Monday, February 28, 2011

What Public Unions Won't Tell You

I'll be the first that I don't agree with everything the Heritage Foundation has to say, particularly when it comes to foreign policy or certain social issues.  After all, they're conservative, I'm libertarian.  There are bound to be differences.  However, when it comes to economic issues, conservatives and liberatarians are much more apt to find common ground, which would extend to the current debate regarding unions.  I just came across a sound primer from the Heritage Foundation regarding the issue.  Just a few things from the Heritage Foundation that have bearing on the argument at hand:
  • In the private sector, you're barganing over limited profits.  In the public sector, you're debating over taxpayer dollars. 
  • The public sector unions win above-average salaries for public workers and give them enough benefits to retire at an earlier age.
  • There are 28 states in the Union that do not have right-to-work laws.  That means in 28 states, union dues are compulsory for the given profession.  If unions are so great, then unions have nothing to fear from passing right-to-work laws.  However, if many workers decided to pull out, this would have a detrimental effect on the budgets of unions. Money is power, and less money means less affluence in political affairs.
  • If Walker's agenda included getting rid of unions, why would he include right-to-work provisions in his budget bill?  What comes off as union busting is more likely the reaction of how it is to have your back against the wall due to the continuous trend of the decline of unions in America. 
  • Collective bargaining creates a de facto monopoly.  Monopolies are bad because they create discincentives to compete, and thus innovate.  Although this merits further elaboration, a lack of elaboration and a system that protects deadbeats who are in it solely for the financial benefits is a particularly bad tool to implement for the education of our children.
  • As this wonderful chart below indicates, 52% of union workers are in the public sector, thereby making this less an issue of worker's rights, which it never was to begin with, and more about dealing with another symptom of Big Government:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Was Glenn Beck Right About Reform Judaism? You Bet He Was!

A couple of days ago, Glenn Beck had compared Reform Judaism to Fundamentalism Islam.  The comparison that Beck had made was that "both were more about 'politics' - changing what is outside of oneself - rather than about 'religion' - changing what it inside of oneself."  As Haaretz reports, Beck continues with saying that “When you talk about rabbis, understand that most people who are not Jewish don't understand that there are the Orthodox rabbis and then there are the Reformed (sic) rabbis. Reformed rabbis are generally political in nature. It's almost like Islam - radicalized Islam - in a way to where radicalized Islam is less about religion than it is about politics."

As if it were a surprise, the Jewish Left was outraged, especially when you consider that a plurality of Jews in this country consider themselves a part of the Reform Movement.  Even Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League came out and accused Beck of bigoted ignorance.  Forget for a moment that the man is a political pundit, and his career is predicated on "shock value" and boosting ratings.  This is how a political pundit, no matter which side, earns a living.  But more so, he actually apologized for his comments:

I am all but certain that an apology from Glenn Beck will not suffice for the Left.  Nothing short of him burning in effigy will do.  That previous comment might seem a bit harsh, but to give that a bit more context, I want to go back to the underlying impetus of the comments made in the first place, and ask the question: Is Reform Judaism about politics?  And with that, I can answer with an unequivocal "Yes!"

First of all, I base this on personal experience.  I used to be a part of the Reform Movement.  Just to give you an idea of what I tolerated, here are three examples of Reform sermons, on the High Holy Days of all times, through which I sat.  One was a "sermon" that was essentially fifteen minutes of Bush-bashing.  The rabbi blamed Bush from everything from the housing bubble bursting to Hurricane Katrina.  How a mere mortal has the ability to control natural occurrences is beyond me, but for someone that ingrained in Left-winged politics, anything is possible.  The second one that comes to mind was a sermon that basically stated that Islamaphobia is a right-winged phenomenon because, well, the Right is racist and hateful, hence why I wrote this blog entry.  Then there was that one about how making sure Obamacare gets passed through Congress was a moral obligation for Jews everywhere.

