Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Islamophobia in America? So Blown Out of Proportion

America's relationship with Islam has not been the same since September 11, 2001. The last time a foreign entity attacked America was Pearl Harbor. The 9-11 attacks left a mark on the American psyche, one that very well might not heal within my lifetime. Given the magnitude, it should be no surprise that we see some backlash from it, even now. About a couple of weeks ago, Bill Maher goes after Islam and points out how those on the Left tend to have a double standard for Islam and other world religions. For Maher, those on the Left about values like women's rights, LGBT rights, free thought, and democracy, but when it comes to Muslims, they somehow get a free pass. Sam Harris went even as far to say that "Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas." The leftists over at Vox think that Maher is not an anomaly, but rather a reflection of the prevalence of the Islamophobia in America. Is this accusation true? Are Americans fearful of Muslims and/or Islam? And if this fear exists, how does it impact Muslims in America?

Islamophobia is yet another hot-button term that gets thrown around all too freely, so let's define it. The term Islamophobia is a neologism formed with the word "Islam" and the suffix "-phobia," meaning "[illogical] fear of-" or "aversion to-." Put them together, and you have "a fear of/aversion to Islam." Part of the problem is that the term is not merely describing the Islamic religion or a growing concern about Islamic extremism, but extended to the entirety of the Muslim people, as well. I don't say this because I think discrimination against a group of people is a good thing. Of course it's a bad thing! In order to live in a pluralistic society based on freedom, you need to be able to live in a place where people are different from you. Racism and bigotry have no place in the modern world. However, when one conflates a group of people versus religious ideas and the implementation thereof, one can merely cry "Islamophobe" to shield Islam from any criticism whatsoever. The other part of a free society is that in an intellectual marketplace, no ideas are free from criticism. If it's a bad idea, we should criticize, regardless of origin. With that being said, I would like to see what polls have to say about how Americans view the topic.

Back in July, Pew Research asked Americans how they feel about various religious groups. Jews, Catholics, and Evangelicals were rated the highest, whereas atheists and Muslims were at the bottom of the list. Gallup has an interesting piece on Islamophobia on a more global level. Even those who have no animosity towards Muslims as a people, a third of them still have an unfavorable view of Islam. Yes, ignorance and a lack of education increase your odds of being anti-Muslim. Nevertheless, there are those who have a problem with the religion itself. There is another 2010 Gallup poll shows that the greatest religious prejudice is towards Muslims. The polling over at Zogby Analytics doesn't even show a flattering view of Muslims. On the other hand, the public is divided as to whether Islam is more violent than other religions.

Let's steer away from polling from a moment because it is methodologically limited, partially because polls only measure what they think [or do], not what they actually think. If Islamophobia is so prevalent, we should see institutionalization or at least some form of its manifestation. I'd say that violence against members of a certain religion group is a good place to start. If Islamophobia were that widespread, we would see a lot a hate crimes against Muslims. If we look at FBI Hate Crime Statistics, we can see if Muslims are the most common target. Muslims are 0.8 percent of the population (Pew Research, 2010 estimate), and in 2010, there were 160 incidents. Compare that to the 887 anti-Jewish incidents in the same year. Even when adjusted for population, a Jew in America is almost three times more likely to be a victim of a hate crime than a Muslim. With this logic, America has an even bigger Antisemitism problem, which I don't think even really exists in the first place in America. Although any crime against someone based on their religion is a shame, based on the numbers, would you consider this at epidemic proportions? Hate crime statistics do a fine job of deflating the veracity of Islamophobia. One could argue just because the Islamophobia isn't violent doesn't mean it isn't virulent. Income distribution for Muslims isn't particularly disparate compared to other mainstream religions. Are Muslims being deprived of exercising their First Amendment rights? Considering that there are over 2,000 mosques in this country, I hardly think so.

