A few weeks ago, I attended a weekend-long conference hosted by the National Havurah Committee. A havurah, by the way, is a lay-led Jewish congregation (usually egalitarian and sometimes with collective leadership) like Tikkun Leil Shabbat, which I’ve been attending semi-regularly for the last year.
The conference was called “Shall the Rich Pay More?” and it was a fascinating event, and not just because I was the token (semi-undercover) gentile or that it was my first prolonged visit to a strictly kosher environment. It featured a series of excellent workshops (including one by the love of my life, Miriam, who is my primary reason for getting mixed up with this wonderful crowd). But as good as the individual workshops were, the conversations seemed to form a larger Conversation on sharing, which has resulted in a bit of a conceptual breakthrough that I’m still digesting.
This all has resulted in one of my biggest blog struggles to date. I just can’t quite figure out how these insights are supposed to fit together. It’s like several big thoughts all tried to come out the little thought hole at the same time and got stuck.
Since I’ve tried for weeks to catch the Grand Unification Theory of Sharing, I guess it is time to just admit that I can’t do this alone. So I’m going to present a few ideas as a conversation starter.
I went into this retreat with the assumption that yes, of course the rich should pay more despite the root scripture that was the reference point of the conference title – a passage from the Book of Exodus calling for “a system of census and taxation, including that ‘the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less’ than a half-shekel.” It seems hopelessly regressive to expect the rich and poor to pay the same tax (not even the same tax rate, which would be regressive enough). However, there is something deeper going on - as usual - which will require a broad paradigm shift of how we address money, giving, labor and everything else.
Once upon a time valuable things were held in common, or if you prefer they were held by God with human stewardship of their parts – perhaps an individual might speak of “their” bow and arrows. But gradually our customs shifted and now it is a given that people own things and have some sort of right to more than they can carry or even possibly hope to use. This is true even when their means of “earning” those things are based in trickery, exploitation and outright theft. Consider the absentee owners of a banana plantation in, say, the Philippines. They never visit and certainly never work there; they may not even be consciously aware of that piece of land buried in their portfolio. Their entire claim may rest on a corrupt government’s arbitrary decision to remove the native population and award the land to a corporate supporter of their regime. But we have no qualms about paying them money so that they can profit from “their” bananas. This is only the most extreme example of the capitalist norm in which all property claims ultimately trace back to war spoils. And yes, this includes the time that the Israelites first invaded the promised land, sparking a prolonged bloodbath described in the Book of Joshua.
But it goes deeper than that, as I realized during a workshop on charitable giving. Wealthy people are generally thought to have a higher duty to give, to the point that poor people are often not expected to donate or even volunteer (although many do). This has led to (or at least accompanied) the individualization of giving. Rather than giving because it is part of our collective duty to support the community, we give because it is the individual duty of the “fortunate” to share with the “less fortunate.” What’s more, we often give transactionally. Whether it is a goat given on behalf of our brother, a mug from public radio or a dear aunt’s name on the new hospital wing, we increasingly want get something for our supposed charity. And while there is obvious generosity at play, these acts reinforce the transactional nature of everything.
Where giving was once based on relationships and sometimes through collective efforts like the United Way, now there are countless ways to fine tune one’s giving, to find the charity that is just exactly the right match for our personal sense of what needs to be done in the world.
This raises a couple of concerns. First, people become desensitized to all stimuli, which suggests that an ever-higher percentage of giving will need to go to rewards. And more than that, giving by the fortunate hoards the warm fuzzy feeling of giving, and concentrates both responsibility and honor in fewer and fewer hands.
Another workshop featured the concern that young Jews are less-inclined to give to the Jewish Federations, a sort of equivalent to the United Way. Withholding giving helps prevent people from supporting causes that they regard to be unjust – for example, the “Birthright” trips that give Jews the chance to visit Israel (in a controlled and somewhat propagandistic way) free of charge. It’s worth noting that the Hebrew word for charitable giving is tzedakah, which translates to English as “justice.” So it is certainly fair to have qualms about one’s justice giving going to what one views as unjust activities.
But by withholding tzedakah from the federations, something greater may be lost, which is the whole community’s ability to collectively make sure that everything is taken care of. That process may be flawed. We may not like the choices made. There may be inefficiencies and even corruption. But at least there is someone trying to make sure that everything is taken care of, regardless of whether it is sexy or has a good marketing campaign. Certainly the Jewish Federations could have a more inclusive process for deciding what needs to be done, but nonetheless they do decide and keep the collective act of tzedakah in motion.
But my really big realization for the weekend was around a different issue of hoarding and scarcity, which ties into much resistance to both redistribution (or prevention of wealth accumulation) as well as giving to those who are seen as undeserving because they don’t want to work. This is the part that blew my mind and had me looking like I was playing devil’s advocate when I really wasn’t.
Here it is: Many people work too much. And I don’t mean that in the obvious way. Not only is overwork burning us out and eroding our bonds with family, friends, congregation and community, but overwork is a greedy response to a world in which meaningful paid work is already scarce. And we need to scale back our economy to fit within ecological constraints. Just as some people consume too much oil or freeload on charity, a growing number of us are working more than we deserve to work. Roughly 1/3 of Americans are not part of the workforce, and the government pursues policies to keep the unemployment rate from getting below its “natural” level of 5 percent, so how dare we complain about freeloaders? Someone has to be unemployed! Our capitalist economy depends on it! If we were really concerned about freeloaders we would refuse to work more than 30 paid hours a week so that those freeloaders might find something to do!
So there you have it folks: We need to redistribute it all: wealth, income, giving, work. Then perhaps inequality will become a temporary feature based on individual choices and not a generational inheritance. In such a case it won’t be bad for everyone to pay a half-shekel, since that giving will honor everyone’s ability and duty to contribute to the community, and nobody will go hungry from the loss of their half-shekel. Otherwise we’ll stay stuck in this vicious cycle of inequality.
It’s hard to imagine a solution to this problem until we realize that probably we couldn’t be more dysfunctional. Any solution is unlikely to worsen the injustice. Consider the huge array of unproductive jobs (marketing, finance and perhaps even corrections and warfare) that are paid more than producers: farmers, factory workers and perhaps teachers. “Customer service” is about as close as most of us ever come to physically making something. How many people do you know whose day of work results in a set number of durable physical objects that are directly useful to other people?
The detachment between real productivity and pay has gotten to the point that there seems to be an inverse relationship between value and wealth. Why else would a sports star make more than the staff of an entire public school or a small town full of farmers? How else did Mitt Romney (and many others) get wealthy sacrificing jobs on the altar of “efficiency?” Once we admit that nobody is being paid what they are worth (except sometimes by chance), that frees us up to get more creative, doesn’t it?
So rather than finding a way to lessen the tax burden of those with less, we should move to restore the imbalance that impedes the flow of wealth/energy/nourishment throughout the entire collective body. The classic example would be the Hebrew Jubilee year, in which all property returned to its original inhabitants every 50 years – a nice Commandment that was apparently never implemented. It seems like it is time to give it a try.
ANNOUNCEMENT: This blog is now being cross-posted every other week at www.theoccupychurch.org. There are a lot of interesting thoughts over there, and I encourage everyone to check it out.