Monday, January 16, 2012

Contending with Profanity in Jewish Law and in American Society

On some level, I always find that America expresses bi-polarity when it comes to morality. Think about it for a moment. When it comes to sex, we have a Puritan-like taboo on the topic while simultaneously having it on television and advertisements, being told that "sex sells." Being able to swear is no different. We Americans love the ability to say what we want, but we also have this borderline-compulsive desire to bleep out expletives for "decency's sake."

I would like to approach profanity from two standpoints: Jewish law and American jurisprudence. I want to look at the issue Jewishly because 1) I'm Jewish, and 2) Judaism influenced Christianity, and as such, has impacted this bi-polarity. I also want to bring American legal arguments because it's interesting to see how "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" interact and/or conflict with Jewish values. 

Profanity in Jewish Law

Jewish speech ethics are not only nuanced, but they also set a high standard. Since G-d created the universe by speaking (read Genesis 1), Judaism teaches that words have a powerful impact. The Chofetz Chayim points out that speaking לשון הרע (literally "evil tongue," denotes "bad speech ethics"), one can violate up to 31 mitzvot. In Jewish law, it goes well beyond avoiding slander and libel. Gossip, slurs, and negative truths are forbidden under Jewish law. If such restrictions are in Jewish speech ethics, it would be safe to assume that the high bar set also applies to swearing, and you would be correct. Foul language (נבול פה) is also forbidden under Jewish law.

One of the main reasons not to swear under Jewish law it degrades another individual, which is prohibited because we are all "created in His image." But what if you are using swear words to convey intensity of a given feeling? Some people might. Most don't. Since swear words are used so frequently these days, they have lost their intensity, but have not lost their meaning. Plus, if an individual has a sufficiently large vocabulary, he'll find a way to express the same intensity without resorting to swearing.

If you think about it, most swear words are focused on either sex or functions performed in the bathroom. If Judaism teaches that we should elevate the mundane to a level of holiness, especially speech, then swearing is not the way to go about it. Rabbi Elazar ben Yaakov (Derech Eretz Rabbah 3:3) compares swearing to pollution: "A person who uses rough language is like a pipe spewing foul odors in a beautiful room."

Given the amount of swearing in our culture, the only way to have a completely swearing-free zone is to live in an insular community with those who have similar values to you. For most of us, however, we hear swear words often enough. For those of us who want to cut back on swearing, we try to apply such high standards to our lives, easily forgetting that we are human, and thus prone to err. Although we might swear from time to time, we have to accept our inconsistencies if we are to minimize the gap between theory and practice in our daily lives. 

Profanity in American Law

It would be nice to close the gap between in theory and practice not just in my private life, but in greater society. If there were a society free of swearing and people speaking unkindly of one another, it would be spiritually liberating, akin to not having to inhale second-hand smoke all the time. It might explain why nearly two-thirds of Americans favor FCC regulation of profanity. 

As nice as it might sound to have the government regulate profanity in the name of moral decency, there's this little thing called the First Amendment. Aside from exigent circumstances such as one's speech inciting violence or causing harm to another, the First Amendment gives an individual the right to free speech. That is why the Supreme Court has upheld such acts as desecration of the American flag (Texas v. Johnson), a Nazi rally in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood (National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie), owning pornography (Stanley v. Georgia), depictions of animal cruelty (United States v. Stevens), and the right for the Westboro Baptist Church to disseminate its hate message on public property (Snyder v. Phelps). 

There is no constitutional right to not be offended. As repulsive as these acts might be for a good majority of Americans, they are protected by the First Amendment, whether we like it or not. As tempting as it might be to censor things such as swearing, if we do, it's only a hop, skip, and jump away from having censorship bureaus and have the level of censorship they have in China. 

Additional Thoughts

If you're worried about your children swearing, as I mentioned earlier, you can live in an insular, religious community, such as the Amish or the the Satmar Chasidic community of Kiryas Joel. If that doesn't work, censor television programs that have swears in them. If that doesn't work, have a mature, one-on-one discussion with your child about swearing and how to handle it. Either way, it's called good parenting.

