Monday, July 6, 2015

Obama's Overtime Pay Edict Is Over the Top

The Obama administration is patting itself on the back once again, this time for extending overtime pay. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) guarantees, amongst other things, that most employees are paid time-and-a-half for overtime if they work an excess of 40 hours a week. Anyone who makes above the threshold is not guaranteed overtime under the FLSA. Under current law, there is a salary threshold of $23,660, which means that anyone who makes more than that is not guaranteed overtime. Raising the threshold to $50,400 would provide more workers with overtime protections, which is why the Department of Labor (DoL) is calling the new proposed law a "fair day's pay for fair day's work." The DoL claims the bill can affect up to five million workers and increase the take-home pay for the middle class, which is good for middle class workers because of what the Left-leaning Economic Policy Institute (EPI) calls stagnant wages. The EPI would also point out that increasing overtime pay would mitigate "wage theft." Passing legislation with the intent to help workers earn more sounds great, but much like with minimum wage and other labor laws, I have to ask myself whether such intervention is as simply, clear-cut, or pristine as proponents make it out to be.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) came out with a press release in response, in which it called this proposal a 1930s-era regulation that has caused the "demolition of five million Americans." For the NAM, this proposal is a "another [regulation] in a long list of regulatory roadblocks to healthy and robust economic growth and job creation." The National Retail Federation  (NRF) also does not like the proposal, saying that this proposal will "add to employers' costs, undermine customer service, hinder productivity, generate more litigation opportunities for trial lawyers and ultimately harm job creation." These blunt, damning statements seem to cover the issues of expanded overtime well enough, but I still feel like elucidating a bit more.

Let's start with some research on the topic. The NRF study, based off of findings from economic forecasting firm Oxford Economics, found that it could cost employers up to $874 million in additional costs, not to mention additional compliance burdens. The American Action Forum found that it would only impact 3 million workers, 69 percent of whom are making household income three times above the federal poverty line. Another unintended consequence I didn't initially think of is how it would make flexible scheduling more difficult because flex time involve monitoring worked hours. The Heritage Foundation also provides a good list of empirical research that shows the adverse effects of mandate overtime pay.

While it might seem noble to want to help the working middle class, proponents might not want to celebrate quite yet. Why? They will have to run into the reality that if you make hiring a class of workers more expensive, the employer will try to do something to adjust for that loss in profits. How can the employer possibly respond to this overtime mandate?

One way is to cut base wages of current employees [or reduce the base wage when hiring someone] in order to offset the higher costs of overtime. One study shows that many employers opted for that change when the 2004 overtime regulation changes took place (Barkume, 2010). Another option is to cut work hours while hiring new workers who will work less hours (thereby creating more part-time workers), which is what happened when the FLSA was initially implemented (Costa, 1998). Even the EPI conceded this point back in 2014. For those who make a salary at the upper end of the threshold, boosting the wage just above the threshold is another way of avoiding overtime. Depending on the level of automation of the job, the employer might find a way to find a robot or automated machine to do the work. Passing on the cost to the customer is a possibility. Simply bearing the brunt of the cost of overtime pay is also a possibility, but given how profit plays as an important incentive in business decisions, we should not be at all surprised if or when businesses find ways to circumvent the overtime pay, much like they have in the past.

You want to confront corporations whose profits have increased while wages have reportedly stayed stagnant, this is not the way to go about it. We don't need a policy that increases the cost of hiring labor while creating little to no benefit. What America needs is a broader jobs agenda in which we encourage more job growth and economic growth, but making labor more expensive is not one of those ways.

Friday, July 3, 2015

A Fourth of July Reflection on Libertarianism and American Patriotism

Patriotism is one of those sentiments that makes libertarians such as myself weary. Patriotism has been abused and misused for ultra-nationalistic ends, whether we look back at World War Two or see the bigotry and xenophobia ultra-Right political parties espouse. In the vast majority of cases, you won't see American patriotism go to those extremes, but at the same time, it makes me shudder how patriotism can be and is used to exploit the public into unquestionably pledging allegiance to a nation, regardless of how much it screws up. Is unwavering loyalty to a nation-state true patriotism? Can one question their nation's course of action while still maintaining a sense of patriotism? These are questions I hope to answer today.