This is not to say that there aren't any individuals who discriminate against Muslims or feel prejudice towards Muslims because there are. I'm not here to excuse bigotry because it is inexcusable. However, if one is going to lecture about pervasiveness of a phobia, there had better be both context and substantiation. First, is discrimination against Muslims worse than it has been or is against other minority groups in America? Second, how are non-Muslims treated in Muslim-majority countries? Third, how is the quality of life for a Muslim in America versus that of the average, Muslim-majority country? If you're going to bludgeon the American people with charges of human rights violations, try to do so with a more global perspective in mind. Fourth, a phobia is defined as an irrational fear. Is there some rational basis for the fear? Looking at religious and historical context, Islam cannot be considered a religion of peace, which is worrisome for those purporting that it is. Islamic countries are authoritarian regimes that quash civil liberties, limit economic freedoms, and oppress women, non-Muslims, and homosexuals. Plus, when you look at the Muslim support for things such as implementing sharia law (شريعة) or suicide bombings, it's not comforting that these views are a bit more mainstream than merely "being on the fringe." If Muslims want to prove to the rest of the world that Islam can be more open and tolerant, they really need to step up to the extremists and defend their faith to the point where there's a reformation in the Islamic world.

Most importantly, how prohibitive is it in terms of Muslim citizens living the American dream? Muslims are still free to acquire gainful employment, associate with whomever they wish, and observe their religion. The typical Muslim in America lives a higher-quality life than the typical Muslim under Islamic rule. While American governance isn't perfect, the truth of the matter is that America is far from being an Islamophobic country.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Containing the Folly of Travel Bans Being Able to Stop the Spread of Ebola

The news about the virus Ebola is spreading like wildfire, which is a much faster rate than Ebola itself. I tried putting off writing anything about Ebola for as long as possible because of the hype surrounded around the issue. Then I realized it was time to write something because of one of the proposals to stop the spread of Ebola gaining popularity by the majority of Americans, i.e., instituting travel bans. What a travel ban essentially means is that the government prevents any flights coming from Ebola-ridden nations. The intuition behind the travel ban is that the ban would at least contain the virus to the countries of origin, thereby sparing the rest of the world having to go through a pandemic. It's not simply a matter of the government limiting freedom of movement that I find irksome. Whether it's transfats, marijuana, plastic bags, or selling human organs, the government implementation of bans are ineffective and most probably come with unintended consequences. I can anticipate the following counterargument: "Well, wait a second. This is an exception to the rule because we are dealing with a public health issue. Viruses aren't the same as people. People at least have free will and impulse control. Viruses are created to infect, and especially if we do not have a cure for Ebola yet, we need to contain it." It makes for a compelling argument, but can it withstand scrutiny?

The first question I have to ask is if a travel ban is even necessary. Many airlines already de facto self-regulated by canceling flights from those countries about two months ago. Even if the airlines were completely oblivious to the danger presented and continued to allow flights into West Africa, the travel ban would still be a counterproductive measure. The most comprehensive study on the issue (Gomes et al., 2014) showed that even with an 80 percent reduction of airline traffic to the affected areas would only delay the spreading of the virus by a few weeks. As the director of the Center for Disease Control has tried to explain, it is unrealistic to "seal up a country" because even in the improbable hypothetical of having the sheer international coordination to account for connecting flights, people will find still a way out. Paradoxically enough, by constricting travel, you prohibit the movement of volunteers, doctors, supplies, and aid needed to help contain the epidemic. This will not only exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in the currently affected countries, but will make it more likely that the rest of the world will have issues keeping Ebola contained. As an additional point of order, since the virus is not airborne and can only be contracted through direct contact [with the bodily fluids of someone already infected], the World Health Organization recommends that travel bans not be instituted.

Yes, we should work on mitigating the situation because as the the World Bank points out, this could cost billions of dollars. If we should have learned anything from the SARS or N1H1 epidemics, it is that travel bans don't work. We need to eliminate the virus at its core and make sure that the infected individuals can have the medical resources to be quarantined, thereby containing Ebola. Advancing medical progress, instead of implementing travel bans, is the best way to prevent a pandemic.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Can We Bloody Well Blame Video Games for Gun Violence?

