JSPAN Holds Two Programs Dissecting Economic Inequality

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

For the last 70 years our economy has grown almost steadily. Until 1970, this increase in productivity was shared between growth in wages for labor and profit growth for business. Since then, virtually all the growth in productivity has gone to increase corporate profits, while wages have not even fully kept pace with inflation.

Beginning with the film “Inequality for All” starring Professor Robert Reich, and continuing with a panel discussion a week later, JSPAN has initiated its year of focus on the problems of economic inequality. The programs, held on March 9 and 16 (after a one-week snow delay), drew substantial audiences at the host site, Germantown Jewish Centre.

More after the jump.
Inequality for All is Prof. Reich’s grand statement on film of the sources, attributes and problems of economic inequality in our society. With pictures and charts, and in his own personal electric presentation, he documents an immense change in American society, particularly since 1970.

The issue, according to Reich, is not just the discouragement of workers or the toll on people and families of declining expectations and a static or sliding quality of life. The sustainability of democracy, here and in other countries, depends heavily on the existence and growth of a middle-class.

Economic inequality in this nation, while accumulating immense wealth in the hands of a few, has expanded poverty and shrunk the middle class. The expectation that life will be better in each generation has been reversed.

The second program was a panel discussion featuring Rabbi Mordechai Liebling and Benjamin Peck. Liebling heads the Social Justice Organizing program of instruction for rabbis at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. Peck is the Federal Affairs Manager for Demos, lobbying for progressive policies in Washington DC. Ilene Wasserman, Board member of JSPAN, moderated the discussion.  

The program began with Torah study of selected texts, directed by Rabbi Liebling. He urged that we must recognize that all wealth comes from the Lord.

Biblical justice for the Jewish community included Shmita, the forgiveness of debt every seven years, as well as the limit of seven years on slavery, and the restoration of land ownership every fifty years (“the Jubilee”). These institutions tended to level wealth within the community and to prevent the accumulation of immense wealth in a few people.

Drawing on statistics compiled by the Economic Policy Institute, Mr. Peck documented the extent to which wealth has become concentrated in a few hands in America.

With the accumulation of this great wealth has come political influence and control of the political system. The government has favored wealthy corporations and individuals by such steps as the bailouts in the 2008 crisis, the provision that Medicare cannot negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices, tax policies, and other examples.

Peck urges the wisdom of Warren Buffett, that his income tax rate should not be lower than that of his secretary.

Romney Endorses Steve King

Mitt Romney was in Iowa today where he gave his endorsement to conservative firebrand Steve King (R-IA):  

“I’m looking here at Steve King, he needs to be your Congressman again. I want him as my partner in D.C.”

Here is some background on Rep. King from Evan McMorris-Santoro:

Rep. Steve King: I’ve Never Heard Of A Girl Getting Pregnant From Statutory Rape Or Incest

Rep. Steve King, one of the most staunchly conservative members of the House, was one of the few Republicans who did not strongly condemn Rep. Todd Akin Monday for his remarks regarding pregnancy and rape. On Monday, King signaled why – he might agree with parts of Akin’s assertion.

King told an Iowa reporter he’s never heard of a child getting pregnant from statutory rape or incest.

“Well I just haven’t heard of that being a circumstance that’s been brought to me in any personal way,” King told KMEG-TV Monday, “and I’d be open to discussion about that subject matter.”

And here is some commentary by Adam Peck:

GOP Congressman Tells Voters That Comparing Immigrants To Dogs Was Really A ‘Compliment’

Congressman Steve King (R-IA) participated in a radio debate with Democratic challenger Christie Vilsack last night, and was given a chance to explain a comment he made in May comparing immigrants to dogs.
But instead of apologizing, or even explaining how he simply misspoke, King told the audience that the comment was really meant as a compliment, and that anyone who interpreted it as an insult – namely, everyone – was simply motivated by partisanship and incapable of cooperation:

VILSACK: Frankly, he’s been a bully, and he’s an embarrassment to the people of Iowa when he talks about immigrants as animals. If my mother were here she would say to Congressman King ‘show some decency.’

KING: …This American vigor that we have that comes from legal immigrants who came to this country with a dream – we get the cream of the crop of every donor civilization on the planet – and people that can take a compliment and turn it into an insult are not going to be constructive working across the isle. But that’s what that was, was a compliment. And everyone who was there that heard that knows that.

Zack Beauchamp lists five more of King’s controversial positions.