And if you have any views that lean right of center, you might as well not bother announcing those.  That would get you in as much trouble as if you were a homosexual coming out at the RNC. Institutionally speaking, the Reform Movement is not all that keen on normative Jewish practice.  The Reform Movement is by far the most liberal of all the main denominations.  You'd be lucky to find a teshuva of theirs that actually takes any halacha into consideration.  Why?  Because personal autonomy is still very much lauded in the Reform community.  That, and Left-winged politics is the ultimate arbitrator for the Reform Movement.  If you think that's a stretch, look at the Religious Action Center, the Reform Movement's political arm.  Whether it's abortion rights, gun control, fair trade vs. free trade, or even minimum wage (!), you can be guaranteed that institutionally speaking, the Reform Movement is unapologetically to the Left.  There is no debate about the merits of capitalism, gun ownership, and limited government.  No, no, heaven forbid!  The Reform presents Leftist thought as the Jewish perspective.  To paraphrase Norman Podhoretz, Reform Jews, and any Jew on the Left, worship the Torah of Liberalism, not the Torah of Judaism.

Although Glenn Beck did not enunciate his point as clearly as I would have liked, he was correct.  Reform Jews equate liberalism with Judaism.  Jews in general have leaned Left for years, and that's no secret.  I understand that Beck apologized for purposes of public relations, and I am sure that anyone in his situation would have done so to have avoided further heat.  For Left-leaning, secular Jews, liberalism is their religion.  That would be why the tendency towards secular liberals in general is to have a beef with someone of differing political views, simply because Left-winged politics is their raison d'être.  

You want to know something?  I know a lot of Reform Jews.  I know they would never blow up a building in the name of Hashem or have disrespect for other people for "not being part of the tribe."  A good majority are hard-working, decent folk.  Some I even consider as if they were family.  However, I also know that most Reform Jews are not "observant."  Mitzvot and Jewish practice as part a modus operandi are either exceptionally minimal or non-existent for the typical Reform Jew.  That's just common knowledge within the Jewish community.

To have Reform Judaism monolithically present its politics under the guise of religion is disingenuous, to say the least.  Politics come before G-d or Torah in the Reform Movement, and I was exceptionally content to see that Glenn Beck called it like it is.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Pirke Avot 1:6, 7- When Should We Give People the Benefit of a Doubt?

In Christian Scriptures, Matthew (7:1) says "Judge not that ye not be judged."  To put it in more secular parlance, "Who are you to judge?  You've made mistakes in the past.  Back off!"  Although the reasoning for the sentiment is different, I would contend that the verse from Matthew has influenced the American concepts of tolerance and understanding to the point where we think we have no place to judge others. 

We find ourselves in yet another situation in which Judaism is counter-cultural.  In Jewish thought, it is not so much if we can judge others, but how we should go about judging others.  Although we don't realize it, many still subconsciously make judgments about others.  And since it plays such a key role in our interactions with other people, it should occur and matter.  This brings me to the most well-known verse in Judaism that tells us how to go about judging others:

והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות.