Considering that gun violence has been on the decline and mass shootings constitute roughly one percent of overall gun homicides, I think that the media coverage on mass shootings is overblown. Even so, there is a preponderance of questioning as to why these unfortunate shootings occur in the first place. One theory that has become popular, and has even garnered favor with the National Rifle Association, is that of video games causing increased violence. The premise is that the violent images in video games desensitize the gamer, thereby making the individual more prone to violence. Since video games are a way that people, and children in particular, interact with the world, there is certainly intuition to the video game violence theory.

Before we even delve into the studies, a brief word about the theory itself. In order to prove causality, you first need to have correlation. Without it, you can't say something like "video games cause an increase violence." For the more simplified version of the theory to work, an increase in video game purchases would lead to an increase in violence. However, as Max Fisher over at the Washington Post illustrates, there is no correlation between video games and violence when looking at the ten largest video game markets. This is not to say that it is not possible for video games to increase violent tendencies in certain individuals, but rather that on the aggregate, it does not seem to have an effect on overall violent crimes, especially since the rate of violent crimes has been decreasing since video games started becoming prevalent in the mid-1980s. The reason why it is difficult for the "video games causes violence" theory to work is because video game consumption has increased substantially while youth violence is at a forty-year low.    

Going to the studies, the truth is that some studies show increased aggression (e.g., Greitemeyer and Mügger, 2013; Delisi et al., 2012) while others show no link between video games and violence (e.g., Parkes et al., 2013Ferguson et al., 2011). Oxford just came out with a study (Przybylski et al., 2014) showing that if there is any aggression, it doesn't come from the violent nature of the games, but the frustration of being incapable to master the technology and the game itself. Also, back in 2011, even the Supreme Court thought the connection between video games and violence was spurious, which would explain its 7-2 ruling in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. The Australian government came to similar conclusions to those of the Supreme Court. Millions of people play video games, but the vast, vast majority don't go out and kill others because "the video game gave me the idea." If anything, it can be used as an outlet for one's violent tendencies, or to put in economic terms, video games have a substitution effect for the real thing, which could potentially help explain the decrease in violent crimes (Gunter and Daly, 2012). After all, there is a difference between aggression and downright violence.

How does this affect how we approach video games in a public policy sense? One is that we have not addressed that video games also come with benefits (Granic et al., 2013). There are a good amount of consumption goods that come with risks, like alcoholmarijuana, or even sugar and trans-fats. At the very least, we should look at the benefits, as well as the costs, before rushing to a decision with regards to video game regulation. If you are going to even begin regulating video games in such a fashion, you better have a less specious reason for doing so. The second is that we have an issue with whether video games cause violence or whether it is merely a manifestation of children that are already violent, i.e., possibility of reverse causation. There is also the possibility that the video games are a reflection of the social milieu, and not a cause of it. Third, people come with free will. To reiterate, millions of people play video games containing violence, and they never go out and harm another living soul. Video games have not been even remotely shown to diminish one's free will, and we should not allow individuals to abscond from the consequences of their actions simply because they have played Call of Duty. We are responsible for cultivating our minds and how we interact with the world. Even when discussing children, it is prudent to point out that parenting should be in the hands of the parents, and that they have a more individualized understanding than a blanket prohibition or regulation that the government could provide. It's amazing what civic pressure and peaceful social interactions can accomplish. If we are going to go down this road of censorship, we might as well start banning comic books, the Internet, movies, certain music, or other literature, none of which is conducive to a free society. Fourth, if the relation is that causal, why don't we have a lot more murderers on the streets? Gaming has become so widespread that a causal link would be obvious by now. Fifth, the industry is self-regulated through game ratings through such organizations as the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. Finally, if we want to address violence, video games are a peculiar place to start. We should look at facets like mental health or even societal views on masculinity to help get at the root of gun violence instead of tenuous connections with little to no evidence.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Parsha Bereshit: A Genealogy Lesson In Love for Human Beings and the Golden Rule

After Cain murdered his brother, Abel, he tried to move on from the abhorrent sin he had committed. Normally, parents try to stick by their children through thick and thin, but something like Cain committing fratricide makes it difficult to the point where Adam had to disassociate. We see Adam starting anew after Abel's murder, most notably with the genealogy of the generations of Adam (Genesis 5). Throughout this genealogy, we see the Torah list ten generations from Adam up to Noah and his children, all the while not mentioning Cain a single time. Why does the Torah go through the trouble of providing us with a genealogical tree?

