Friday, June 05, 2015

Legislating luxuries

"There are two trials before the individual: the test of wealth and the test of poverty... Both are difficult... but the test of wealth is greater than (the test of) poverty" = Kol Ben Levi

Let's say you're walking past a shallow pool, and you see a child drowning. Do you have a moral obligation to wade in and pull the child out? What if you're wearing a $5000 bespoke suit and your favorite $500 pair of shell cordovan shoes? Are you obligated to ruin your expensive duds for the sake of the child?

These are the sort of questions I asked myself while attempting to address the very complicated issues raised in yesterday's comment thread, to wit, in world where lots of people are still struggling to feed and clothe themselves, how much luxury is ethically acceptable?

Today, the Times has a piece on how high-end watchmakers are adapting to the Apple smart watch, and it mentions a prince in Qatar who owns three, count 'em three, $200,000 watches. I think we can agree that it feels like there's something vulgar and immoral about this, but I'm having a difficult time formulating a rule that explains the ethical problem in universal terms. 

While it's easy to say that a prince who chooses a third $200,000 watch over a $200,000 donation to Tomchei Shabbos is just like someone who refuses to sacrifice his nice suit for the sake of a drowning child, how do we apply that understanding to ordinary first-worlders like us? 

All of us surround ourselves with non-essential luxuries. I don't own a trio of $200,000 watches, but I do own dozens of $30 shirts, and several $400 suits. Were those purchases as vulgar and immoral as the prince's? Thirty bucks go a long way in the developing world. Did I also choose a suit over a child? And if so, how do we formulate a rule that both defines luxuries and explains when they are acceptable?

Chazal clearly believed that wealthy people have an obligation to alleviate the suffering of the poor*. We know what poor means, but what does rich mean? We have plenty of food, and plenty of clothing and access to medicine. Are we rich? Does this obligation to alleviate the suffering of the poor extend to us, too? And if it does, how do we define luxuries and decide which are ok to keep?

* If rich Jews e are like wealthy American people at large, they are clearly falling down on the job. 

In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income. Worse, rich people generally don't give to social service organizations. The wealthy prefer to support colleges and universities, arts organizations, and museums. Of the 50 largest individual gifts to public charities in 2012, 34 went to educational institutions, the vast majority of them colleges and universities, like Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley, that cater to the nation’s and the world’s elite. Museums and arts organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art received nine of these major gifts, with the remaining donations spread among medical facilities and fashionable charities like the Central Park Conservancy. Not a single one of them went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed. More gifts in this group went to elite prep schools (one, to the Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York) than to any of our nation’s largest social-service organizations, including United Way, the Salvation Army, and Feeding America (which got, among them, zero).(1)

(1)  Most of this paragraph was lifted word-for-word from this article

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