah, will not scruple to treat him as an impoverished brother or as a landsman, but as a slave.

The passage is very moving, but I’d rather focus on its implications than its detail: here is the story of a man sliding into poverty, not born into it and certainly not condemned to it by mere circumstance. The assumption seems to be that, yes, there will always be poor people but that they do not function as a permanent caste within society that will always exist regardless of who its members might be in any given generation. Instead, the implication is that there will always be people who make poor investments, whose businesses close, whose crops fail, or who borrow unwisely. When poverty overtakes an individual, then, the Torah ordains practical ways for members of the House of Israel to relate to such a person not by regretting his or her misfortune but by lending that person money not on interest, by buying land even though it will revert to its original owner in the jubilee year, by taking someone in truly dire straits into one’s home as an unpaid employee (and thus providing such a person with a way out of debt that requires neither collateral nor property up front). In other words, the Torah views poverty as misfortune not as destiny, and ordains that the faithful strive to find ways to help not “the poor” as a class within society, but each individual who falls on hard times. And to do so kindly and respectfully as well, thereby transforming tzedakah from welfare into worship.

So where does that leave the people in the park? Since they are, as far as I can see, mostly referencing themselves as the have-nots in the equation they are putting forth (“We are the 99%”), their unhappiness has a certain self-serving ring to it that so far as failed to engage me. In an open society such as our own in which people with almost nothing can and do achieve great professional and financial success, it seems odd to argue that the chasm is unbridgeable. That only a fraction of the needy will manage to become truly wealthy is not really the point. What I think is probably the more reasonable attitude towards the disparity between rich and poor is not to whine or complain about it, but for each member of society—and certainly within our Jewish world this should be the norm, not the exception—for each individual Jewish citizen to feel personally responsible for those less well off than he or she, then to offer tzedakah within his or her means not merely by giving a few dollars to someone in need, but by creating opportunities for the needy to lift themselves out of poverty and to acquire marketable skills that will lead to gainful employment. To spend weeks camped out in a park chanting about how inherently unfair it is that society spans the gamut from poor to rich seems just a bit pointless to me. Better these people should spend a few weeks doing whatever it might take to reach out to someone even less well off than they themselves are and help that person achieve a level of prosperity in life that that person might otherwise never attain. That, it strikes me, would be a practical response to poverty in America…and in every other country as well.

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