We are given a hint right at the beginning as to what is going on:

זה ספר תלדת אדם. ביום ברא אלהים אדם, בדמות אלהים, עשה אתו
This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that G-d created man, in the likeness of G-d He made him [man]. -Genesis 5:1

According to Rabbi Akiva, the single most important facet of Torah is Leviticus 19:18, which has the famously quoted verse of "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." Ben Azzai actually disagreed with Rabbi Akiva and said that aforementioned verse of Genesis 5:1 is actually even more important than Leviticus 19:18 (Sifra). How is the preface to a genealogical entry more important than loving your neighbor? The passage is to show that we are all descendants of Adam (Nachmanides on Genesis 5:2). I don't want to get into a tiff about how G-d can prohibit incest when according to the פשט (more literal or surface reading) of this verse shows that mankind was conceived out of incest.

Like I typically do with hermeneutics, I like to go for a more figurative interpretation of the verse (דרש), which is what Ben Azzai did here. By tracing the entirety of the human race back to one human being, Ben Azzai was pointing out that we all have one Creator. As Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 points out, mankind was created with one common ancestor so that no one can say that "My ancestor was greater than yours (also see Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9)." We are not meant to simply care about those who live down the block or go to the same shul as us. We are supposed to care about other human beings because we are all created in G-d's image. It might be easier to care about those who are more similar to us, but the Torah is teaching us to transcend our human tendency to associate with those with whom we share more things in common and help someone, regardless of religion, because they are created in the likeness of G-d. Ben Azzai might have had a point: how could "the Golden Rule" make any sense "without the presupposition of the absolute unity and equality of the human race as created by G-d (JPS commentary, p. 41)?" Much like the biblical account of humanity having a single origin, the mitzvahs that Jews have to follow, particularly those of an interpersonal nature (בין אדם לחברו), have a single genesis, without which would strip Judaism of its ethical core.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why We Shouldn't Be Big on Banking on the Small Business Administration

The Small Business Administration (SBA) is one of those bureaucratic agencies that hardly gets any coverage. What does the SBA even do? According to its own documentation, the SBA "ensures that these [small] businesses have the tools and resources they need to start and expand their operations and create good jobs that support a growing economy and strong middle class." The government wants to help the little guy who wants to live the American dream. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, the the SBA is another example of government having good intentions, but their policies having the opposite effect of what was intended.

What do I mean by that? One of the primary ways that the SBA provides resources is through government-backed guarantees on loans. The SBA was created back in 1953 to help smaller businesses have access to loans that they otherwise would not have acquired from conventional lenders, or to put it in more economic terms, we're dealing with government subsidizing supply. The reason for these subsidies is to deal with the alleged market failure known as information asymmetry that exists between lenders and borrowers because banks supposedly cannot discern between high-risk and low-risk borrowers. Keep in mind that lending relationships, credit scoring, and credit rationing all exist to mitigate information asymmetry.  Additionally, from an insurance standpoint, if the government is willing to unconditionally pay up to 85 percent on the principle of a given loan, it creates moral hazard, which is why the banks end up being the real winners. So is this all economic theory or is there some substance to SBA opposition? A recent study over at the National Bureau of Economic Research (Young et al., 2014; also see here) measures the direct and indirect effects of the SBA's interventions. Among the findings were that for every increase in SBA loans per capita, we see a two percent decrease in income growth. The study also found negative spillover effects in neighboring counties.  