Patriotism is one of those difficult things to define because its meaning can change from culture to culture, not to mention that those of different political ideologies view the idea of patriotism differently. Etymologically speaking, the word "patriot" comes from the Latin word patriota (fellow countryman) and the Greek word πατρίς (country). Even with the origin of the word established, the philosophical debates behind what patriotism emerges. The Cato Institute actually provides a lively debate on the topic here.

"Love for one's country" is too simple of a meaning. What exactly are we loving in the first place? The physical land? The people? The politicians? And how do we define love? People can do silly things in the name of love, much like countries can do silly things in the name of national interest. How do we show love for our country? Does flying a flag outside of your house or posting some seemingly wholehearted Facebook status count as patriotism? Does one have to go as far as serving in the military or actively participating in civic duty in order to be considered a true patriot?

I feel like I need to go back to what one is loving. I don't think it's a piece of land that one is supposed to love. At least in an American context, true patriotism is about loving the ideas upon which this country was founded. One of the things that makes the United States so atypical in terms of how nations were formed is that this country was built on an idea of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. There is a sense of rugged individualism and freedom to determine one's own destiny that was decidedly not in the framework of the European aristocracy that controlled 99.9999% of the wealth up until pre-modern times. America is about the idea of becoming your own person and pursuing your own dreams. That is why the definition of American is minimalist in comparison to other nationalities. All you have to do is either be born in the United States or go through the naturalization process. Beyond that, it is primarily your destiny to become the person you want to be. With this liberty, there are many Americas: Jewish America, black America, Hispanic America, gay America, Catholic America, hippy America, atheistic America, the America for white, heterosexual, Christian Republican males.....I can go on, but the point is that these sub-cultures exist because multiple groups can exist in tolerance and plurality. Think of America more as a tossed salad than a melting pot.

Is America perfect? Much like any other nation-state, the answer is "no" because humans are definitionally fallible. However, the fact that we strive closer and closer to an ideal, even if we never fully achieve it, is what I think makes for truer patriotism than mindlessly waving a flag, barbecuing, and wearing red, white, and blue on the Fourth of July. Samuel Johnson famously called patriotism "the last refuge of a scoundrel," but when read in context, Johnson was making a distinction between vicious and virtuous forms of patriotism.

For those who have read my blog, although it covers many topics, it serves as an ode to criticizing American public policy. Does this mean that I hate America? Absolutely not! As I already pointed out, it is still flawed because fallible human beings are in charge of governance. If you love something, you want it to grow and be the best it can be. That is at least part of the reason why my blogging criticizes America. It's because I love a country that, in spite of its flaws, offers freedom of religion unparalleled to any other country. It has a relatively free economy and provides opportunities to grow that did not exist for much history, and do not exist for most of the world. Although I might complain about American public policy, I also try to at least offer solutions to make it better. One can criticize out of love. As the American Enterprise Institute points out, 65 percent of Americans think this country is seriously on the wrong track, yet 83 percent of Americans still think this is the best country in which to live.

There's no contradiction between patriotism and criticism.  As a libertarian, I criticize both the encroachments and imperfections of the American government while simultaneously celebrating the freedoms this country has to offer. As my former professor put it, "the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution in the hopes that America would be a libertarian playground." My patriotism is not a sentiment that shuts my brain off when someone lobs the smallest of criticisms of America. I don't suffer from disillusionments simply because America needs to work on certain areas of improvement. I want to live in a land of the free. I want to see America live up to that classically liberal idea. If wanting to see my country truly become the land of free makes me a patriot, then I guess I'm a patriot.

Happy Fourth of July!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Crude Awakening: Why Lift the Crude Oil Exports Ban

Oil production in American has been on the rise since the end of the Great Recession, all in spite of the fact that the American government likes to metaphorically shoot itself in the foot with bad policy. No, I'm not talking about implementing wind and ethanol subsidies, cap-and-trade regulation, the gasoline tax, or the inability to finish the Keystone pipeline. I'm referring to the crude oil exports ban.

During the Nixon administration, the United States government enacted a crude oil exports ban to deal with the oil crisis. Essentially, the government's thinking was that if it kept American oil here in America, we wouldn't run out of oil at home. The basic economics of free trade show that when a country exports, five things take place in an exporting country's economy: prices increase, consumer surplus decreases, producer surplus increases, net economic welfare increases, and supply consumed increases (see below).