"Judge the whole of a man to the side of merit." -Pirke Avot 1:6
Are we to give every man the benefit of a doubt?  Rashi's commentary on the verse would suggest so when he said that you should "give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and assume that a person's actions are meritorious.  For doing so, you will be judged favorably."  I am going to take a few issues with this commentary.  One, I am more prone to think that Rashi was reading this third portion of the mishnah within in the context of the two first thirds (i.e., it applies solely to one's רב and חבר).  Second, זכות is a tricky word to translate, since it can mean "merit, favor, acquittal, credit."  Context better helps with what זכות means.  Since the direct object is "the whole of a man (כל האדם)," as opposed to "humankind" (המין האנ), I am linguistically much more inclined to believe that the verse is telling us to judge based on the entirety of a human being and his merits.  Fourth, and what I find to be most important, is what Rabbi Nitai, has to say in the next verse:
"Keep far from an evil neighbor, do not associate with a wicked man, and do not abandon the belief in retribution." -Pirke Avot 1:7              
If Rabbi Nitai really was trying to teach us that we should give everybody the benefit of a doubt, he wouldn't tell us in the next verse to keep away from evil people with a ten-foot pole!  We have established that we should not associate with evil people in any way, shape, or form, and that we should not give everyone the benefit of a doubt. 
What about righteous people?  What do we think when they ostensibly have done something wrong?  Maimonides says that if there is the slightest bit of doubt, you doubt him favorably.  As long as that reasonable doubt exists, you are not permitted to judge him unfavorably.  As the Talmud (Shabbat 97a) says, "He who suspects the upright should be whipped." 
A majority of individuals are neither overtly pious nor overtly evil like the tzaddik or the rasha.  What do we do about the person who would really be considered neither?  As R. David Rosenfeld points out from Maimonides' commentaries, "If an act leaves little room for doubt -- and the person is not exactly known for his saintliness -- one need not find some favorable interpretation to his act," which is another way of saying "don't pull of acrobatics of implausibility to justify his actions."  I have found that in life, clear-cut scenarios are not as voluminous as one would like to think.  Many situations have multiple reasonable doubts.  How do we perceive such an individual at that point?
To briefly re-cap, we are now dealing with a majority of individuals in a majority of situations.  The individual is neither defined as particularly righteous nor particularly wicked.  The situation is really ambiguous and unclear.  In dealing with this scenario, we should give the individual the benefit of a doubt.  Although it's a more theocentric message, I like how R. Rosenfeld shows why this is important:
When we view others in such a manner, it sends a different message to G-d. I know Your creations are good human beings. They stumble and fall at times, but I have not lost faith in them as a result. They mean well, and I'm sure they'll pick themselves up again and try harder. And this is the attitude we should only wish G-d would have towards us. He (more than anyone else in creation) knows that human beings are basically good creatures. We have good souls and active, restless consciences. If we recognize the innate goodness in others, chances are we will see it in ourselves equally well.
The Jewish view on judgmentalism and giving people the benefit of a doubt is neither credulous nor overtly criticizing.  We judge blatant evil by distancing ourselves from it, whereas we give a near absolute benefit of a doubt to the righteous person, unless the evidence convicting him is so damning that cognitive dissonance is blinding you from making an objective judgment.  As for the gray area that we are most likely to encounter with people in the middle ground, when you find reasonable doubt, err on the side of goodness.  Rather than cultivating paranoia, cynicism, and animosity by focusing on shortcomings, we can focus on mercy, loving-kindness, and optimism.  When making judgments, give the benefit of a doubt as often as you can.  As the Talmud teaches, "Anyone who judges others favorably will be judged favorably in Heaven (Shabbos 127b)."  It's good for society and good for the soul.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Is Walker's Budget Proposal About Money or Workers' Rights?

The protests in Madison regarding Governor Scott Walker's (R-WI) latest budget proposal brings up a question of what the bill is actually advocating.  The advocates for the bill state that it's about cutting back on the budget deficit.  The pro-union side is making the claim that is the beginning of the end of labor unions, and that at the rate we are going, it will be like "Nazi Germany":

The inflammatory rhetoric and posters from the Left set aside for a moment, we need to reflect on the definition of a right for a moment, since this is the primary complaint of the union workers.  If we are going to define a "right" so liberally, I can gripe about my right to have a Rolls Royce and a lifetime supply of kosher food personally delivered to my house.  No one in their right mind would consider these rights.  That is why we need to get a working definition of "right." 

In his book Libertarianism: A Primer, David Boaz dedicates an entire chapter towards rights, in which he discusses such sub-topics as equality before the law, non-aggression, freedom of contract, freedom of conscience, and property rights.  In terms of defining what is not a right, he stated the approach quite succinctly:

"The [other] approach is to go back to first principles, to assess each rights claim in the light of each individual's right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  Fundamental rights cannot conflict.  Any claim of conflicting rights must represent a misinterpretation of fundamental rights (p. 89)."

