by George M. Stern
The Talmud records this story: One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
The man replied, “70 years.”
Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”
The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”
I thought of that story when I watched a talk by Chuck Collins, a great-grandson and an heir to the fortune of 19th-century meatpacking mogul Oscar Mayer and senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a progressive think tank, where he directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good. He is coauthor, with William H. Gates Sr., of the book “Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax
Accumulated Fortunes,” which argues that the estate tax is both fair and necessary.
Both religious and secular traditions spend a great deal of energy talking about social responsibility. The Bible tells us that there will always be poor in our midst, but that nevertheless we must combat poverty.
Growing up, I always thought that America lived up to such biblical ideals. We had a progressive tax system that narrowed the gap between rich and poor while still fostering the greatest blossoming of innovation and creativity the world had ever known.
America boasted a growing system of roads (the Interstate Highway System is now named after the Republican president who fostered it, Pennsylvanian Dwight Eisenhower) and, in many urban areas, extensive public transportation systems.
A city like Philadelphia educated hundreds of thousands of students in schools that were mostly relatively new. The U.S. Postal Service, mandated by the Constitution, served every American with 6-days-a-week delivery and multiple deliveries each day in the week before Christmas.
Public hospitals served the poor (not always well, but at least their existence was expected). Prisons were at least sometimes places where criminals could get rehabilitated. We were even – at last – moving towards racial equality, with government taking the lead in ending segregation and assuring that every adult citizen had a right to vote.
Just listing those items makes me realize how much has changed. We could argue forever over what caused the change. More productive, I think, is to ask, “Are we happy that our national attitudes – and mood – seem to have shifted so much?” Is America a better place now that income inequality is soaring and poverty and malnutrition are rising, roads are crumbling, schools are underfunded and falling down, and the now semi-private post office threatens cuts in services and higher costs?
Has the privatization of prisons made a dent in the crime rate (or even lowered costs)? Can all adult Americans still vote? What about felons who have paid their dues in prison? What about those with the least access to transportation, including the growing number of elderly and urban teens without driver’s licenses, in states where Voter ID cards become law?
It was once said that we were living in the American Century. Certainly America was on the ascendancy, and despite concerns about the “Ugly Americans” (younger readers, please look that up on Wikipedia!), across the globe folks wanted to emulate us. And they did. They learned to dance to rock and eat fast foods. Their business leaders learned how to create wealth while exploiting workers, just like America did early in the 20th century and seems to be doing once again, abroad and even here at home. (It’s all the fault of unions, you know.)
Meanwhile, we bail out banks (whose rapacious executives took advantage of the repeal of so-called onerous regulations to create wealth for themselves at the expense of the “common weal”) and automotive companies (so much for “pure” capitalism) but not citizens, who rather are blamed for falling for the sleazy deals banks offered and the Madison Avenue hype about “having it all.” Failed CEOs and even school superintendents get golden parachutes and bonuses while teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other public employees get pink slips.
Every reputable historian knows that income inequality is a signal that a nation is headed for trouble. That can be especially so when the electoral process is threatened by the juggernaut now squeezing us: on the one hand legislative attempts to curtail voting (in the name, of course, of fairness), and on the other a Court-approved system of buying elections through huge expenditures on lobbyists and campaign ads, none of which are aimed at truly educating lawmakers or the public or even telling the truth.
Selfishness never leads to permanent good. Indeed, the accumulation of vast amounts of wealth seems rather to lead to a never-ending cycle of wanting more – and lying to get it. So, in the face of high unemployment and the lowest tax rates in many decades, we are told that cutting the taxes of the wealthy will create jobs. Really?
A writer on a conservative blog I occasionally read (just to be sure I’m not simply believing my own hyperbolic rhetoric) recently wrote that philanthropy goes up when taxes go down. On the face of it, that seems counter-intuitive. Even if it is so, I can attest to the fact that giving to social service agencies hit by government cutbacks is not what motivates donors to give large sums. They respond more readily to getting their names on buildings, which I assure you does not include the local homeless shelter, which, if named after anyone at all, is dedicated to a longtime supporter who gave significant time and energy, not money.
So now what? Having maybe gotten over the fantasy of creating a movement that takes over the country, I am thinking that we each need to find some local place to start: a congregation to mobilize around, a pressing social justice issue, a school to lend time and support to, an agency to volunteer at. More ambitiously, but perhaps not fruitlessly, we can push to encourage political leaders to reward best practices – not friends – and to sponsor legislation that creates sustainable, progressive change.
Now that I am no longer engaged in full-time work, I have the time to think a great deal. Maybe that’s dangerous, and bad for my health. But maybe I’ll come up with an idea that will indeed matter. I’ll keep you posted as long as the editor allows me to do so. Meanwhile, if you have a great idea, if you’re working on something you think I could dig my teeth into (and get others to as well), please e-mail me at email@example.com.
Rabbi George Stern is immediate past-director of Neighborhood Interfaith Movement. His passion remains social justice, as learned from both religious and secular teachings.