Sunday, July 31, 2011


Throughout the years of my youth, I took pride in the fact that America was a nation with a thriving middle class. There were pockets of extreme wealth here, to be sure, but that could be said of just about any country. The difference is that in the so-called “third world,” the affluent represented a tiny minority, whereas the vast majority of the people were quite poor. I saw this for myself when I vacationed a couple of times in Jamaica or traveled to Mexico. It was so nice to return to America and not see such an unequal distribution of wealth.

Well … I am sure our wealth distribution is still more equitable than that of Mexico or Jamaica, but we seem to have turned the corner in a downward spiral. And if anyone had doubts about this point, they should have been dispelled earlier this past week, when the Pew Research Center released its report of the median wealth of American households in 2009.

The numbers are stark. From 2005 to 2009, the median household net worth dropped from $135K to $113K for white families, $167K to $78K for Asian-American families, $18K to $6,325 for Hispanic families, and $12K to $5,677 for African-American households.

The lead headline for these numbers was that the wealth disparity between white households and African American or Hispanic households grew tremendously to where white Americans now have, on average, 20 times the assets of blacks and 18 times the assets of Hispanics. But to me, the shocking numbers are the dollar figures themselves. If you are African-American or Hispanic family and your assets exceed liabilities by $6,400, you are now better off than most other Americans from your ethnic group. By contrast, partners from big law firms commonly bill more than that amount in a single day.

In total, as of 2009, there were about 4.7 million households in America with a net worth of at least a million dollars, representing roughly 4.1 percent of all the nation’s households. With the stock market rebound, that number has surely grown significantly in the past two years, and economists are expecting it to grow dramatically in the next decade. There is no question that while times are tough for the average African-American or Hispanic American, the wealthiest among us are doing just fine.

I think a lot about these figures these days when listening to the talking heads on TV angst about the debt ceiling negotiations. They want to turn those negotiations into a proverbial page turner. But who are they kidding? The people who run our government today are clearly beholden to the 4+ percent of the nation who are worth a million dollars (and who generate the lion’s share of political contributions), and the last thing they’re going to do is watch their stock portfolios go up in smoke. We’ll get a debt-ceiling deal, and it will be hailed as a great accomplishment by some of the yentas on Capitol Hill and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But when all is said and done, the deal will be just one more sign that this nation is becoming a banana republic – albeit on a larger scale than our neighbors to the south.

Clearly, if anyone should be sacrificing in these negotiations, it would be the Americans who are best able to withstand the sacrifice. President Obama was first proposing to increase taxes on those Americans who earn at least $250,000 per year, but later, it was clear that he would have been happy to limit the tax increase to Americans who earn a cool million. No matter – the GOP guardians-of-great-wealth were unwilling to permit even the more restrictive tax increase. So if you earn at least $1 million a year – and if your family’s net worth is measured not in the seven figures but rather in the eight, nine or ten – have no fear. You and your assets will be just fine.

The “compromise” that will be hailed on Tuesday will be felt by a very different group of Americans – the ones who depend on programs like Medicare and Social Security. These include Americans on the south side of the 50th percentile in terms of family net worth. Democrats will tell you that they oppose this approach – that they would much prefer raising taxes on the rich to cutting benefits for the poor or middle class – but had no choice in the matter. The Republicans, they will say, drove a hard bargain. They were willing to drive our collective car off the cliff, Thelma and Louise-style, and the only sane option was to reach a “compromise” in which taxes would be left alone and the budget would be balanced on the backs of those who can afford it the least. This was the same reasoning they employed when, in early 2009, we saved our banks by spewing bazillions of dollars onto Wall Street with virtually no strings attached. It was either that, the Democrats will tell you, or suffer financial Armageddon.

Personally, I’m growing a little tired of all the rationalizations and euphemisms. We “have no choice” but to “reach a compromise.” I find it hard to believe that we have no choice, and I find it impossible to call any of this a “compromise.” In 2008, I joined most of my fellow Americans in voting for what appeared to be a progressive President and a progressive Congress. And what do we have? One party rule – and it’s not the progressive one.

