To the righteous, wealth is a greater test than poverty
Part 2 in a 4-part series on Jewish values and California’s ballot propositions brought to you by the Progressive Jewish Alliance
On Friday, October 8, 2010, after 100 days of legislative stalemate, California passed another budget full of cuts to vital government programs combined with new tax breaks. Governor Schwarzenegger then used his veto power to cut an additional $956 million in services for former welfare recipients who need child care services to stay at work, AIDS patients and the mentally disabled. The Governor’s political calculus is clear: It is better to leave public services in tatters than impose higher taxes on corporations reaping record profits in the midst of the Great Recession.
California voters: Does this budget reflect your values and priorities? Or do you think there is a way to support business, protect the safety net and invest in our future? Can we do good and also do well?
Judaism has a clear answer to this question: God encourages prosperity and also requires us to use our good fortune for the good of all. In this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’cha, we learn that Abraham has been so successful that he enters Canaan “cabaid” – heavy with wealth (Gen. 13:2); yet, he affirms his worthiness to inhabit the Promised Land by distributing his resources amongst his dependants. Abraham ensures that the gap between the rich and the poor in his own community does not grow too wide. The same cannot be said for the Kings of Canaan, who lose their land, wealth and freedom. As Rabbi Eliezer teaches in Midrash Rabah, these Kings are “[t]he wicked [who] have drawn the sword and bent the bow to cast down the poor and needy” (citing Psalm 37:4). Or, as the great 18th century commentator Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschutz taught, “To the righteous, wealth is a greater test than poverty.”
Thus, Judaism strikes a balance: to achieve wealth can be admirable, but to use that wealth justly and for the common good is righteous.
Californians will be asked to strike their own balance when they vote on Proposition 24. Because the gap between rich and poor has reached its highest in eighty-one years, the need for action is great. Proposition 24 seeks to repeal corporate tax breaks exacted during the 2008 budget stalemate by legislators who were desperate to save California’s disintegrating safety net and economic empowerment programs and who were forced, by California’s arcane budget process to vote for the corporate giveaway.
As with Proposition 23, the special interests opposing Proposition 24 argue that any regulatory or tax burdens placed on corporations during the recession will force companies to flee the state and take their job creating potential with them. This argument ignores the fact that corporate income tax payments as a percentage of corporate profits have fallen by nearly half since 1981. It also sidesteps the fact that key industries such as tourism and hospitality, oil production and agriculture cannot “flee” from the uniquely Californian resources that make their profits possible.
The old “trust the market” argument begins to sound suspect in light of the evidence. A recent study by the Bureau of Economic Analysis found that, despite government tax giveaways, U.S. corporations are sitting on $1.6 trillion in cash reserves, double their total market capitalization before the current economic crisis. The California Budget Project reports that the multi-national corporations who benefit most heavily from the 2008 tax breaks that Proposition 24 seeks to repeal made more than $65 billion last year, yet they laid off 100,000 workers. Tellingly, hardcore lobbying by banks and the California Chamber of Commerce killed a bill from San Francisco-based state senator Leland Yee last month that would have held corporations that receive tax breaks accountable for promised job creation.
Meanwhile, the tax breaks themselves come with their own price tag. Without sufficient revenue, state government is being forced to cut billions from education, healthcare and welfare-to-work programs. This is not only economically foolish but it creates social burdens that will cost billions. The elimination of a CalWORK’s program to help parents afford childcare when they transition from welfare to work will affect 55,000 children and disproportionately impact single moms, the very people hit hardest by the recession.
The principle here is that economies are social and that no one really “goes it alone.” For the most part, we do not harvest everything we eat, raise the sheep whose wool keeps us warm, pave our own roads, teach our own children, purify our own water, or make the scientific discoveries that keep us in good health. Any one of those tasks depends on a web of economic relationships—on a civilization—that allows each of us to thrive at a high enough level to develop talents through which some of us, by hard work and by luck, get rich. This principle underlies concepts of both philanthropic giving and progressive taxation.
Whether we are affluent or poor, we are safer in a world in which our neighbors have enough hope and investment in society that they do not turn into predators to survive. We are safer when public health systems are in good order and the sick are not walking untreated among us. We are best prepared to compete in a global economy when our workforce is educated for the technology of today and tomorrow. Our lives are brighter and more vivid when we are surrounded by art and music, created by those who have the ability not merely those who have the access. To live in such a world means that each of us pays our fair share.
The Torah teaches us this value repeatedly, providing fair business practices (just weights and measures), communal set-asides for the widow, orphan and the stranger, and the commandment to leave the corners of the fields unharvested so that the poor can feed themselves in times of scarcity (pe’ah). And Abraham – whose righteousness was tested by his wealth rather than by his poverty – understood that each of us contributes our bounty so that help will be there for us in our time of need. That is the social contract that has helped keep the Jewish people alive for thousands of years.
This fall, Proposition 24 will be a test for how highly Californians value that social contract and of whether they are willing to use the ballot box to enforce it. We hope, like Abraham, they make the righteous choice.
Elissa Barrett is the Executive Director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. Robin Podolsky is a rabbinic student at the Academy for Jewish Religion/CA and served as press secretary to former State Senator Sheila Kuehl.
PJA’s voting recommendations on all the California propositions are available online.