Keep in mind that the inverse is true for the importing country, and that consumers in a foreign country are deriving net economic welfare as a result of the export. When looking at this on a global level, there is net economic benefit, which means that free trade makes the world a better place than an export ban does. Free trade improving the global economy is one of those few concepts that has general consensus amongst economists. Also, let's consider if we replaced crude oil with any other product, such as wheat or automobiles. Wouldn't it sound silly to stop trading with other countries simply because you think prices might rise?

However, that sort of thinking doesn't even apply in this case: the crude oil market operates differently because it is a global market. Normally, lifting the export ban would not do much to shift prices. However, as the think-tank Resources for the Future (RFF) points out, better allocation of refinery activity would improve refinery productivity, thereby lowering prices. So let's get beyond economic theory: would lifting the export ban help?

In short, the crude oil exports ban is a self-punishing policy that is a populist relic of the 1970s, and should have remained in the 1970s. This viewpoint was affirmed when I read the Independent Institute's "The Economic Case for Lifting the Crude Oil Exports Ban." It wasn't just this libertarian think-tank that thought it was a bad idea. There are studies and reports from the Aspen Institute, Baker InstituteBrookings Institution, Columbia University Center on Global Economic PolicyCouncil on Foreign Relations, Dallas Federal Reserve BankGovernment Accountability Office, Heritage Foundation, ICF InternationalIHS Inc., and the Manhattan Institute that affirm the same thing: lifting the export ban would create net benefits. What sort of benefits would derive from lifting this exports ban?

GDP Growth and oil production: While not perfect, the GDP is still the best measurement of economic progress and health we have. Removing this ban would allow for up to 1.2 million barrels of crude oil per diem between now and 2025 (Columbia University, p. 44). Allowing for further production means greater economic output. ICF estimates that it will generate up to $14.8B per annum for the next 20 years, which would amount to $296B. Brookings Institution estimates that it will yield anywhere between $550B and $1.8T in present discount value from the years 2015-2039. While increasing the GDP by 0.4 percent in 2015 seems small, "there are very few actions the government can take that as a long-term instrument of economic policy would make as measurable of a difference in the economy (Brookings, p. 33).

More jobs: Lifting the ban would allow for more jobs in manufacturing, construction, and refinery services. Estimates put the job growth between 300,000 (ICF) and 4.2 million (IHS) jobs by the end of the decade.

Decreased gasoline prices: As previously mentioned, both crude oil and gasoline prices are very closely tied to the global market since crude oil is a globally traded commodity. Since oil is truly a global product, we have to view supply and demand in terms of one big, global market. That means that the export model shown above does not apply here. Instead, it is basic, global supply and demand: supply increases as a result of increased production, and assuming demand remains the same, prices drop. This is all the more the case once the refinery mismatch mentioned above gets resolved, not to mention a steadier supply of crude oil in the global market will decrease odds of supply shocks and major price fluctuations. As a result, gasoline prices [in today's dollars] would drop anywhere between 2¢ (RFF) and 12¢ (Brookings).

Higher disposable income: Due to increased investment, additional jobs, and lower gasoline prices, consumers would have additional disposable income of anywhere from $158 to $285 per annum (IHS). In 2025, this figure might be as high as $3,000 (Aspen).

Improved foreign policy: The United States was a nation built on the idea of freedom. Having isolationism in the energy sector is merely repeating the same bad mistakes we made with Smoot-Hawley back in the 1930s. Removing these trade barriers not only solidifies current trade arrangements, but also provides the opportunity to create new ones (Columbia University).

I know that good politics  usually come at the expense of policy being poor, but given the positive effects of lifting this ban, couldn't we set politics aside this one time?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Why Seizing Property Under Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws Is Uncivil

This week seems to be one in which I think about the importance of property rights in a free society. Earlier this week, I wrote about eminent domain abuse and how it causes issues with the world of property-owning. Apparently, that isn't the only instance in which the government takes liberty to infringe on property rights. If I told you that the government could seize your assets under the pretext that the property was used in criminal activity, you might feel somewhat uncomfortable. Let me increase the discomfort. What if the government could seize your assets without even charging you with a crime because the government is charging the property, not you? And on top of that mess, what if I told you that government is not obligated to return the property once your innocence has been proven? That sounds like a hallmark of a totalitarian country that has no regard for property rights. However, that is how civil asset forfeiture works in the United States (see Congressional Research Service report here).