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) just published a report back in April showing the inefficiencies of its loan program. The GAO has highlighted other SBA deficiencies, including being inefficient at documenting "credit elsewhere" decisions or implementing justifications for 8(a) sole-source contracts. It should also be no surprise that the SBA hasn't helped because its selection process is so arbitrary. Out of 27.5 million small businesses, only 271,000 small businesses receive SBA loans (SBA, p. 30). Other issues I have with the SBA include vague criteria for taking out an SBA loan, waste and fraud, the harm it causes it other businesses (de Rugy, 2006), or having the taxpayers being on the hook for $59.4B on unpaid principle (Congressional Research Service, 2013, p, 13).

Every high-risk venture does not translate into success. What clairvoyance does the government possess to determine whether a certain business would succeed? After being in existence for over 60 years, it has become clear that the SBA is not possess the ESP to help the little guy. Much like the Export-Import Bank, the SBA only perpetuates rent-seeking and arbitrary, ineffective public policy that has regrettably become standard for American governance. It would be nice to reform the SBA, but I think that simply eliminating the SBA and letting the private sector help small businesses find ways to secure loans (e.g., crowdfunding) is right on the money.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Should Americans Be Open to the Idea of Open Borders?

Immigration reform is one of those topics that invoke some major emotions in people. If I said America's immigration policy could some more work, that would be an understatement. Let's face it: we could use more legal immigration fast. But open borders? It's one of the simplest forms of immigration reform, and it is one that is recommended by economist Bryan Caplan. What about national security issues or protecting American jobs? Having open borders seems like a straw man argument more than anything. If America simply opened its borders wide open, wouldn't it just be complete chaos?

From an economic standpoint, it's a consensus among economists that allowing for the liberalized movement of capital and goods is an overall economic benefit. In a free society, if we strive to have goods and capital move freely, that same principle should apply to labor, as well. In this case, the economic case for further legalized immigration is solid. This would mean doing so in its purest form. We encourage labor movement in an interstate fashion, so why is it suddenly a problem when we apply that to the international level? Furthermore, restricting immigration curtails the freedom of movement for millions across the planet.

Let's consider the costs, not to mention the level of government intervention, to enforce our borders. How about the $5.5B per annum we spend on Immigration Customs and Enforcement alone? Let's not forget other costs, such as people dying when crossing the border, the fact that the United States' Cold War foreign policy attributed to the conditions that encourage migrants to flow to the United States in the first place, border control spending, a larger underground economy, perpetuating the inaccurate stereotype that undocumented workers are nothing more than moochers, as well as corrections spending to incarcerate those we label "illegal immigrants."

It's not as if there isn't precedent for the idea of implementing open borders. The European Union de facto allows open borders for member countries through the Schengen Agreement. There are similar agreements between varying countries, including Australia and New Zealand, India and Nepal, Ireland and the UK, and Belarus and Russia. Not only that, having very open borders was American immigration policy for much of the 19th century.

I think the argument for open borders is a strong one (see here, here, here and here). Unfortunately, most Americans don't see the importance or need for more immigration. As a matter of fact, a plurality would like to see immigration decreased instead of increased. The Overton window, or the idea that only politically feasible ideas are the best ones to pitch, is the single largest hurdle from ever making open borders, or even more open borders, a reality. Even if you want to factor in national security concerns and have at least some restrictions, the trend should be towards immigration liberalization, not away from it. Since closed borders denies the freedom of movement, one of the most basic freedoms out there, the burden of proof should go to those against open borders, especially when considering the billions of dollars the global economy loses out on as a result (Clemens, 2011). In a polemic environment, that is how burden of proof works, but I know it's far from the case when dealing with the political process. The best chance that America has for having anything resembling open borders is to keep advancing the economic and moral arguments, and hope that Americans can change their minds on the issue.

10-20-2014 Addendum: See this good argument for a libertarian case for open borders.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Shmita Year: Why Care About Giving The Land a Rest in the 21st Century?