To be sure, the Democrats are being given an extremely difficult hand of cards. But are they doing the most with those cards? Can they not at least try to drum into the heads of the American public the most relevant facts – including the numbers that tell the real tale here?

For me, the two most relevant numbers are $6,325 and $5,677. They are difficult to remember. But once you focus on them and realize what they represent, they’re very difficult to ignore altogether.

By the way, next time you call your local Congressperson, why don’t you ask for the price of a good house servant. They’ll probably tell you to wait a few years, for surely the price will go down. But I think you’re likely to get a pretty good deal right now. And if you live in Bethesda, Beverly Hills or Scarsdale, I don’t doubt for a second that you can afford it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


The negotiations over the debt ceiling are truly shaping up as one of the great dramas of our time. If only they weren’t so important, this would be pretty entertaining stuff.

As a progressive, it is easy for me to fear what might happen – massive cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and minimal tax increases for wealthy individuals and corporations. After all, President Obama doesn’t have the best track record in negotiating huge deals; he tends to unilaterally give up a ton at the start and then search for a meaningful compromise, which is not exactly a technique taught in Negotiations classes.

Still, every now and then, I wonder if the debt ceiling talks might actually provide a much needed opportunity for Washington to address some of its long term problems. Amassing huge quantities of debt offends me as a son of two children of the Great Depression. It’s time to live within our means, wouldn’t you say? Our tax code is a nightmare in terms of not only its complexity but its ridiculous and offensive giveaways to special interests. Can’t we at least get that code reformed? And if in order to stop our passion for deficit spending, we need to generate more revenue than what can be accomplished merely by closing loopholes, isn’t it time to roll back those Bush tax cuts, at least insofar as they benefit the wealthy?

What did you say? The Republicans will never go for it? Well they might, if the Democrats are willing to put spending cuts on the table, and I think they will and they should – not necessarily Medicaid, but Medicare and even Social Security. As sad as it would be to take part of the nest egg away from of our nation’s aged and infirm, as long as our wealthy are being asked to take on their fair share of the burden, middle class Americans should be willing to pitch in as well. We owe it to our children and grandchildren, who for years have been subsidizing our fiscal irresponsibility.

So are we headed in the direction of increasing the marginal tax rate for wealthy individuals, closing the tax loopholes, and making Medicare, Social Security, and for that matter, the military, a bit leaner and meaner? Many would oppose this course on the grounds that we’re already suffering economically, so it seems an inopportune time to think about budget cuts and tax increases. But if not now, when? If we whiff on this opportunity to confront the National Debt, despite the fact that the problem is now at the center of our focus, do we really think another opportunity will come around any time soon? Trust me, when it comes to making short term concessions to advance long term goals, this nation has developed a pretty sorry track record lately. If there is an emerging consensus on the need for serious debt reduction, we might want to take this shot while we can.

In short, despite what all the Chicken Littles are saying, the unfolding drama that is now unfolding in Washington might actually produce welcome, as well as nightmarish, results. Truth be told, I suppose I’m still a bit pessimistic, but maybe President Obama will surprise us. Or better still, maybe Speaker Boehner will surprise us. It will be pretty exciting to find out.

ON A FINAL NOTE: I will be on the road for nearly all of the remainder of July, so it is unlikely there will be any more Empathic Rationalist posts until the month’s end. I hope you all are having a great summer and look forward to posting again in the hot and humid month of August.

Take care.

Monday, July 04, 2011


Today, I was honored to give the keynote address at a 4th of July breakfast sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Muslim Council. What follows is what I said (give or take a few words). I bet you can identify the statement about which someone from the audience later said that she, as a Muslim American, could never have gotten away with saying what I said as a Jewish American. Sadly, I have to agree that she's right.

Here's the talk:

As the Coordinator of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, I am often called upon to sing the praises of certain homelands. Inevitably, these places are associated with a particular ethnic group. I might be asked to explain, for example, why, as a Jew, I can be such a committed Palestinian nationalist. Or why, as a lover of justice, I can be such a devoted Zionist. Most people embrace one of these states -- they become lovers of Palestinian sovereignty or of the Jewish State -- but I am proud to embrace both. And I enjoy explaining what it means to have a vision of “two states for two peoples,” both of whom constitute first cousins in the same family, the family of Abraham.

