Entitlements and American politics

I like entitlements.

I know that’s somehow a terrible thing to say. “Entitlement” has become a dirty four-syllable word in our deranged political culture. On Fox News, they spit the word out like a rotted pistachio nut. The very obvious and universally accepted truth that our system of entitlements is broken is being taken to mean, or being used to mean, that entitlements are in and of themselves bad. But they’re not. They’re good.

People who have worked their entire lives should be able to live out their nonworking years in dignity. Children of workers who’ve died need help, as do people with disabilities. That’s why we have Social Security. Older people, the disabled,  the poor and those who, like Nick Kristof's now-famous college roomate Scott, just make mistakes,  need to be certain they will have access to good medical care — that’s why we created Medicare and Medicaid. 

Is that so terrible?

On Fox, they rail about what kind of America we will leave our grandchildren if we keep incurring massive debt. They don’t ask what kind of America we will leave our grandchildren if the poor, old and sick suffer and die of neglect in a nation of plenty.

When you read accounts of America before entitlement programs were created, and extended, it was a more miserable place. It was a crueler place.

Then came the New Deal and the Great Society, and the elderly, the sick, the poor, the disabled — “the widow and the orphan,” to use the biblical shorthand — had somewhere to turn.

I drag the Bible into this because Jewish tradition makes it very clear that helping those in need is not charity, it is tzedakah, whose root, in Hebrew, means justice. Charity is optional; justice is not.

The Hebrew word for entitlement is זכאות — zcha’ut. In English, entitlement carries an almost wholly negative connotation (unless, of course, the entitlement is your own). People who feel entitled annoy us. But the Hebrew word connotes “innocent,” as well as “right, merit, prerogative.” 

The distinction reminds me of the line in the movie “Unforgiven,” when Gene Hackman tells Clint Eastwood, “I don’t deserve this … to die like this.” “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” Eastwood replies (and then, you know, shoots him). It is our obligation, in the name of justice, to care for the poor, sick, disabled and elderly among us who cannot at the moment take care of themselves — deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

That said, it’s obvious the entitlement system is horribly broken. The “transfer state,” as the historian Niall Ferguson calls it, is not sustainable.

The most humane social safety net we can build is gossamer if there’s no cash to pay for it, or if its cost, whether from borrowing or taxes, depresses investment and growth.

We also know that entitlements, whether welfare for the poor or medical care for seniors, has to be managed in a way that doesn’t create dependency or fraud. In Jewish tradition, tzedakah cuts both ways — you are entitled to help from others only when you help yourself first. The Talmud admonishes that even for scholars it is better to take a job “skinning animals” than to receive charity. Tzedakah, as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out, has to be apportioned justly — people must not cheat or abuse the system, and they must live within their means. 

I know that, at least among Jews, I’m not alone in feeling this way. That’s why the American Jewish Committee poll of Jewish attitudes found that the top three concerns for Jewish voters in this election are the economy, health care and Social Security. For the majority of Jewish voters, this election will come down to this question: Which candidate is most likely to fix what is broken in our economy without destroying what is right about our system? 

These voters are not leftie-zombie-Democrats, as some commentators would tell you. They are far more like Ed Koch than Dennis Kucinich. They want bipartisan solutions that link solvency with compassion. They are pragmatists who understand that a system that truly protects the weak is actually better for the strong. They understand that being tough on international issues, including Israel, doesn’t matter if you have a nation of struggling, underemployed, undereducated people.

Last week, the Jewish Journal published our first book, “The Jewish Vote: Obama vs. Romney: A Jewish Voter’s Guide.” It’s by Shmuel Rosner, our senior political editor. Read Rosner, available at amazon.com, if you want one of the most penetrating sets of insights into this election. But if you want the ideals on which to base your “Jewish” vote, let me offer my go-to political consultant, the prophet Isaiah.

“If you reach out to the soul of the hungry,” Isaiah wrote, “if you ease the soul of the bruised, then your light will shine forth in the darkness, and your shadows will turn into noon. The Lord will guide you forever. … You will become a well-watered garden, an unfailing source of fresh water.”

When the issue is entitlements, my Jewish Voters Guide is Isaiah.