And for those of us that are adults, we are grown up enough to make our own decisions about what we view and what we hear. In America, if we cherish "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness," we should be able to choose the level of obscenity of our media. If you don't want to deal with swearing, shut off the television or find more suitable programming. 

Why should moral puritans and those of the Religious Right, who are a minority, get to dictate the programming of American citizens? In a free society, one of the joys I get is free will. Free will gives us the ability to make moral decisions. I should be given the choice of whether to listen to or use profanity. If that free will is taken away from me, I don't have the ability to actualize my potential in the moralistic sphere. 

To summarize my Jewish libertarian standpoint, it would ideally be nice not to have to deal with profanity. It is spiritually healthier for people. However, we don't live in that ideal world. We have to deal with the pervasiveness of swearing in our culture. As much as a lot of us do not like profanity, there is that reality that we ourselves will give into it because we are human. But we should be given the latitude to deal with it. Those who crusade against profanity shouldn't erode the Constitution to bring about their misconceived notion of utopia. Rather than treat us like children who cannot handle the concept of profanity, maybe citizens should be treated like adults and figure out how to deal with profanity on their own terms.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Conservatives vs. Hispanics?

I came across an article entitled "Public Opinion Snapshot: Conservatives versus Hispanics" from the Center for American Progress (CAP), which identifies itself as progressive. The premise behind the article is that the Republican Party's stance on immigration puts it at odds with the Hispanic community. CAP uses the Hispanic support for the Dream Act, as well as allowing illegal immigrants to attend college at in-state tuition rates, as evidence of how "anti-Hispanic" the GOP is. The ultimate conclusion is that the GOP will pay for its views on immigration in November.

Although immigration policy has a greater impact on the Hispanic community than it does other demographics in this country, viewing the Hispanics as one-issue voters is over-simplified. That's like saying Jewish voters only care about Israel, gay voters only care about gay rights, and that Catholics only care about abortion.

AP and Univisión did a survey of Hispanics back in 2010. A majority (i.e., 65%) of those surveyed were most worried about the state of the economy and unemployment rates. The current unemployment rate of the Hispanic community is currently at 11.0%, which is higher than the recently-reported national unemployment rate of 8.5%. The Hispanic community has been hit hard by the current state of the economy. Is it any wonder that by looking at the Gallup poll and the even more recent Ipsos-Telemundo poll, Obama's approval rating amongst Hispanics is at an all-time low?

Also, looking at campaign promises that Obama made with regard to immigration, he did not adequately keep a single one. Obama's inability to deliver on immigration reform also factors into his low approval ratings in the Hispanic community.

However, this is not to say that the GOP is exactly a fantastic alternative to Obama. Their stance on immigration reform has typically been "put up a fence and enforce our laws on illegal immigration." Such an attitude comes off as hostile towards the Hispanic community. The Republicans would have to come up with a more comprehensive immigration reform plan to put in their party platform if they want an overwhelming support from the Hispanic population. This might be a good idea since the Hispanic accounted for a majority of the population growth in the past decade.

Even if the GOP decides not to change its immigration stance [right away], they can still gain a number of Hispanic votes by appealing to them with promises of job creation, something which has not been a strong suit during Obama's term in office. Although the GOP will have a difficult time convincing Hispanics to vote Republican, the Hispanic vote is anything but a guarantee for Obama and the Democrats in the upcoming elections.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Why America Shouldn't Adopt the Value-Added Tax

The value-added tax, better known as the VAT, is a consumption-based tax that assesses a tax during each stage of production of a given good. This was brought to my attention because I was reading a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by Daniel Mitchell pointing out that in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he would be open to the idea of implementing the VAT in the United States.

There are some things that I like about the VAT. There would be an equal tax burden on each stage of production, rather than having the burden solely on the distributor of the final product. The VAT is a much simpler form of taxation than, let's say, the progressive income tax we currently have, which means less bureaucracy. The end result of both equally distributed burden and simplified flat rate is increased revenue with less inefficiencies. Also, the VAT is more in lines with a free society. Under the current system, you don't have any say as to how much you pay in taxes. However, with the VAT, you can pay as much or little as you want in taxes because it's directly linked with consumption. If it's high enough, it might even incentivize you to save up some money instead of go into over-consumption mode.

