An Economic Analysis of Altruism in the name of Social Justice - A Jewish Perspective

I am not an economist nor a philosopher nor a Rabbi, so this essay represents my own thoughts and analysis of an idea.  Also, the essay isn't finished yet, but I really need to Get It Done because it is a sermon I am going to deliver this July.  You are (of course) at liberty to disregard the advice contained herein, or to argue with it. Feel free to Email me if you want to discuss this further.

My thinking begins with an op-ed piece that appeared in the Sunday, September 26th 1999 issue of the Seattle Times. In this story, we have the following hypothetical: A man saves up for his retirement, and invests in a Bugatti sports car, which he does not insure. One day he parks the car on a railroad track, which he assumes is safe because there is a kid playing on an adjacent track. The man goes for a walk and he spots a train coming. He can dash back to his car and get his car out of he way (maybe), or he can run to a turnout, throw a switch, and save his car; but at the cost of killing the child. What does he do?.

My thinking continued on Friday October 1st when Rabbi Beth Singer of Temple Beth Am in Seattle gave a sermon discussing setting asside money that would be spent eating out and giving that money to the poor.

My thinking is very confused on this subject. On the one hand, I am painfully aware of a looming Malthusian crisis. The human population of our little planet exceeds 6 billion people and it is not clear if the technology exists to support that many people. Such crisis have occured in the past, although not necessarily in human populations. All ecosystems have a finite "carrying capacity" which controls how many members of a species may live there. The "carrying capacity" is a fixed limit, which will change only when the ecosystem changes significantly.   The population will usually be less than the carry capacity.  For example, if there are a lot of prey animals, there will soon be many preditor animals; eventually, there will be too many preditors and they will kill too many prey. The prey population will crash, and then the preditor population will crash. The prey animals will then (briefly) enjoy a period relatively free of preditation.  However, the preditors will make a comeback and eventually, the preditors will enjoy easy hunting.  And so on. Humans are omnivorous (Rabbi Beth is a vegetarian) but the same sort of dynamics occur.  It is already occuring in Africa, where massive deforestation has destroyed the ecosystem in the sub-saharan region.  The theory of evolution predicts this phenomena, and it is one of the reasons why species change over time. See my essay on creation myths for more details. So the engineer in me is tempted to argue that we're all going to die, why not enjoy ourselves before we go?

On the other hand, Rabbi Beth is an extraordinarily intelligent woman and a scholar of the first rank. From a Jewish perspective (and the Jewish perspective goes back 4000 years, while Malthus is a Johny-come-lately in the 18th century), Rabbi Beth is on solid ground. 3200 years ago, some unknown social engineer (or else G-d) wrote (Leviticus 19:9)
 ~kyhla hwhy yna ~ta bz[t rglw yn[l  jqlt al $mrk jrpw llw[t al $mrkw    jqlt al $rycq jqlw rcql $df tap    hlkt al ~kcra rycq -ta ~krcqbw
""And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest.  And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God."
In 20th Century america, we don't farm anymore, so it is important to recast this principle to fit the times. Of course, the answer is that we should donate surplus resources to the less fortunate, and that means money.  So when Rabbi Beth tells us to pass up eating out and setting asside the money thusly saved for the poor, she has recast an ancient principle in terms of a modern action.  Again, she is on absolutely solid ground, as Rabbis have been recasting Jewish law and practice over the millenia in an effort to fit the times while staying true to our core values of ethical monotheism.

How is an economic analysis like a Russian Doll?

A long time ago, my sister and I were given Russian Dolls - for all I know, she still has hers. Inside this Russian Doll was another Russian Doll. And inside that was another, and inside that was another. Every one of them exquisitely beautiful and every one of them containing yet another Russian Doll.

When I thought about this problem, I discovered that any possible solution had within it other problems, and the solutions to those problems created still other problems.  Every time I thought about Rabbi Beth's proposal, I discovered a problem with it, and each time I thought I solved that problem, I found another problem waiting inside.  Of course, the current situation also is problematical, and there is no evidence that the current situation is any worse than what Rabbi Beth proposes.

