An Economic Analysis of Altruism in the name of Social Justice - A Jewish
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.
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
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
~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
""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
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
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
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.
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.
We know that public transportation is cheaper and less polluting than a
sea of cars, and yet many of us continue to buy cars. A new bus costs about
$350,000, the cost of about 20 cars, yet it can carry 60 people on a single
trip, and it makes many trips in a day. It never ceases to amaze me to
hear that we don't have the money to spend to improve public transportation,
when I know that we spend far greater sums on private transport.
It doesn't end there. One of the most popular classes of cars purchased
today are Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs). These are large and heavy and
big. Families justify purchasing them "because they are safer". They are
not. What they do is transfer risk to the other guy, the one driving a
small, sensible car (bicyclists like me don't care, I am as much as risk
from an 1800 pound Yugo as from a 5000 pound cadillac or a 6000 pound Lexus
SUV - and why does Lexus make an SUV?)
It doesn't end there. Those 20 cars will require more than 20 times
the maintenance of the single bus. Cars are powered by gasoline engines,
buses by diesel engines (some buses are run off of electricity). Diesel
engines are lower maintenance machines than gasoline engines.
It doesn't end there. Each kilogram of gasoline (or diesel fuel) burned
generates roughly 3 kilos of carbon dioxide! (A gallon of gasoline weighs
about 6 kilos). The United States government is trying to push through
a treaty on green house gases, but is unwilling to enforce Corporate Average
Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.
Sports stadiums, which are a special case of
Entertainment in general. Now Jews are not Calvinists, the talmud says
that there are some pleasures we are entitled to. A bride, for example,
is supposed to get 10% of her dowry in cosmetics. The attitude that
sex is solely for procreation is an idea alien to Jewish thought.
But why is the State of Washington spending almost $1 Billion on sports
stadiums in Seattle when we are unable to maintain our schools and pay
our teachers properly? We could have spent $1 Billion on improving
schools, and that would hired the same number of construction people, and
consumed about the same amount of material, but the long term gain would
be so much greater.
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:
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?
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
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.
Changes in tax laws:
Changes in labor law:
The marginal tax rate on earned income should be lowered,
and the marginal tax rate on unearned income should be raised.
The argument is made that we should lower the tax rate on capital gains
to encourage investment. The technical term for this argument is "bullshit".
The wealthy are going to continue to invest, because for them, that's the
only game in town (Why are the Kansas City Royals so popular? What else
is there to do in Kansas in the summertime?).
The Internal Revenue Code should recognize the value of donations of time
to charity. I am not quite sure about the details of this. My thinking
is that I am salaried, so I don't have the option of making more money
by working more hours, but society reaps a benefit when I volunteer at
a school or when I talk an abusive man out of beating his wife.
While I am on the subject of the Internal Revenue Code: it is too complicated.
The complication makes it expensive to enforce, and that is an unproductive
use of resources. If the United States Congress wants to encourage some
behavior, have some guts, people, and put it in a spending bill where it
is on the budget and highly visible. Otherwise, don't do it.
Changes in environmental law:
Reduce the number of hours in a full time week to something on the order
of 35 or 36.
Professionals ought to be paid by the hour. Certainly lawyers do.
Everybody who works should be covered by health insurance, regardless of
whether they're the president of Boeing or flipping burgers at McDonalds.
The health insurance is paid for by the state from taxes, with tax money
going to health insurance companies. The health insurance companies compete
on the basis of efficiencies in handling claims and on their investment
The claim is made that this will make business uncompetitive.
Not so. If McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy's all have to pay more
to hire their people, they will all raise prices. A little, not a
lot. One of the dark secrets of American Business is how much revenue
goes to debt service. Under my proposals, the cost of debt service
will remain constant.
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
Increase taxes on fossil fuels for all classes of consumption: on road,
off road, for heating, for cooling (you can't really cool something, you
can only pump the heat someplace else). The revenue raised should
go into the general fund.
Increased spending on science and engineering. Humans have got three
things going for us that no other animal has: 1) We are terrific walkers,
the best walkers the planet has ever seen. 2) We have opposable thumbs.
3) We have big brains. There are lots of animals that can run faster
than we can, that can outsee us, that can outsmell us, that can outhear
us, that are better protected from the cold, that have more powerful muscles
and endurance. If we are going to continue to dominate the planet,
we have to use our brains, and that means supporting the intellectuals
amongst us. Our scientists and engineers have to develop new sources
of food, and more energy efficient methods of moving food from producer
to consumer. However, we also need
Increased spending on general education, with an enphasis on environmental
awareness. I am not a screaming protester from the 60s, at least,
I hope not. Yet we need everybody to understand the consequences
of their decisions. Even such small changes as turning out the lights
when the room is not in use, using 60 watt bulbs instead of 75 watt bulbs
and walking instead of going by car all have have potentially dramatic
positive impacts on our lives.
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