This law sounds awful, so why would this ever become law in the first place? Supporters argue that it can be a powerful law enforcement tool by reducing profitability of crimes and removing assets used in criminal activity. These funds can also be used to protect the public interest and compensate victims of crimes. While this law might sound like it has noble intentions, it's amazing as to the havoc it can cause. Freedom Works actually released in June 2015 a grading of states based on their civil asset forfeiture laws (see map below), and it was hardly flattering.

For one, it's a nice way for law enforcement to generate profit (Williams et al., 2010). In a Februrary 2015 report, the Institute of Justice published findings about the IRS and civil asset forfeiture (Carpenter and Salzman, 2015). From 2005 to 2012, the IRS seized more than $242 million for structuring violations in more than 2,500 cases.  Keep in mind that Out of this money, the IRS kept $123 million from 1,745 cases (Carpenter and Salzman, p. 10). Structuring violations doesn't even take into account the Department of Justice's two coffers for civil asset forfeiture funds, which amounts to over $3B (ibid., p. 11).

Presumption of guilt is insanely high in these cases. Why is it that the owner has to prove whether the property is "innocent?" Doesn't living in a free society mean having due process and that innocence is presumed until being proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt? The Heritage Foundation, ACLU, Institute for Justice, and others recently released a multi-partisan pamphlet on the abuses of civil asset forfeiture. In the pamphlet includes a highly convoluted flow chart illustrating what an individual would have to do in order to reacquire their assets (see below).

Unlike in other cases, there is no right of "having a lawyer if you cannot afford one of your own" here. Most people couldn't navigate this sort of leviathan, which is why most of the funds seized remain in government possession.

Although the amount of money seized and the fact that the payouts of these seizures have increased by 250 percent in the past twelve years catch my eye, what is even more noteworthy is that civil asset forfeiture laws are a loophole around some of the most cherished aspects of our legal system: due process, innocent until proven guilty, ability to acquire legal representation. The deck is stacked against property owners and the abuse is ripe, as the Washington Post revealed in its scathing six-part exposé last year. When civil asset forfeiture is one of the very social issues upon which people across the political spectrum can agree, you know something must be done to help secure property rights in this country.

One reform that could be enacted is to charge the individual with a crime before going after their property. Here's something even better: shift the burden of proof to the government, like Montana recently did. For instance, let's raise the burden of proof from "preponderance of evidence" to "clear and convincing evidence" by amending the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act. Also, let's return the presumption of innocence back to these cases. Why should the property owner have to fight tooth and nail to keep their property? Instead of wasting countless hours on cases in which the defendants are predominantly innocent, let's make sure that they're actually guilty of a crime. Another thought: instead of dumping the seized assets into police funds, we can dump them into a general state fund so the police aren't incentivized to increase their own coffers.  We also shouldn't allow for state and local law enforcement to use the Department of Justice's equitable sharing program to bypass reform initiatives. Given the complex nature of these cases, the government should fund counsel for defendants since they are currently not afforded that right. These are just some of the reforms that could be enacted to help bring integrity to our criminal justice system and make this country a beacon for ensuring property rights once more.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Kelo v. New London: A Decade of Eminent Domain Abuse

Imagine that you purchased a nice, little house on the waterside because you always wanted a nice view of the river. Now imagine that after purchasing this house, the government comes in and tells you that you have to sell your house to a developer in order to make way for a large pharmaceutical company because "government knows best." That's what happened to Susan Kelo in the 1990s, and that was the very case, Kelo v. New London, that was brought before the Supreme Court. Ten years ago today, they ruled in favor of the defendant. This case subsequently caused an uproar, but why?

Eminent domain is when the government has the power to come in and take private property from a citizen. While compensating the owner for the troubles of uprooting from their home would be a nice thing to do, the government still can exercise this power when the owner is unwilling to sell. Traditionally, eminent domain has been exercised for reasons of "public use," such as a public road or public building. In an American context, this power exists under the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause:

...nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Not only did the land have to be used for public use, but the owner also needed to be justly compensated. This was the Founders' way of limiting the government from power grabs. However, the Supreme Court managed to undermine the Fifth Amendment, along with using the Fourteenth Amendment, by ruling that the government's "public use" merely means "public purpose." I remember this case infuriating me a decade ago because the government now has the power to forcibly take someone's land for the purpose of private development, as long as the government believes that it can create more tax revenue. Although this had been taking place prior to Kelo v. New London, private companies now have a legal, albeit immoral, justification for taking someone's property.