Running faster to stay in place

For example, in the current economic environment we find ourselves in, there are people who are unemployed, and there are also people who are working 50,60,70, or even 80 hour weeks.  There are people who are becoming extraordinarily wealthy, and there are vital social needs which are going unfilled.  In the United States at the end of the 20th Century, worker productivity is unparalellel at any time in human history thanks to our technology and an economic system which ruthlessly punishes inefficientcy.  I myself would like to volunteer at my children's school, and I would like to study more, and write. But I am working all of these extra hours, when hiring another person might be a better solution. However, I am trapped - because I have a wife and an expensive house (and this was before prices went through the ceiling) and children, I not only need to work these lunatic hours but I also need to supplement my earnings with moonlighting. At the same time, the cost of benefits has become almost a third of my salary, so it makes sense to my employer to have me work 80 hours a week instead of hiring another person.  In general, it makes sense for relatively few people working relatively nutty hours than have more people, less well paid, working fewer hours.

Increasing productivity is Automating jobs out of existence

However, it gets more complicated. One of the reasons why I am paid so well is that people with my skill set are relatively rare. I can, and have, automated jobs that paid ~$12-$15 per hour out of existance.  My next job will probably eliminate sales jobs-sales used to be a well paying profession.  The boon in electronic commerce will automate even more jobs out of existance, this time, jobs paying as little as $8/hour can be automated. Eventually, a major disconnect is going to develop: there will be jobs which pay too little to bother automating them, and there will be jobs which are too complicated to automate. Already, this phenomena is occurring: file clerks, secretaries, bank tellers, elevator operators (actually, there are relatively few people still alive who remember elevator operators, but once upon a time, elevators were controlled by an operator who worked a switch to make the elevator go up and down. The ability of the elevator to stop such that the floor of the elevator and the floor of the floor were level was a mark of the skill of the operatior. ), telephone operators, stokers (men who shovel coal in to boilers), the guys who ride in cabooses on trains, all of these jobs are being automated out of existance. There are stories of railroad workers who spent their entire careers at the bottom of the seniority list, because the need for the job shrank at about the same rate as other guys quit or retired or were killed.

Wealth and dehumanization

It gets more complicated. The middle class of the United States is facing an interesting paradox. On the one hand, we are experiencing unprecendented wealth. One the other hand, we are being dehumanized on several levels. Alvin Toeffler predicted, in the early 1970s, that our jobs would become increasingly temporary. Especially in the high tech world, where there is a lot of contract labor, our relationship with our jobs are increasingly temporary. It used to be that work was not only a productive activity but also a social one. But in a system where you show up, fix something, and then leave, it becomes very hard to develop social relationships. I run a program for domestic violence: one of the men made the comment that this group was his social life. I have mixed feelings about this: on the one hand, I am happy to be of service in this way; on the other hand, I am sad that our service is required in this way.  But in a world of increasingly temporary assignments, the relationships that uses to happen incidentally to work are no longer happened.  Consequently, it is becoming important for people to make the time to work on relationships.

It used to be that when my father wanted to chat, he and I would work on something together in his shop, either fixing a car, or building a machine, or something like that. Today, our cars are too complicated for backyard mechanics to work on (or even regular mechanics - have you noticed how few gas stations have repair bays these days?), and my work is too complicated for me to share it with my son, or my father.  My father is an extremely intelligent man, and so is my son, I don't know what happened to me.    When I want to talk with my son, I send him an E-mail.

Spending wisely

What are surplus resources? It turns out that a lot of our spending is on things that are not really necessary. Rabbi Beth discusses eating out. But that is only part of the story. I am concerned about a slipperty slope here. I myself just went to Israel with Rabbi Jonathan Singer, Rabbi Beth's husband.  I can see how somebody would say that this is unnecessary spending, that the $6600 I am spending could be spent on the poor. I am struggling with this.  I justify it on the grounds that travel leads to making connections with people, and those connections will help establish peace.   We are commanded over and over again to persue peace.  This commandment can justified both from a religious point of view and from solid, boring first principles of engineering: a peaceful existance will neccessarily be a more efficient existance, because you don't have to expend resources preparing for and fighting a war.  I do give money and time and energy to help the downtrodden.  I could, perhaps, give more.

Have you got any good news?

As a matter of fact, I do. In the United States, we have sufficient resources to end hunger, death from preventable disease, and reduce crime, all at the same time. Let me repeat myself: we could, if we had the will, eliminate poverty, improve the average life span, and reduce crime.