To tie this to the issue at hand, we now beg the question of whether collective bargaining, also known as monopoly unionism, is a right or not.  Tax policy expert Chris Edwards at the Cato Institute weighs in on the issue:

"Unions certainly have free speech rights to voice their opinions about public policy. But collective bargaining gives unions the exclusive right to speak for covered workers, many of whom may disagree with the views of the monopoly union. Thus, collective bargaining is inconsistent with the right to freedom of association."

To re-iterate, collective bargaining speaks only for covered workers.  Collective bargaining has nothing to do with the "general welfare" of the people, a concept which is both of the preambles of the Wisconsin and national constitutions (also in Article I, Section 8, Clause 1).  Having taken a look at this issue this past Thursday, what I had outlined is that exorbitant financial incentives were given to the union workers.  We are talking about union members making more than their non-union counterparts, having to put in anywhere from a fourth to a sixth in health-care premiums than the national average, as well as a nice-sized pension.  Although there are some unions in the private sector, the biggest kvetchers at the protests have been the teachers, who, with benefits in consideration, make an average of nearly $78K a year in the state of Wisconsin [when you factor in benefits].  Since the amount of union workers in Wisconsin is above the national average, we have to wonder all the more where the money to pay for these benefits is originating.  The answer: the Wisconsin taxpayer.

Since the funding for the benefits is coming from the taxpayers of the state of Wisconsin, this makes the situation a whole lot simpler.  Money is earned by the taxpayer in order to be able to ensue in "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness."  To take that money in the form of taxation in order to provide for the union worker's "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" is an infringement of the taxpayer's fundamental rights, or, as George Bernard Shaw put it, "You are robbing Peter to pay Paul."             

Monopoly unionism involves a special interest group that uses its money and power to allocate taxpayer dollars towards the benefit of union workers.  This sort of governmental favoritism infringes on the fundamental rights of every non-union taxpayer in the state of Wisconsin.  It also continues to increase the deficit of Wisconsin. 

What do you think the protests in Europe these past months have regarded?  Whether you look at Greece, Spain, or France, European governments promised the government workers lavishing benefits and salaries.  As if it were some sort of shock, what happens when you spend money you do not have?  Ballooning deficits!  Debt becomes out of control, and the only way to end the fiscal insanity is to limit government spending, which entails cutting unnecessary spending.  The entitlement mentality has been cultivated, and the same exact thing happens when you take candy away from a five-year old: temper tantrums.  We need to deal with the reality that the state of Wisconsin is dealing with a budget deficit of $137 million, and that the overall situation of debt is not pretty.  That means putting in more money than your non-union counterparts, although you'd still be putting in half of what the non-union worker puts towards his health-care premiums.

In summation, collective bargaining is not a right because having a non-union taxpayer paying for a union member's increased salary or benefits violates the fundamental rights of the non-union taxpayer.  When FDR, someone whose economic policies swung way to the Left, thought that it was a bad idea, that says something right there.  For those who dissent, invoking the slippery slope argument, which is a logical fallacy unto itself, of a regression of worker's rights that would make Upton Sinclair turn over in his grave is nothing more than a form of emotionalism to protect the special interests of unions. 

To make a long answer short, these protests have nothing to do with rights and everything to do with money.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Madison Protests: What I Think of Unions and Their Collective Barganing

Thousands in Madison have been protesting the anti-union bill that recently-elected governor Scott Walker (R-WI) is trying to have pushed through the state Congress.  An important part of that bill is taking away collective barganing away from the unions.  It's no surprise to see that partisan politics is as alive as ever, as we see Obama calling this bill "an assault on the workers," the Democrats fled simply to block voting on the bill, and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) compares the protests in Madison to those in Egypt.

In spite of partisan riff-raff, I don't think Walker is being unreasonable.  Union workers are acting as if it were living back in the Gilded Age.  Back then, workers actually had legitimate grievances.  Many worked in unsanitary environments and were paid significantly less than they merited.  Upton Sinclair's The Jungle outlined true travesties that were occurring in the workworld.  Are there real abuses of power in the work place today?  I wouldn't be surprised.  However, they are significantly more infrequent than the alarmist media would depict.