While we think of free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of press as important freedoms (which they are), people tend to forget that the right to private property is also a freedom that makes for a cornerstone in a free society. Property rights are human rights, provided that those rights are not being used to harm another individual. Property rights helped pave the way for further economic development since their inception. To separate economic rights from civil liberties, as if one is more important than the other, is foolhardy. Property rights help create social cohesion and peace in a world that has scarce resources. Both economic rights and civil liberties are important for us to live freely. Property rights help ensure a workable system of human cooperation and division of labor because individuals are free to pursue different occupations, lifestyles, or consumption with as little infringement on others as humanly possible. There is also the built-in incentive of stewardship of property under a society with property rights. If you don't take care of your property, it loses value, and vice versa. This is why private property, at least under economic theory, tends to be better maintained than government property.

But getting back to eminent domain, it's not simply a matter of it eroding a vital institution of a free society. Even if one were to completely throw the idea of property rights to the wayside (which would be foolish in the first place), I have to wonder just how well eminent domain helps the "common good." Shortly after the Court ruling, the St. Louis Federal Reserve ran an economic model simulating eminent domain. The conclusions? Under eminent domain, the price for which the seller is willing to sell is irrelevant because the seller is only going to be compensated at market value. Since market value is below the reservation price (i.e., a price that would have been satisfactory for the property owner), there is going to be an excess of land assembly under eminent domain. As such, the St. Louis Fed concluded that "economic theory certainly suggests that eminent domain used for private economic development will likely result in a zero-sum gain and may actually hinder economic development in the local areas, as well as the region, rather than help."

I love good economic theory because especially when there's an absence of empirical data, it's a good predictor for how economic theory will take place. However, I enjoy it when you can procure at least some data to back up good economic theory, which is the thing that makes good economic theory good. The main justification under Kelo v. New London is that it will help spur more economic growth via increased tax revenues. The Mercatus Center released a working paper last year showing that there is no positive relation between using eminent domain and tax revenue (Kerekes and Stansel, 2014).

It wouldn't be too difficult to find examples of which eminent domain has been abused since Kelo v. New London.  Combine overreaching powers with Big Business getting into bed with Big Government, and it's hardly a stretch to think that eminent domain is going to be abused. Fortunately, that overreach has been mitigated since 44 states reacted to Kelo v. New London by enacting eminent domain reform to limit the ruling's ill effects. However, the Court has not revisited the issue since 2005. Until the Supreme Court revisits the issue or Congress decides to do something about it, nobody's property is safe. America cannot call itself a free society if its government has the ability to use the law to uproot property owners on a whim in the vacuous claim of the "common good" while it simply lines the pockets of those with money and/or power. In any case in which the government is going to exercise eminent domain, the case for what constitutes as public use and the burden of proof should be on the government, and even then it should be under some strict scrutiny. I would have expected that the ten-year anniversary would have sparked some debate or legislation on the issue, but it looks like the American people would rather remain oblivious to this law of the land.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Why The Anti-Israel BDS Movement Is Simply BS

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. It's a global movement who tries to put economic and political pressure on the state of Israel in order to a) end the so-called occupation that has been going on since 1967 and tear down the Wall, b) recognize the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, and c) promote the right of return of Palestinian refugees under U.N. Resolution 194. These three goals are the underpinning of the BDS movement "playing an effective role in the Palestinian struggle for justice." Sounds like a just cause, but let's go through each of the three goals to see if they can withstand scrutiny.

Ending the "occupation": First of all, let's stop calling them occupied territories. This implies that Israel was infringing upon some pre-existing Palestinian sovereignty when it wasn't. Forget that Transjordan, which included the West Bank, was initially part of the Jewish homeland under the Balfour Declaration in the hopes that "land for peace" would work. Jordan was the country illegally occupying the West Bank from 1948 to 1967. There was no Palestinian outcry during that actual occupation because Palestinians did not exist until after the Six Day War in 1967. Israel annexed the West Bank in a defensive war as an act of self-defense because Jordan, Egypt, and Syria were hellbent on destroying Israel. Acquisition of the West Bank was more than justifiable, which is all the more so under the Oslo Peace Accords and U.N. Resolution 242, the latter of which is an underling for the former per Article I of the Oslo Peace Accords. Combine U.N Resolution 242 with U.N. Resolution 338, and you'll find that negotiations are the determinant of who owns the land, not some supposed "inherent right." Much like the Western Sahara, Zubarah, or Kashmir, the correct term to describe the West Bank or Gaza is "disputed territory," not "occupied territory." And if any country has a founding well-established in legality, it's Israel (see video below).