If every other country in the OECD has implemented the VAT, why shouldn't America? To answer that question, here are some issues I have with implementing it here:

  1. Although the VAT can incentivize savings, it could just as easily backfire and have a detrimental effect on consumption if the rate of taxation is too high.
  2. The richer members of society will consume more goods, and thus put more into tax revenue. In theory, this should equalize tax burden amongst socio-economic classes. However, there is an issue where you have more inelastic goods, such as food, clothing, or even gasoline. When discussing such inelastic goods, the tax becomes more regressive, thereby further hammering the poor with tax burdens.
  3. There are still issues with enforcement of the VAT. Unlike the flat tax, the VAT involves many stages of production, which means that there would have to be greater enforcement mechanisms in place to make sure the tax is being paid.  Tax evasion with the VAT has been an ongoing problem both in Europe and in China.  As such, any reduction in costs of the simplification of the tax code would most likely be negated by enforcement costs. 
  4. As Mitchell brings up in his op-ed, Congress would realize that the tax is more efficient, and thus cause a tax hike because they would not think that they have reached the top of the Laffer curve yet. 
  5. Even if Mitchell is wrong about the VAT being a carte blanche to increase taxes, many people are forgetting something. This tax would most probably not be in lieu of the current tax system. If it were, I, along with other economists, would feel differently. Knowing the politicians in Washington, if this were ever to pass, my educated guess would be that the VAT would be in addition to the current tax system, thereby creating a greater tax burden for the American people. 
Much like they did back in 2010 (see Section 11 of H.R. 4851), I hope that Congress has the minimal common sense to maintain the stance that implementing the VAT, especially in this economy, is not only bad policy, but against their self-interest, especially if they're up for re-election this year.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Does Krugman Understand Debt?

U.S. debt is at 100% of GDP, and citizens are worried. Odds are that reducing the debt will be a hot-button topic in the upcoming elections, especially considering that Obama has increased U.S. debt by more than four trillion since he took office.

Keynesian economist Paul Krugman recently wrote an op-ed piece entitled "Nobody Understands Debt." Krugman's bottom line is that although the issue with deficits is not unimportant, there are more important things to worry about than ever-climbing debt. Is he correct that we shouldn't be as worried about debt as we actually are?  

He brings up the point that we don't have to pay off the debt like a family does.  I'll give him that. As long as we're paying interest on the debt, and that our GDP growth exceeds what we owe in debt, it's not an issue. Debt is not inherently a bad thing. 

History of debt-to-GDP ratio is also interesting. Looking at data provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Krugman points out that the United Kingdom's debt had been over 100% for quite some years. Japan reached 203% after World War Two, but was able to pay it off. Even the United States reached 121%, where it eventually reached a low of 32.2% in 1974. Historically speaking, paying off debt that is at ridiculously high amounts in comparison to economic growth is indeed possible. Maybe Krugman is right. 

I also have an alternative idea: Krugman should apply the op-ed title of "Nobody Understands Debt" to himself.

Does Krugman think uttering the words "we owe it [the debt] to ourselves" makes the problem go away? It won't. The trajectory of government spending shows that the problem is only going to get worse, not better, especially considering that more and more Baby Boomers are going to retire and consume more Social Security and Medicare. This is only going to get more burdensome, unless you believe in the Ricardian Equivalence, which Krugman himself calls a "dubious doctrine."

As economist John Cochrane points out, Krugman never asks where the money comes from, which is important. Borrowing is not costless, which is something that Nobel Laureate James M. Buchanan brings up in his work Public Principles of Public Debt. Money doesn't grow on trees, and capital does not come out of thin air. Since the government does not have any money of its own, guess where it has to borrow from? The private sector. Every dollar that gets put in the public sector gets taken away from the private sector. The private sector ultimately creates wealth. Although it's beyond the scope of this blog entry, it should go without saying that a considerably large amount of money that government spends is done so inefficiently (i.e., for every dollar spent by the government, less than a dollar of benefit is derived). 

Krugman is right that we need to get out of the unemployment trap. But if you're under the impression that increased government spending has nothing to do with economic woes, think again. Increased government spending impedes job growth in the short-run and transfers economic burdens in the long-run.