Tuesday, October 18, 2005

They're Finally Calling for Sacrifices--By the Poor

I had picked a different headline for this column; my choice was, "If It's All About Judeo-Christian Values, What About Us Judeos?" But my editor didn't like that. The newspaper version is here.

I got an angry email from a 'winger about this column, demanding to know exactly how I defined rich, and how much the rich should pay in taxes, and how much the government has spent on the less fortunate since 1969, and a list of more long-and-impossible-to-answer questions. So I wrote the guy back, and said that before I started writing term papers at his command, I just wanted to know something that he'd have to answer anyway to do his taxes next spring: What was his largest charitable contributions this year? I wanted to make sure he was pulling his weight in the community before I spent hours responding to his questions.

Of course, I have had no response. I wonder if he has made any charitable contribution this year larger than throwing a couple of coins in a collection plate or Salvation Army kettle?

But his email made me think about a point Kevin Drum made, that conservatives focus (like laser beams!) on a distorted parody of liberalism (Liberals want to tax everything! They hate the rich!), no matter how extreme or ill-noticed (Ward Churchill, anybody?). I'm not sure if I buy Kevin's idea of focusing on conservative extremism, but the "name your charitable contribution" turned out to be a nice piece of rhetorical judo for this particular crank, and I commend it to you.

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 16, 2005

The High Holidays prayerbook we use at Temple Solel has a series of short meditations that you can read before Yom Kippur services begin. The stories include one of my favorites, about a famous 18th century Chasidic rabbi, the Maggid of Koznitz.

One day, a rich man came to the rabbi for a blessing. But before dealing with his spiritual question, the Maggid first asked, “What are you in the habit of eating?” The man replied, “I am modest in my demands. Bread and salt, a drink of water, I need no more.”

The rabbi is outraged. “What are you thinking? You must have a good goose for dinner, or a steak, and a really good wine. And you must eat a luxurious breakfast each morning.” The rabbi did not let the man leave until he promises to change his ways.

The rabbi’s disciples hear him instructing the man, and they can’t believe their ears. A sinner wants to atone, and the Maggid tells him to eat well instead! So afterward, they ask him why. The rabbi explains, “Not until he eats meat will he realize that the poor need bread. As long as he himself eats only bread, he will think the poor can live on stones.”

The Maggid of Koznitz wouldn’t have much trouble figuring out what’s wrong with today’s U.S. Congress. The majority’s latest plan for dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina would “pay” for recovery by cutting $35 billion in programs like Medicaid health coverage, food stamps, and other services for the less-well-off while giving $70 billion in new tax breaks targeted at the richest Americans. This is an opening bid, apparently; so-called “conservatives” are pushing for deeper cuts to programs that assist people with illnesses and disabilities, or the hungry, or families who can’t afford rent or health insurance, so the legislation can provide even more tax cuts to the wealthiest.

Those of you with adequate math backgrounds may notice that the widely-heralded offsets in the initial plan are merely half of the new tax breaks. So despite all the noise about fiscal responsibility, it’s a plan to increase the deficit -- and it’s likely that the “improved” plan will have a lower spending-cut-to-tax-cut ratio, thereby increasing deficit spending even more.

For the past half-decade, the administration’s and congressional majority’s response to any problem (a slowing economy, two land wars in Asia, projected shortfalls in Social Security) is to give tax cuts to the very richest and wealthiest Americans. But the largest natural disaster in American history has emboldened the ruling party to add a new “improvement” to their governing philosophy. They’re finally calling for sacrifice -- by the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable, whom they expect to pay for new top-down tax cuts by doing without healthcare, food, and shelter.

President Bush and key lawmakers must not know anybody who depends on Medicaid, or food stamps, or housing aid to believe that it’s a good idea to take from the poor to give to the rich. But 27 Arizona organizations which do know better -- which work every day trying to help people in Arizona, including those displaced here by Katrina -- have called on our congressional delegation to oppose this latest reverse-Robin-Hood proposal. (A copy of the letter is available at www.azchildren.org.)

These groups, which include Children’s Action Alliance, Southwest Human Development, AARP Arizona, and Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL), devote themselves to improving the lives of the sick, the infirm, and those in need of food, shelter, and training. (Disclosure: I serve on the board of one signer, Devereux Arizona, and another, Catholic Healthcare West, is a client.) They know what these programs do and how they affect actual lives; to them, these aren’t just numbers on a spreadsheet.

Just like the Maggid of Koznitz, these groups know that the poor and less-fortunate can’t live on stones, or get healthcare from the air. Let’s hope they can help educate our elected officials about their moral responsibilities. After all, it’s the Judeo-Christian thing to do.


Tedski said...

Oh Sam, you know they were never that serious about the "Judeo-" part anyhow.

Given some of the rhetoric flying around from Evangelical leaders in this Harriet Miers episode, even Jose Feliciano can see that their definition of the "Christian" part doesn't include most Christians.

Christopher Williams said...

This site will one day make the Sissy-Man list.