Stopping the gross human rights violation: While talking about recognizing fundamental rights of Arab-Israeli citizens, the BDS movement mud-slings and calls Israel an apartheid state. As I have pointed out in the past, Israel is not an apartheid stateIs Israel perfect? No nation-state is. What nation-state has perfect interracial relations? Looking at Ferguson and Baltimore, that doesn't exist in the United States. The supposed enlightened European nations are doing less than a stellar job at handling their Muslim immigrants. It's one thing to rightfully criticize someone for doing something wrong. A healthy dose of criticism is fine. It's when people like those over at the BDS disproportionately demonize Israel while ignoring human rights violations that are significantly worse than anything Israel has ever done.

Let's take a look at Israel and compare it to other nations. Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to developing freedom worldwide, ranks Israel as a free country. Israel is still the only democracy in the Middle East that has a respect for rule of law, freedom of the press, protects peoples' rights, and has some of the leading innovators in science and technology. Israeli Arabs live more freely than Arabs in any other country. Where else in the Middle East can Jews, Muslims, and Christians live in as much harmony as humanly possible? Palestine, on the other hand, is ranked by Freedom House as "Not Free." While it's not a Pollyanniash living scenario for Arab citizens in Israel, Palestinians are much freer in Israel than they are in Palestine. By this logic, we should be boycotting Palestine because Palestinians are treated much worse under Palestinian governance than Israeli governance. But who said logic was part of any of this? To think this doesn't even get into how Palestinians are treated in other Arab countries. Furthermore, Maplecroft, a global analytics firm, produces a Human Rights Risk Atlas every year. You want to know who is on their Top 10 List? Hint: It's not Israel. If you want to send a message about human rights abuses, go after the most heinous offenders first. Since there are countries with human rights records that are simply atrocious, why single out Israel when there are far worse offenders? It makes me question BDS' motives when Israel is one of the farthest things of being the world's worst human rights offender.

"Right of return": Why is this still an issue? The Greek-Turkish War of 1923, WWII, and the dispute with Kashmir caused larger refugee issues than the Palestinian refugee issue. Plus, Israel had to deal with taking in Jewish refugees took in a comparable amount of refugees after the Israeli War for Independence in 1948 because Arab nations kicked their Jews out of their countries in retaliation of the creation of a Jewish state. Interesting how this Palestinian refugee issue has been taking place in perpetuity. You would think that their Arab brothers and sisters, who have so much land, would lend a helping hand. With the exception of Jordan, none of the Arab nations have granted these Palestinian refugees citizenship. It's almost as if they wanted the refugee issue to be a wedge in the peace process. And before invoking U.N. Resolution 194, let's not forget that it's a non-binding resolution that a) only recommends that Palestinians be permitted to return, and b) living "at peace with their neighbors" was a prerequisite. None of the Arab countries voted for U.N. Resolution 194 because it would have implicitly recognized Israel's existence. This doesn't even get into the fact that actually allowing for a "'right' of return" would essentially be a demographic abolition of the Jewish state. Making a "right of return" a precondition of peace negotiations is a non-starter because Israel will never enter a zero-sum game by making a concession in which Israel ultimately doesn't exist. Plus, many people throughout history have fled their homeland. Palestinians have no right to return to Israel, much like I don't have a right to return to my ancestral homeland in Europe simply because my ancestors decided to leave Europe for the United States.

Postscript: And that's the real issue for the BDS movement: Israel's existence. You know it's bad when even JStreet can't even condone the BDS movement or if anti-Israel activist Norman Finkelstein calls the BDS movement a cult. If this were about merely criticizing Israel and its policies, you know what? Israeli citizens do it all the time. It's practically a national pastime over there. If this were about Palestinian oppression, there are much more egregious cases of oppression than what goes on within the Green Line. If this were about human rights, there are far more heinous crimes against humanity.  As the video by former Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz points out below, BDS is not about peace; it's about coercion. BDS' goal is about economically strangling Israel until it caves in. Israel is not opposed to peace. It has offered peace to its Arab neighbors multiple times, but has been rejected every single time. If you need to browbeat anyone into peace, it's Israel's Arab neighbors.