Less than one in eight Americans are in unions, so even if every union worker were outraged at Walker or anybody else proposing a similar cut, it's still a substantially small minority of Americans.  It's not to say that I'm not against protecting minority rights.  Far from it!  It is just a question of what is being protected.  Let's start with the fact that Big Labor is highly Democratic.  If you look at the unions that are big time donors during election time since 1989, most notably the American Federation of State, County, and Munincipal Employees, the National Education Association (NEA), or the United Auto Workers (UAW), what you will see is that virtually all donations go to the Democratic Party. 

Partisan politics plays a huge role.  After this past election, many Americans sent a message to the United States government saying that they are sick of irresponsible fiscal responsibility.  When you hear about budget cuts, you feel like your back is to a corner.  That is why these protests are also about protecting something else, such as a livelihood.  Those in unions pay a fourth towards their health care premiums than non-union workers. Those in unions have significantly higher wages than non-union workers.  Even in terms of retirement packages, unions get at least three times as much as non-union workers.  Even though there are union workers that do well and like their job regardless of the financial considerations, let's not kid ourselves.  Money still talks!

The higher wages and nice benefits have to come from somewhere.  Money does not grow on trees.  They come from taxpayer dollars and union dues.  It's not enough that the state of Wisconsin has a $43 billion debt (and counting!).  Raising the wages above the equilibrium point (see below) causes a price floor below the equilibrium point, which is just a fancy way of saying "unions distort the labor market to the point where they attribute to unemployment." 

I think it's particularly selfish for this to be going on while there is still a recession.  In these rough times, you should be thankful that you have a job in the first place.  Instead, you are whining like the French were a few months back when they protested about the retirement age being raised from 60 to 62.  Being in the private sector, I know that if I tried to negotiate my salary or asked for them to cover my pension, I could tell you that I would probably get a pink slip along with a shoe up my backside.  If I had a job in which I were paid more than non-union counterparts were and I were handed a nice set of benefits, I would count my blessings rather than protest.  But again, that's just me.  Unfortunately, the America I love, you know, the home of the brave and land of the free, is sadly becoming nothing more than the home of those who crave and land of the greedy.     

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Swiss Stick to Their Guns

The Swiss government had put out a referendum to ban army fireguns from Swiss homes.  This referendum, however, had been overwhelmingly rejected.  I am glad that this referendum did not pass.  After all, Switzerland has had a long history of gun ownership.  Aside from chocolate, watches, and skiing, Switzerland is also known for its militia.  This militia has served Switzerland well, most notably keeping them out of both World Wars. 

I'm sure those on the Left weren't happy about the referendum.  According to them, guns kill people.  You would think that if this were the case, Switzerland would be a nation out of control with gun violence since Switzerland is the European country with the largest ratio of gun ownership per capita.  Quite the contrary!  The rate of gun-related crimes is so low in Switzerland that they don't really even keep track.  Why would that be?  My educated guess is that Swiss citizens are brought up to respect the power and responsibility of gun ownership, as well as understanding the deterring effect of committing a crime since everybody owns a gun in Switzerland.  This is wonderful because Switzerland continues to be a shining example of the fact that private arms ownership does not lead to violence.        

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Is Yoga Kosher?

During the 1960s and 1970s, the counterculture movement did much to impact our lives in the 21st century.  Little did they know that yoga was going to be one of the results of that influence.  Back in those days, most considered yoga to be New Age, "for the hippies," in short, something way outside the norm of everyday society.  However, with the passing of time, it became more accepted and you can find yoga classes all over the place.