Lots and lots of people have commented on the rise of the stock market over the past 20 years. However, the rise of the stock market is not an indication of economic health. Rather, it is an indicator that there are too many dollars with too little to do.

You see, there are all kinds of investments that one can make with a fistful of dollars. Rabbi Beth, in a rather microscopic fashion, is advocating investing those dollars in the human resources of this country. Providing food, shelter, medical care, education for these people is the ticket to getting them out of their condition. Rabbi Beth is on solid ground from the Jewish perspective. Is the good Rabbi on solid ground from an economic perspective - it other words, is it in the enlightened self interest of the United States to Do The Right Thing for the poor?

Pass me another Russian doll, please. Thank you. Yes, it is.

Some proposals for changes in policy for the United States

One of the problems I have with most policy promulgations of do-gooders is that they talk about rights and not responsibilities.  In fact, every time you create a right, you also levy a responsibility on somebody else to make sure those rights are enforced.  That's one of the reasons why we have government.

I propose the following changes in policy for the United States:

  1. No child, no pregnant woman, no nursing woman, shall ever go hungry. Ever. If a pregnant or lactating woman or a child will go to any government office, there will be procedures and resources in place such that they will be fed. If they are sick or in need of preventive care (vacinations, dental care, etc.), there will be resources and procedures such that they will receive care. If they are cold, they will receive shelter. They will be kept safe. It is the responsibility of men and women who are not pregnant or nursing to develop the resources to accomodate these rights. This isn't rocket science - we know that children and pregnant and lactating women are vulnerable. It is in our enlightened self interest to take care of them. Further, every moral code I have studied, Jewish, Christian, secular (with the exception of Machiavelli and Nietzche) mandates this kind of treatment. Why, then, is this not happening? In particular, why is the Christian right deathly (I use that word deliberately) silent on this issue? Why are those people willing to commit acts of civil disobediance to stop abortions, and yet seem clueless about the hungry and the cold?
  2. Every child shall be educated, and not minimally educated, but fully educated to the extent of the kids' abilities. Each child shall be educated and treated as if he or she is an individual. Children must be educated about reading, writing, and arithmetic; but also in logical reasoning, sex and health, the arts and sciences, and vocational training. Rabbi Jonathan Singer says that they also have to learn to swim, which makes a lot of sense (a lot of people fall into the water and drown - if they would swim, they could reach safety). Again, this should not be so difficult to understand - we are a high tech society and it only works with an educated and involved citizenry.

  3. However, we speak with forked tongue on this issue. In Article 9 of the Washington State Constitution, it clearly says that the education of our children is the paramount duty of the state. Yet, it then turns around and requires a 60% majority vote to pass a school levy. By way of contrast, it takes only a 50% vote to build a sports stadium.
  4. Changes in tax laws:
  5. Changes in labor law:
  6. Changes in environmental law:
  7. Birth Control and Abortion.  Both should be freely available.  I am not encouraging sex, but rather I am acknowleging that our biological imperatives are not going to be denied.  We have too many people, and we need to reduce the number of people.  The best way to do that is not to have them in the first place.
The United States could be a paradise for all, but it requires the political will to make it so. Currently, the political will is to get elected. The republicans have sold out their Christian allies for their corporate allies.  However, the Republicans keep harping on Abortion, a battle they can't win, but which keeps the Christians in the fold. The democrats have sold out their allies in the labor movement, but who else is labor going to turn to?


Far be it from me to argue with a scholar such as R. Beth!  From a Jewish perspective, R. Beth presents a compelling argument.  However, effective social policy requires gaining agreement from the majority, and Jews are not the majority.  So while R. Beth is correct, she stopped too soon. She failed to see some of the consequences of her arguments from a social point of view, and she did not think of other actions we could take in parallel.  She should go into more detail about why we should Do The Right thing from the Jewish point of view, couched in the perspective of a majority point of view.

In this essay, I have tried to go through an analysis of the current world and national situations in population trends, including the distribution of wealth, longevity, and quality of life issues.  I am suggesting moderate changes in social policy which I believe will have positive influence on our quality of life.

id="L153"Malthus Reverend Malthus

See Malthus Bicentenary Conference 1998: Malthus and his legacy: The population debate after 200 years. Sponsored by the National Library of Australia, Canberra 17-18 September 1998