For the first time in my life, I am religious enough to be interested in and care about what שמטה (shemita; sabbatical year, literally meaning "release") is. In the Torah, an agricultural cycle lasts for seven years. On the seventh year, we are meant to let the land [of Israel] lie fallow (Exodus 23:10-11, Leviticus 25:1-7), which means no plowing, pruning, harvesting, or planting agricultural goods in the land of Israel. The only form of agricultural work that one can do during שמטה is preventative in nature, e.g., watering, weeding, trimming. There are many halachot (laws) surrounding this practice (see here), but what I want to get into is why we should care and if there is anything we can apply to our own time. Back in ancient times, Israel was a predominantly agrarian society, which meant that agricultural production was very much the lifeline of our ancestors. Not tilling the land for a year was even a bigger leap of faith than taking off one day of the week. Since the time of the Bar Kochba revolt in 136 C.E., the practice of שמיטה was more legal theory than anything else. It was only when Jewish farmers were returning to the land in the late 19th century did שמטה start to have practical applications once more. As a side note, since I don't want to get into the halachic argument right now (also see here), because the land was not fully developed and Jews did not have enough food during the שמטה year, the rabbis invented a legal fiction called the heter mechira, which stated that a Jew could sell his land to a non-Jew during שמטה. Although I think it defeats the purpose of שמטה, the Chief Rabbinate permits this leniency.

None of this is to say that שמטה does not have any practical applications in our time because Israel still has an agricultural sector. It's simply that agriculture represents only 2.5 percent of Israel's GDP, which means that Israel's economy would hardly take a substantial hit, and certainly not in the way it would have for ancient Israelites. Even though Jews are used to living in economies that are predominantly non-agrarian in nature, is there something that we can still take away from this age-old practice?

Overworking the Farmland, Environmental Sustainability, and Consumption Patterns
One of the more obvious reasons for having שמטה is that we give the land a rest because it can use a break (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:27; Sefer HaChiniuch, mitzvah 84). Resources can be over-utilized, and if we run what we have into the ground (pun intended), then it cannot be sustainable in the future. The fact that the Torah had a message of environmental conscientiousness and resource sustainability centuries ago is simply amazing. I don't need to be Left-leaning individual to realize or care about the ramifications that our actions have on the environment. Not only can I be an observant Jew and care, but I believe that we have an obligation under Jewish law to care. שמטה is an indictment on our consumption patterns (more on that below). We cannot simply consume whatever we want; Judaism puts limits on what and how much we can consume. In an environmental context, we only have so many resources. How we best allocate scarce resources is at the very heart of economics. Whether we talk about consumption in meat, plastic bags, light bulbs, or whatever other goods we consume, we should take שמטה as a time to look at our consumption patterns and see how they affect the planet. For more on environmental impact and שמטה, read this article from Canfei Nesharim, an Orthodox, environmentalist organization.      

Food Security, Providing for the Poor, and Communal Responsibility
Judaism highly values making sure that those in the community at large are able to have basic amenities. Even with a respect for economic progress (see below), we are still obligated to help those who need it, which is emphasized once more during שמטה. During שמטה, we are to let our land go and allow for the produce to be open to the community so that the poor may eat (Exodus 23:10-11). Right before this verse are reminded that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9), which is to say that we take some economic risk because we are to help those who are downtrodden. Looking at the verses in Exodus 23 leading up to the verse about שמטה, we see an undeniable motif of what justice is and how to pursue it. No man is an island, and Judaism teaches that we are our brother's keeper. שמטה provides us with another opportunity to live up to the ideals of justice and communal responsibility.

Overworking Ourselves
We live in a rat-racer society, no questions about that. If it weren't for Shabbat, we would constantly be connected to Facebook, Twitter, or our email accounts. We constantly push ourselves to unbearable limitations that run us ragged, and there are times when having Shabbat simply isn't enough to avoid this state of affairs. If I were to apply שמטה fully to a 21st-century, service-based economy, I would say "Take off work for a year." For the vast majority of us, that sort of applied extrapolation would not work in the real world, which is why I would suggest taking שמטה as an opportunity to turn it down a notch and give ourselves a bit of a rest. This can be a time to exert some digital discipline (see here) and have a healthier relationship with digital media.