Although being an increasingly popular practice, the practicing Jew just can't jump on the bandwagon.  When one decides to look at the history of yoga, one becomes aware of halachic ramifications of practicing yoga.  Yoga is a practice with Hindu origins, and is about as old as Hinduism itself.  As the Rebbe points out back in 1978, because of this, we have to worry about  עבודה זרה (idolatry).  The Rebbe's concerns were valid.  You bow to your yoga instructor, as as bow to the statue of a Hindu deity while saying the phrase  नमस्ते.  The positions in practice retain their Sanskrit names and the traditional "Ohm" is hummed throughout the yoga session.

As long as yoga maintains its connections to Hinduism, then the Rebbe is correct in saying that yoga is verboten for Jews.  However, like with a sizable amount of rulings from the Religious Right, especially the further Right you go, you come across the issue of bifurcation, which is a logical fallacy also known as the either-or fallacy or the fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses.  For a Chasid, or for any ultra-Orthodox, it is the "black and white" mentality that gives us the "either/or" option.  However, there is a third option, and our ancestors took this approach with the sacrificial system that had its origins in pagan nations.  What did the Jews of yore do?  They took out the idolatrous elements of the practice and made sure that the practice had its focus on G-d, not on anything pagan.  If you don't say the names of the positions [in Sanskrit], don't chant [in Sanskrit], don't say the "ohm," or don't bow to the statue (or better yet, go to a class without a statue), then you would be fine.  As one person succinctly stated, "Yoga physical exercise can be kosher as long as it remains within the context of physical fitness and stress management." 

In summation, as long as yoga does not have any idolatrous elements in the practice and is solely used as exercise and stress management, then it is permissible to use yoga.  However, if you in any way buy into the Hindu elements within yoga, then yoga cannot be practiced.  Interestingly enough, some Jews have already made some strides in combining the physical benefits of yoga along with Judaism (see here).  There certainly is a gray area with regards to this topic, like there is with many topics in Jewish law.  As such, a practicing Jew needs to be aware when making a decision of whether to practice yoga because it can either be used to improve your health (Deut. 4:9, 15), which would be a mitzvah, or it can be used to commit idolatry, which is a grave sin in Judaism.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Does Judaism At Least Condone Passive Euthanasia?

A few months ago, I was contemplating the factors that determine whether euthanasia can be considered "a good death" from a Jewish perspective. After making the distinction between active and passive euthanasia, I had discovered that Judaism takes a hard stance against active euthanasia. However, does Judaism at least permit the usage of passive euthanasia?

Just to recap, passive euthanasia is removing any hindrances that prolong death. This would include, but not be limited to, withholding any life-extending procedure. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 339:1) has something to say on the matter, and it's not quite what I would have thought it would have been:

"If there is anything which causes a hindrance to the departure of the soul, such as the presence near the patient's house of a knocking noise, such as wood chopping, or if there is salt on the patient's tongue, and these things hinder the soul's departure, it is permissible to remove them because no act is involve, only the removal of the impediment."

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, z"l, gave some provisions with regards to the permissibility (Igrot Moshe CM 2:74): "If physicians have no way to cure a dying patient or ease his burden, but they do have the ability to prolong the dying process, they should not intervene." 

What this exactly entails has been of debate.  Does this mean witholding pain medication?  Can one pull the feeding tube?  It is even more difficult to ascertain these answers from a Jewish perspective.  As R. Moshe Tendler, an Orthodox rabbi, put it:

"Inherent in the Jewish point of view is an expression of confidence that decisions on these great issues do not reside in heaven. We don’t accept an infallible, irrevocable voice from heaven to clarify even these most complex issues. This of course is a disadvantage that we have compared with other religions. Using the biblical ethical principles...may help us all, while we study the problems with integrity and devotion, to surely reach the proper conclusion, one that is pleasing to us and to G-d". (The Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine, 51:54-57, 1984)

These are complicated issues and what we define as passive euthanasia and under what circumstances we would perform it are in need of continuous debate.  Dealing with death is as inevitable as it is painful, and at least in this specific topic, there are no clear answers.  Whatever ethicals conclusions one comes to, as Tendler states, let they be made in accordance with Jewish values.