Saturday, November 12, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street and Veterans Day

Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh

Rabbi Larry Freedman

November 11, 2011

Veterans Day is not Memorial Day. Memorial Day we remember those who gave up their lives in defense of our country. Veterans Day shows appreciation to all those who serve in our military. And, I have to say, as a member of the military it is nice to be appreciated. When in uniform I do have random people come up to me and say, “Thank you for your service.” Everyone likes to be appreciated. As a chaplain, I am also very appreciative of the families of military members. They put up with a great deal of stress that strains a marriage and family. The deployments of six months, nine months, a year away from family is very difficult. Two weeks ago I was away for training to be an instructor for a course on helping couples stay together so that the stress of military life doesn’t cause divorce. If you want to thank a veteran, be sure to thank the family as well.

Military members take an oath to defend the Constitution and they serve to defend the country from harm. But the military does more than that. There is what is called mootw, military operations other than war, which can range from drug interdiction to supply flights to Antarctica to training other armies to natural disaster relief. All of these things are done to further our national interests. The military, ultimately, is there to advance and defend our national interests as determined by our civilian leadership. This is not my opinion. That is what the military itself has expressly taught me. To serve in the military is to be part of that vast organization that advances and defends our national interests.

There are also uniformed members of the US Merchant Marine as well as the US Public Health Service. They too serve to advance the national interests of our country.

Of course, these are the people who serve in uniform. They are the ones who follow the orders of superiors as decided by civilian leadership. That leadership is chosen, ultimately, by the people. Therefore, we all take part in advancing and defending our national interests. All of us who live here should constantly be paying attention to what is going on so that we can speak on the issues of the day that affect our national interests and influence policy. Most regularly, we do so through the ballot box. But every now and then, a group of people feel frustrated and decide to exercise their right to assemble and they create a movement. We have seen two such movements arise in the last couple of years. One is the Tea Party and the other is Occupy Wall Street.

These are two groups on either side of the political spectrum but leaving specifics aside, they both talk about being a grass roots expression of public sentiment. They both are distrustful of government and they both tap in to frustration felt by the citizenry.

The Tea Party talks about defending America. OWS supporters tend to stay away from nationalistic lingo but they too feel they are defending America. It’s hard to find a piece of paper with a platform for OWS. The horizontal structure and commitment to consensus means that the will of the assembled is the platform of the group and thus it is dynamic but in large part they speak of economic injustice and they fear for the future of democracy if corporations are freed from oversight by the government -assuming government is an extension of the will of the people. They worry about the income gap in this country and they fear the accumulation of so much wealth by so few Americans is not in the national interests of our country.

We have all heard the statistics I hope. From the Congressional Budget Office[1] we learn how the disparity in the income gap has grown over the years.

Using 1979 as the baseline year and 2007 as the last year of the survey, the share of total income the top 1% of households making a bit under $2 million a year today has gone up over 120%. The top 20% of household income share has gone up almost 20%. That alone tells us that even the gap between the rich and very rich is huge. Meanwhile, the next 20% has, since 1979, lost almost 10% of its share of income and the rest of the households lost more than that. Another way of looking at income during those years is that between 1979 and 2007, the top 1% had a 281% change in after tax income. The top 20% had a 95% gain during those years. The bottom 20% had a 16% increase.

The situation in 2007:

Percentile % of Total Income

Top 0.1% 11%

Top 1 % 23.5%

Top 10% 50%

This change is not accidental and it is not due to hard work and innovation alone. It is due to changes in our tax codes as well as a variety of regulations that allowed the richest to earn even more and pay less in tax. In 2007, the top 10% of income earners earned half of all income in this country. The top 1% earned 23.5%, close to half of what the top 10% got and then the top 0.1% of earners had 11% of total income, again almost half of the top 1%.[2]

I hasten to add that neither I nor Judaism is opposed to rich people getting rich. You should all live and be well and make as much money as you can. We should understand that Judaism doesn’t favor any particular economic system. How you arrange your economy is less important to Judaism than the moral basis of that economy. Sharing the wealth is no more of a value in Judaism than accumulating wealth. What matters is that a sense of justice and morality prevail.

That’s why the question becomes, are the rich getting richer in a way that benefits the whole country? Is it in our national interests to have such huge disparity in income? And then we have to ask if the rich are paying their fair share of taxes. Yes, it is true the small numbers of the rich contribute more tax dollars than the large numbers of the poor but that is because they are rich. The poor cannot contribute nearly as much. We hear that 47% of Americans paid no taxes at all. That is not true if we count social security and Medicare as taxes but leaving that aside, many Americans paid no Federal income tax because they are poor or retired or disabled.[3] We can hardly expect those who earn little to no income to pay on a level similar to those making $2 million a year.

