Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why do Jews Vote for Democrats: Part 1

American's Worst Rabbi today attempts to explain why Jews vote for Democrat. He gives seven reasons, each of which I will address in turn. In this installment, we'll deal with the claim that Jews vote Democrats because they care too much about poor people.

We join Pruzansky already in progress...

Firstly, Democrats are widely perceived as the party of the poor, the downtrodden and the societal outcast, and Jews – persecuted for most of our existence – have a natural sympathy for the underdog. 

He's off to a good start. I agree that Jews like Democrats because our tradition has taught us to care about the most vulnerable segments of society, and on balance the Democrats do a better job of protecting those groups. 

As charity is a great virtue (and a fundamental commandment) in Jewish life, Jews especially are drawn to a system that appears charitable on the surface – the redistribution of income from the wealthy to the poor – and government is seen as the vehicle of that charitable distribution.

He neglects to mention that the Republicans are also in favor of income redistribution, only they'd rather see the money go from the middle class to the wealthy. Corporate welfare yes! Regular welfare? Not so much. 

Also, he neglects the very pragmatic benefits of helping the less fortunate. If the poor weren't provided with health care all of us would suffer from epidemics, and from business slow downs during sick seasons. If the poor weren't provided with elementary educations, who would be sufficiently skilled to take the low-end jobs the capitalists depend upon?  And so on and so forth. In short, we don't support social spending merely out of a charitable impulse, but because we understand that every one is better off when the floor is raised. 

The weakness in that argument, of course, is that Jews believe in charity, but primarily as a private endeavor.

Completely wrong.

The tithing obligation, or the dispensing of gifts to the poor in Biblical times (maasrot, leket, shikcha, pe’ah – known collectively as matnot aniyim, gifts to the poor), are all private ventures, and are not publicly coerced. 

They are all publicly coerced. If you fail to provide these "gifts" the local court can punish you with a flogging, and if they can find a way construe your crime as an act of "rebelliousness against the king" they can execute you, too. That's the Torah way. And the fact that court has the power to enforce this law means the venture is not a private one.

Notwithstanding that at different times in history the Jewish community itself intervened and assessed wealthy members a sum of money to care for society’s poor, that was always considered a last resort and not particularly efficient. 

Exactly who considered it inefficient, or a  last resort? Pruzansky doesn't say. The fact is that it was neither inefficient, nor a last resort which is why it kept happening.

The king never levied taxes to care for the poor, 

The kings screwed up in any number of ways. Why are we attempting to learn a moral lesson from a line of people who were routinely skewered and denounced by the prophets for their ethical failings?

although the religious establishment might. 


Charity as a private act lends moral perfection to the donor;

Charity as a public act lends moral perfection to the tax payer. See how easy it is to make groundless assertions?

the same cannot be said for a coercive taxation system that distributes only a small sum of the monies collected to the poor.

Pruzansky is talking from both sides of his mouth. He concedes that Jewish communities, in every generation, coerced wealthy people to support the local poor. He concedes the religious establishment has this power. Then, with a wave of his magic wand, he attempts to denounce it all as immoral. 

Of course, it would unacceptable in a Jewish context to have a permanent impoverished class – multi-generational families of welfare recipients – as it should be in an American context. 

So where is Pruzansky's sweeping denouncement of the kolel system, or of the Hasidic way of life, as practiced in enclaves like Kiryas Joel, the most welfare dependent census track in New York state?  Multi-generational families of welfare recipients, anyone?

The trillions of dollars spent since the Great Society initiated the War on Poverty has in fact exacerbated poverty, not alleviated it, with more poor in both real and proportionate terms today than when the programs started. 

Is this true? A cite would help. 

It should not be difficult to ascertain why.

Slow down. Before you "ascertain why" can you please demonstrate that the claim is even true?

Handouts degrade the recipient and create a dependency – call it now an entitlement – that is not easy to terminate. 

I have to say, "Rabbi" it doesn't sound like you're upset that the government is handing out gifts. It sounds like you're upset that someone other than White Republicans are receiving them. Where do I see you complaining about bank bailouts, or tax codes rewrites that spare corporations from paying taxes? Where's the outrage about Medicare or mortgage interest deductions? What makes those types of handouts morally superior to any other? 

Aside: I am using the word handout because Pruzansky uses it. I don't actually consider any of these programs to be a "handout."  When the government provides a mortgage deduction to a wealthy Republican its saying that we, as a society, are better off when people own houses. When it sends food stamps to a poor Democrat, we're saying that we, as a society, are better off when the people who do our drudge work are well-fed enough to get to work. 

We know as well that the greatest form of charity under Jewish law is finding a job for someone unemployed, or lending him money so he can start his own business.

Yet, within the Orthodox Jewish community today the greatest form of charity is a gift to a kolel. Would the good rabbi like to address this discrepancy

Additional point from the comments: Oh dear, the Rabbi has only listed two of the top three forms of charity, as per Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon. The first  is finding a poor man a job. The second is loaning a poor man money to start a business. Can you guess what the third one is? And can you guess why Pruzansky doesn't mention it? (Answers: Giving a gift. Because the truth wouldn't fit his thesis, and  Pruzansky is intellectually dishonest.) 

 For the recipient, that is both dignified and effective in the long-term, but for some reason, Jews feel better giving someone a fish than teaching him how to fish;

Judging from the plaques I see on the walls of yeshivas and shuls, wealthy Republican Jews are also not very interested in teaching people to fish.

Additional point from the comments: For the recipient, receiving a government check is far MORE dignified than taking something from a local charity fund. With the former you get near-perfect privacy i.e. no one you know rifles through your tax returns. 

 perhaps the latter would cut into the market share of the Jewish-owned fish companies, if there were Jewish-owned fish companies. But current policies are demeaning and debilitating to the recipient, even if they satisfy the compassionate emotions of their advocates.

Bears repeating: I'm not in favor of Medicare and food stamps because of my "compassionate emotions." My support is entirely based on pragmatism.  I think these programs are important because they strengthen society as a whole, while also offering important protections to the wealthiest citizens. (Food stamps, believe me, are less expensive then dealing with an armed insurgency. People with food in their stomachs are less likely to feel that they have nothing to lose.)

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