Inequality Hurts Us All

Editorial

getty images

Published October 25, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Biblical Judaism knew what to do about income inequality: observe the sh’mitah, the sabbatical year. Every seven years, according to the laws of Leviticus, debts are to be forgiven and all agricultural activities — plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting — are to be suspended. The gap between rich and poor, those who have and those who do not, would not so much disappear as recalibrate, pushing the reset button, as it were. The poor would be released from their debts and the land only maintained, not improved.

And if the trees bore fruit, it could be picked by anyone.

This utopian vision serves a spiritual purpose: to emphasize egalitarian principles and the belief that men and women are stewards, not owners, of the land and what it produces. Even though this idea seems quaint and unworkable in today’s nonstop global economy, it does exert a certain moral power. It seems right that the playing field be equalized every so often, and that the poor get another chance. It appeals to our American sense of fairness.

In this endless election year, when improving the economy remains the highest priority and deepest obsession, the issue of income inequality is raised as a moral argument, if it is discussed at all. Or occasionally it is bandied about in an Occupy context, with one side contending that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few will lead to social unrest and polarization, and the other side responding with accusations of class warfare.

No wonder it’s more fun to talk about Big Bird and bayonets.

Both the moral and the civic arguments are true and sound, but they are not the only case for addressing income equality. There’s something even more basic: The widening gap between the very rich and everyone else is hampering economic growth and adding to social distress. This is referenced sometimes by Democrats and largely ignored by Republicans, even though a growing body of research argues the point persuasively.

“Some moral philosophers address inequality by invoking principles of justice and fairness,” wrote Robert H. Frank, an economic professor at Cornell University, in a New York Times article. “But because they have been unable to forge broad agreement about what these abstract principles mean in practice, they’ve made little progress. The more pragmatic cost-benefit approach… has proved more fruitful, for it turns out that rising inequality has created enormous losses and few gains, even for its ostensible beneficiaries.”

Even the International Monetary Fund has begun sounding the alarm, warning the United States that economic growth accompanied by increasing income inequality is more fragile and unstable, and therefore less likely to be maintained.

How large is the gap? The Congressional Budget Office issued a long-awaited report last year showing that between 1979 and 2007, the incomes of the wealthiest 1% nearly tripled at 275% and the next richest grew by 65%. But middle class incomes grew just under 40% during those decades, and for the bottom fifth of Americans by only 19%. While it is true that the wealthiest suffered during the subsequent Great Recession, history shows that they bounce back quite nicely, thank you. Not so for everyone else.

That’s because the wealthiest 1% get to keep more of their money, paying the smallest proportion of their income in federal taxes than anytime since the end of World War II. This isn’t some political rhetoric. It’s a statement of fact based on a new report by the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan government group.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.