And then there is the matter of wealthy people having access to professionals who know how to shelter money to avoid paying taxes but that is another topic. And then there is the issue of corporations who have access to off shore strategies to reduce if not completely avoid Federal taxes. These are complicated strategies though some easy enough to understand with a clear graphic in a magazine. New York magazine recently explained how to lesson or avoid US taxes.[4] That is also another topic.

The situation we face today and that OWS wants to point out is the vast disparity in wealth distribution. Something is not right if the middle class who work hard and pay their taxes are not seeing the benefit of our country’s economic growth. There is something wrong with our laws that allow a CEO to earn tens of millions of dollars while sending a factory and its jobs overseas. There is something not right. This is the frustration we are hearing.

Occupy Wall Street is, at this point, an international phenomenon. There are occupy groups in hundreds of cities all of whom are expressing a general frustration with the economic status quo that they argue is maintained by cheating, by unfair advantage and by policies designed to keep this disparity maintained. For those of us who make less than $2 million a year, shouldn’t we all share some of this outrage?

Isn’t in our national interest to be sure that everyone pays his or her fair share in taxes? Isn’t in our national interest to be sure that giant corporations contribute to the tax rolls as much as small businesses do? It’s not about being punitive. Not as far as I’m concerned. It’s about fairness and smart thinking.

The Jewish attitude to all of this is also pretty clear. I found an essay by Dr. Meir Tamari, an Orthodox economist who has written extensively on this. Dr. Tamari is former chief economist in the office of the Governor of the Bank of Israel. I ordered his book which may make for some interesting discussion. He wrote an essay that coincidentally comments on this week’s Torah portion.[5] He begins by quoting Mishna (Avot 5:10) that says that the attitude of “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” is the value of a mediocre person. (I should add that person who says, “what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine” is called an ignoramus.) The person who says, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” is called mediocre because while this person does not infringe on others, neither does this type of person see an obligation to share. This type of person thinks people should stay to themselves and forgets the social obligation we have to each other. Indeed, the Mishna goes on to suggest that this is the attitude of the people of S’dom, the people we read about this Shabbat. The evil of the Sodomites was not the graphic thing people like to talk about but the attitude they had that spurned attention to others. They would not let anyone enter their town and refused to share. They were interested only in themselves and forgot the very Jewish value of looking out for others. In S’dom, the people would not share the benefits of their wealth. They spurned others and kept them out except, of course, when Lot came by. Lot was a wealthy man. Lot was welcomed in.

Dr. Tamari goes on to say that having selfish people in a society is not a problem. Societies will always have selfish individuals. The problem sets in when the society itself internalizes that selfishness. When society becomes selfish there is moral decay and society will collapse. Capitalism is our economic system and justly celebrated but markets should never be so free that we forget compassion and obligation to one another. Capitalism without compassion is simply greed. Business and government need to strive for economic fairness: not always equality but fairness. And we need fairness not because capitalism demands it but because morality demands it and certainly Judaism demands it.

Yes, parnassa, making a living, is a value in Judaism. Everyone should be free to make a living and free to make a good living. But we should never be free to make that living by cheating others whether legally or not. It is a Jewish value to care for the workers, to look out for the poor and that is a moral stand we take and it is a moral stand we must choose to impose on capitalism.

Just down the river an international phenomenon is happening. They are speaking about fairness and justice. I want to see what’s going on.

I’m told it’s dangerous. Yup, there have been some arrests for criminal activity and assaults. But is the entire enterprise a cauldron of danger? There is no evidence of that.

I’m told it’s anti-Semitic. Yup, some people had some anti-Semitic signs but the stated platform of the General Assembly tolerates no such abuse, there was a sukkah, there are Shabbat gatherings and over 600 people turned out for Kol Nidre services. There are anti-Semites and then there is an anti-Semitic movement. I’m not convinced about the movement being hateful. But we’ll see, won’t we?

I’m told its hurting local businesses and so it is bad. I’m not sure how the local businesses are hurting given all the people in the area but we’ll find out.

I’m told that most people are just hangers on. Thousands of people go in and out. There are all these working groups and organized areas. Are they all done by hangers-on? We’ll find out.

Mostly I’m told that we should stay away from it all. But I want to see what’s going on. So tomorrow, I’m going. Anyone who wants to join me can. If not, not.

But more than curiosity, I want to go because what the OWS movement speaks of is a very Jewish value. The idea of holding government and business accountable so that all of us are treated fairly; the idea that corruption violates Judaism on every level; the idea that we all have the responsibility to look out for the poor and downtrodden; the idea that you cannot take advantage of people. These are Jewish values. As a Jew, I certainly support OWS on that level. And as an American on this Veterans Day, I support the rights of people to express their grievance. As a citizen, and patriot, I am called to watch for things that will harm our country and our way of life. Greed, corruption, inequality, unfairness are damaging to our democracy and to our national interests and that is why I want to go down. You should join me tomorrow on the 10:57 train to Grand Central. Let’s go see what is happening for ourselves.