On Bravery

— By Hannah Lee

The Medal of Honor is the highest decoration bestowed by the United States for bravery on the battlefront, although I’ve noticed that these recipients often recall that they had no choice, they did what they had to do.  But what about the ordinary circumstances of our world in which we confront banal evil in the form of prejudice, ignorance, and injustice?

More after the jump.
During this year’s Veterans’ Kiddush held at my shul, coordinated by an ardently patriotic member named Paul Newman, there was a new display on movies and documentaries that featured Jews, in particular Jews in the American military.*  I picked one for my family’s viewing: Gentleman’s Agreement in which Gregory Peck goes undercover to write an expose of anti-Semitism in suburban America.  The film won three Oscars in 1947 and was just listed by Tablet as one of the 100 Greatest Jewish Films. Neither the director, Elia Kazan, nor the producer was Jewish, but Darryl Zanuck acquired the film rights from the author, Laura Z. Hobson, after he was mistaken for a Jew and denied membership at the elitist Los Angeles Country Club.  On Wikipedia, I read, “Before filming commenced, Samuel Goldwyn and other Jewish film executives approached Darryl Zanuck and asked him not to make the film, fearing that it would “stir up trouble.”

In Gentleman’s Agreement, Peck’s character, Philip Skylar Green, does not look remotely Jewish but he quickly experiences the subtle and overt acts of prejudice committed against Jews at the time.  He gets his publisher to change its policy of not hiring Jews, although his Jewish secretary (who’d changed her name from Estelle Wilovsky to Elaine Wales) cautions him that the wrong Jews might get hired and ruin it for the few Jews who’d already made it into the system (an insider’s bit about Jewish anti-Semitism).  Green is later denied a reservation at an elite inn.  His best friend, a Jew named Dave Goldman, (played by John Garfield, formerly Jacob Julius Garfinkle), newly discharged from the military, cannot find housing within commuting distance of his new employer.  Finally, Green has to deal with his fiancée’s timidity in upsetting social norms: how would her sister’s friends and neighbors in Darien, CT deal with Green being introduced as a Jew?

A widower, Green has a young son who experiences bullying from his peers for being a Jew.  When his fiancée, Kathy Lacey (played by Dorothy McGuire), consoles the boy that it’s not true, he’s no more Jewish than she is, Green explodes in anger and dismay that she’s accepting the prejudice that Jews are socially inferior to Christians.  Lacey learns from Goldman that every time she hears an ethnic slur, even in a joke, and she doesn’t do anything about it, she’s giving the racists a pass. She realizes that the only way to convince her beloved that she hates injustice in general, and anti-Semitism in particular, just as much as he does, is to take a stand.  Get this fine film from your library or Netflix to find out what she decides to do.

This weekend, my brother forwarded to me an Associated Press article, in which students are not checking “Asian” on their college applications as a response to the racial quotas at universities, particularly of the Ivy League schools.  Asian students experience stiffer competition for admission, because of the perception that they’d overrun a campus if only high SAT scores and grade-point averages were used as standards.  It’s an easier tactic for students from a mixed marriage bearing the surname of their non-Asian fathers.  But at least one full-blooded Asian student, as identified in the article, did not write in her race on her application and was admitted to Yale.  My friend Lindsay told me that her Chinese husband has quipped that his surname, Eng, is common in northern Scandinavia, so maybe their daughter would be mistaken on paper for a Norwegian.  Another friend, Marshall Jaffe, told me that

colleges can’t have it both ways: They can’t be institutions that, on the one hand, claim to be dedicated to the public interest and are therefore entitled to all sorts of benefits such as non-profit status, while, on the other hand, act as private organizations with their own interests — maintaining a “diverse” student body among them — even if that means flouting policies that would be grounds for prosecution in other sectors.

My reaction to the article was dismay, that students have to resort to subterfuge, but this tactic is similar to the practice of Jews changing their names in the early 20th century.  They want to be evaluated on their own merits, their own skills, not the preconceived notions of what their ethnicity connotes to Americans.

As we observe the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent incarceration of nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps by the United States government, I remind my readers to act responsibly when we encounter injustice, from the slight to the great.  My husband chides me when I make a generalization about male chauvinistic behavior.  Do you reprimand the guy who litters in public?  Do you object when someone makes a racial joke or an innuendo about fat people?  We will ultimately be judged by God for our ordinary human interactions, so would you be brave?

Note:
For film buffs, the other films included in the Veterans’ Kiddush display were: