Posted by Aryeh Cohen
How do we translate our common moral commitments into action?
For argument's sake let us agree that we all believe in the dignity of every human being. That is, we believe that a person's dignity is an inalienable part of their being, to borrow a phrase from the founders. In religious terms one would say that every person was created in the image of God. This is perhaps the most forceful way of saying that each and every person's value as a person is not contingent upon anything external to that person, and that no one has a right to act in such a way as to harm that dignity, that image of God, that tzelem elohim. It is as if when one damages another's dignity one does harm to God.
Okay, let us assume that we all agree with this. How do we translate this into practice? How do we move the rhetorical statement to action—moral and legislative at once—which incorporates this understanding into the fabric of our polities, city, state and country?
The only way to get from here to there is to get into the high grass of public policy—and the highest grass of public policy is budgeting. I am not arguing, nor would I, that the budget should direct our moral choices, that the economic bottom line should be the deciding factor in whether or not a policy is good or bad. The exact opposite is what I would argue. The choices we make in our budgeting process must reflect the values which we hold most high.
Since here in California we have over the years decided that our elected representatives should have us do their work for them in the ballot process; and since in that process important questions of budget and taxation are decided, we are forced every election to weigh our votes on budget propositions on the basis of whether or not they reflect our most important values.
The bottom line is that a budget must be an ethical document. The choices of what to fund and what to cut cannot be just a matter of arithmetic, but must first of all be a matter of moral choice.
So how do we create a budget which reflects the respect of every person's being created in the Divine image?
I would suggest that we start by articulating the interlocking web of necessities which a person needs in order to be able to live with dignity in our cities. A non-exhaustive list would include, for example, a job with a living wage, decent education, housing, and health care. These needs are interlocking in that if one is missing, the whole web can fall apart. If one does not have a decent job with a living wage, then one cannot get decent housing or healthcare which impacts one's ability to get an education. If one does not have access to education, one cannot get a decent job which impacts one's ability to get access to housing or health care. And so on. (The more robust argument, for another time, would include the claim that all of these necessities enable a person not only to survive, but to flourish as a person, which is to actualize the Divine image.)
When the budget that is created does not allow for people to live in dignity, let alone flourish we have failed as a society.
It is then incumbent upon us as a society, through our government—which is the mechanism by which we handle our ability to live together—to redirect our resources such that everybody can live in dignity. To that end I would argue, we must support a robust school system and a system of higher education. We must ensure that everybody has access to health care. We must provide shelter and housing to the homeless.
In this election, one action which can bring us one step further along this path is voting for Proposition 30: The Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act. The temporary (seven year) increase in income taxes for those who earn more than $250,000 a year, and 1/4 cent increase in sales tax for four years would garner the resources necessary for to continue funding our education system. The dire cuts that would ensue if Prop 30 fails—5.4 billion dollars from the Los Angeles school system and community college system; 250 million dollars from the UC and Cal State systems; 50 million dollars from mental health services and more—would cripple us morally, doom many to lives of poverty and pain, and almost certainly guarantee that California will not thrive economically in the future.
For these reasons I urge every California voter to support Proposition 30.
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October 19, 2012 | 11:45 am
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
It seems that every third line in any debate or speech by any candidate or advocate of public policy is about money. About the so-called bottom line. Who can and who cannot balance a budget? Who should and who should not pay taxes and how much taxes? What can we as a State, as a Nation, as a society afford to spend money on? Defense? Education? Poverty relief? How do we make these decisions? The overwhelming talk about the bottom line has been crowding out the conversation we should be having—a conversation about values and about justice.
Its not that the economic strictures of budgets or revenues are not important. We all live in a world in which the government cannot supply services—from defense to preschool—without paying for them. However, the economic voice should be neither the first nor the loudest voice in the conversation.
It seems that spokespeople (and just people) advocating for any cause are more and more frequently framing their advocacy in economic terms. “If everybody has access to preventive care the state saves money on emergency room visits.” “Preschool programs are a big factor in keeping kids off the street and out of jail—which ends up saving the country a bucketload of money.” “The death penalty costs way more than Life Without the Possibility of Parole.” We have monetized our morals.
It is not that any of these arguments are wrong per se. It is that the economic bottom line should not be the trump card in any debate over values and issues of justice. The issue should be: what is right and what is just.
This is not a new idea.
There is a law in the third century text the Mishnah (Baba Bathra 1:5) which obligates all residents of a city to pay a levy towards the building of a wall around the city. The question is asked in the discussion of this Mishnah in the sixth century Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra 7b): “How is this levy assessed?” Three different possibilities are offered: 1. Per capita. Each person is obligated to pay exactly the same amount. The bill is meted out evenly amongst the whole city. The claim here is that the obligations of the city should be distributed evenly amongst the residents of the city regardless of abiblity to pay. 2. According to the amount of money that each person has. In this argument, a richer person has more benefit from the wall than a poorer person since he has more to protect—therefore the wealthier person is assessed at a higher level. 3. According to the proximity of a given house to the wall. The closer one is to the wall, the more protection one needs and therefore assumedly one gets. Hence the closer one is to the wall, the more one pays. The Talmud, as is it’s way, does not provide us with a decision (or, more accurately, provides us with two decisions: either the second, based on the amount of money a person has, or the third based on proximity to the wall).
In the twelfth century in northern France, in the city of Dampierre, Rabbenu Tam, one of the greatest minds of the middle ages, questioned the justice of this arrangement. It would be okay if poor people who lived in closer proximity to the wall paid more than poor people who lived farther away from the wall. It would also be okay if rich people close to the wall paid more than rich people far from the wall. It would not be okay, Rabbenu Tam said, if a poor person would pay more than a rich person because the poor person lived in closer proximity to the wall.
Rabbenu Tam was not questioning the logic of the closer-farther algorithm. He was questioning the extent of its explanatory power. He was saying, in essence, that it cannot be that a poor person would have to contribute more to the city than a wealthy person. This type of regressive tax was unjust. While a rich person could afford to pay for the tax and also to buy food and obtain shelter and other necessities, it is not clear that the same is true for the poor person.
The underlying sentiment of this decision is that choices in the public realm, decisions of law and policy have to be based on a foundation of doing the right and the just. A society, to consider itself righteous, has to ground its decisions about allocations—and about sentencing, and about business practices, and about education and a myriad of other things—in the principles of: “And you shall do that which is right and good” (Deuteronomy 6:18), “So you may walk in the way of goodness, and keep to the paths of righteousness” (Proverbs 2:20), “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due” (Proverbs 3:27). These are all principles which the rabbinic tradition applies in the course of discussions on economic justice issues. We would be well served in our discussions to follow in their paths.
If you read a budget closely and do not see that it follows in the ways of goodness and the paths of righteousness, but rather balances the budget without care for the suffering of the poor and marginal, the excuse of political accounting will not cover the shame of our decisions.
My new book Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism is available for purchase here.
The introduction to the book can be downloaded as a free pdf here.