Material Wealth Isn't the Be-All and End-All
Yes, Judaism has a special place for protecting and respecting property rights. Why have a commandment against stealing if it weren't there? Conversely, what שמטה helps us realize is that material gains aren't everything. This is not only true in regards of שמטה being a time of letting the land rest, but also because שמטה is a time in which one is to forgive loans (Deuteronomy 15:1-11). After acquiring a certain amount of material wealth (estimated at around $75,000 USD in 2014 real dollars), money doesn't really provide additional happiness. שמטה acts as a cap on pursuing material wealth. It is meant to be a wake-up call to what is important, which is all the more relevant in a consumerist, materialistic society that emphasizes self-indulgence and hyper-individualism. We cannot remove all material consumption from our lives, but we can at least put it into perspective. What שמטה does is challenges our sense of self-entitlement in the material world. Our material goods are not extensions of ourselves. They are separate entities, and we should keep that in mind.

Gratitude and Faith: Spirituality and What Is Truly Important
Faith in G-d is one of those tricky topics for me to discuss, even Jewishly, simply because I do not believe that G-d is personal. It is tricky because the idea of faith is one that is explicitly addressed in the Torah when discussing שמטה (Leviticus 25:18-22). When the Jewish people wonder how they are going to survive the שמטה year, as well as the following year (since it takes a year for produce to fully grow), G-d says that there will be enough food to last for three years (ibid., 25:21). I don't think of this passage literally as "I will make everything hunky-dory." It's not that simple. If that were the case, there wouldn't be poor people, and we wouldn't have to worry about the suffering that goes on in the world. Faith is not about passivity. It is about pursuing justice (see above) and knowing that even if life doesn't go the way we want it, G-d has given us the faculties to improve upon our situation. Just coming out of Yom Kippur, our ability to change, adapt, and find ways to improve are within our grasp. I find that another release that we are supposed to experience during שמטה is that of our anxieties tied to the material world. Rather than feel angst about paying bills, we should be satisfied with what we do have. What is implicit in the message of שמטה is that through a time of depriving oneself of economic production, we should be thankful for all of the material wealth we have amassed. There is so much more to life than material wealth, which is why שמטה is a time to focus less on the material and focus more on spiritual pursuits.

Postscript: There is a lot going on here. A lot of themes, a lot of spiritual facets to consider. I understand that these ideas come from Torah, and while I find them to be noble and enlightening concepts, I still have to ask myself how realistic it can be to implement. The idea behind שמטה comes off as very Messianic. Most people cannot take off a full year of work for spiritual pursuits. Not only did modern rabbis come up with the heter mechira to get around letting the land lie fallow, but R. Hillel created the prozbul (פרוזבול), which is a legal fiction to bypass the annulment of loans on שמטה. If G-d were so gung-ho on us observing שמטה, why would He make the gap between the ideals embodied within שמטה and reality so vast? This comes back to the paradox of striving towards ideals and contending with reality. It would be fantastic if the Jewish people, or even the entire world, could make the sudden shift to these ideals. There would be a lot more tranquility and a lot less strife. However, it's too much to ask at this time. Much like with Yom Kippur, we are asked to do the best with what we have. We keep to as many of the legal aspects regarding שמטה as possible. We try our best to annul debts. As much as we want to follow G-d's law to the letter, there are just times where reality gets in the way here, which would help to explain the legal fictions created by the rabbis to ensure that the economy can continue. This is not to say that we should continue to work towards the ideals of שמטה. Quite the opposite! You don't necessarily have to stop working, but you can work less (if possible), worry less about your finances and material wealth, and/or make a deeper commitment to Torah and spiritual pursuits. There are many ways we can bring שמטה into our lives, and the Jewish organization Hazon has a really great sourcebook with ways of going about that, as well as insights about שמטה. Whether you go to Israel to enjoy שמטה produce, gain a sense of work-life balance, donate your money to feed the poor, or whatever shmita-related activities you decide to pursue, I hope that you have a meaningful שמטה year that brings you closer to G-d.