As I have illustrated in previous paragraphs, the BDS movement is misguided. If you want to target someone for either mistreating Palestinians or humanity, singling out Israel while ignoring all other atrocities within the greater context is just morally wrong and intellectually dishonest. The BDS movement is also nonsensical in what it targets. Not only does BDS target Israeli companies that develop technologies to better mankind, but it also targets Israeli academics. Israeli academics are progressive Israeli citizens that usually are most critical of the Israeli government, and you want to boycott themI also find that boycotts tend to be non-productive because they have very little economic impact. Look at Israel's GDP growth. I don't think there is much impact on the Israeli economy. It might be picking up some more momentum on college campuses, but it's still nowhere close to where it needs to be in order to actually work. Even if it worked, it would be counter-productive. It sends Palestine the wrong message that they can let the "international community" beat Israel into submission while taking no responsibility for its actions or provide no incentive towards peace. And if they marginally succeed, all it does is embolden Israelis opposed to the peace process. If the BDS movement cared about Palestinians, human rights, or peace in the Middle East, it would take a different approach. However, this is about hatred for Israel and exploiting ignorance to slander and malign Israel more than anything else.

It makes me happy that my home state of Illinois has actually passed an anti-BDS law that divests pension funds from any foreign company that boycotts Israel. This is but one fight to counter the BDS movement and its propaganda. Another fight is to win the minds and hearts of those who are undecided about how they feel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's about showing the good Israel does in the world and how it has contributed. We simply can't counter the BDS movements with facts about Middle East history or politics, but show that Israel is still an overall force of good in this world. May peace in the Middle East come soon!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Petter Chamor: Redeeming a Donkey, Redeeming Ourselves

A couple of days ago, I was fortunate to play clarinet at a rare ceremony known as פטר חמור (petter chamor), or the Redemption of the First-Born Donkey. This is a practice in which an owner of a first-born donkey redeems said donkey by giving a Kohen, who is an individual descending from the biblical Aaron, a lamb in exchange. While this mitzvah is a rare one indeed, it does have its basis in the Torah itself (Exodus 13:13, 34:20). The donkey is the only non-kosher animal whose firstborn undergo redemption in Jewish law. Why would G-d choose to sanctify a non-kosher animal in such a way? And out of all animals, why is the donkey selected for such a mitzvah?

The Talmud (Berochot 5b) is a good of a place to start as any. In the Gemara, it is asked why the donkey gets special treatment. Why not redeem the camel or the horse? One of the answers provided is that after receiving the gifts from the Egyptians (Exodus 11:2-3, 12:35-36), they needed a way to transport them. This where the donkeys enter the scene. Jewish tradition teaches that these creatures did the heavy lifting for forty years without complaining, which is more than I can say for the Israelites at the time. As a result, G-d rewarded the donkey with this mitzvah. What can we learn from this?

Let's get the depressing interpretation out of the way first. The Hebrew word for donkey (חמור) has the same root as the Hebrew word for materialism (חמר). While in Egypt, the Israelites reached a level of spiritual bankruptcy. Even if one has reached a certain low, what we learn from the donkey is that we are not irredeemable. We are able to exert our free will and catapult ourselves to a level even higher than the righteous tzaddik (Bechorot 34). Even if we don't find that interpretation to be palatable, we can still realize that throughout the Torah, the donkey symbolizes the archetypical work-animal. The donkey represents all hard work, and not receiving any of the fame and glory. We can learn that something as mundane as shlepping for a divine purpose is still divine service, and that we can find holiness in unexpected places (R. Hirsch's commentary on Exodus 13:13). We should never scoff at serving G-d, even if it's something like setting up tables or shlepping. Even more generally, we can use this mitzvah to remind ourselves that even materialism can be used to serve the Divine.

I like that the Talmud (Bechorot 5b) concludes that we are supposed to be grateful, but I think it's more than just symbolic gratitude on a general level. I think it could be a sense of gratitude for redemption. As my rabbi, R. Shmuel Herzfeld, points out, this is supposed to inspire us to further redemption. Redemption is something we're supposed to work towards, something we're supposed to work hard for. Whether we talk about personal redemption, redemption of the Jewish people, or of humanity as a whole, it's not a cake walk. We are to be grateful for the fact that G-d gave us free will, the very thing that gives us the opportunity to improve upon ourselves and that which is around us. Redeeming the donkey reminds us that by putting in hard work ourselves, we too can experience redemption within our lifetimes.