Today, though, I have been asked to proclaim my love for a very different country -- not a homeland for a single ethnic group, but rather a melting pot state. In such a state, peoples from all over the world come together and celebrate their common humanity. To be sure, this melting pot has ethnic neighborhoods, ethnic religious congregations, and even recognizes some ethnic holidays. But what it doesn’t have is the sense that one ethnic group holds a more central place in its cultural fabric than any other. Rather, the nation to which I allude wishes to create a common tapestry in which all of the world’s cultures participate. The nation’s motto is e pluribus unum – “out of many, one.” And that requires honoring each and every ethnic culture that contributes to the fabric. But perhaps even more importantly, it challenges people to figure out how to create the most beautiful fabric possible out of such a diverse set of threads.

That is the quintessential challenge posed by the United States of America. And it has many formulations. What principles can we adopt to help us all live in peace and with justice? What happens when our notions of freedom and equity conflict? And have we learned lessons from our own melting pot nation that can be used to inform debates between warring groups outside of these borders? To these types of questions, which have been around from the time of this nation’s founding, others have been added resulting from the nation’s unique wealth and power: are we responsible for serving as the world’s mediator? Or as its policeman? I go back and forth when I think about those latter issues, but it is a measure of America’s greatness that they can be asked with a straight face.

My grandparents came to these shores at the same time that most American Jewish families came – at or around the end of the 19th century. My parents and I have enjoyed traveling around the world, but all of our lives, we have called America home. The family first settled in New York City. And then, in the 1940s, my parents moved to Washington, D.C. The family has been based in the D.C. area ever since. And as residents of the nation’s capital, we have been privileged to encounter so many majestic American landmarks. Allow me to discuss just a few.

Let’s start with the Smithsonian Institution. Unquestionably, these museums house some of the greatest collections of artwork in the world. But do we charge people to enter into those hallowed halls? Not a penny. Whether you are from Albany or Amsterdam, we don’t want your money, we just want you to walk in and admire some of the greatest paintings and sculptures your species has to offer. And you will quickly forget what you’re country you’re in. Because this being a melting pot, the Smithsonian Institution has been designed to celebrate masterpieces from all over the planet without even the slightest touch of parochialism. Yes, the Smithsonian makes me proud to be an American, but it does so by teaching that to be an American is, first and foremost, to be a citizen of the world.

The next set of landmarks I’d like to reference is a series of related memorials. They focus on an incredible time in our history – a time in which the United States of America was finally transformed into the United States of America. We know this time period as the “Civil War,” but it wasn’t simply a time of bloodshed. It was a time when Americans decided that they must risk their lives to fight for the ultimate principles on which this nation was based. We would decide once and for all whether slavery would be permitted here. And we would decide whether we owe our allegiance primarily to the individual state from which we hail, or to the nation that attempted to unify these diverse states. The memorials of this era include battlefields, of which the DC area has so many – places called Gettysburg, Antietam, Bull Run, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Fredericksburg. Every such battlefield memorial is hallowed ground, for it was there that countless numbers of men gave their lives for truly elevated purposes.

For me, what ties these battlefields together are two very special memorials. They are located only a couple of miles from each other, and are among the most prominent landmarks in Washington, D.C. One, which is housed at the Arlington National Cemetery, is the home of Robert E. Lee. It is difficult to imagine a more noble American soul than Lee, regardless of where you stand on the issue of blue versus grey. Lee graduated second in his class at the United States Military Academy, but then, true to his allegiance to the State of Virginia, he was forced to command the Confederate Army against the United States Military. Remember – prior to the Civil War, a person’s country to which he or she held allegiance was the state from which he came. In Lee’s case, he was a Virginian first and foremost, and only secondarily, an American. So in choosing to fight for the South, Lee made the only choice a patriot could have made. That mentality changed after the Civil War.

The other memorial to which I referred is, of course, the Lincoln Memorial. It is there where you can read Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in all the southern states. But no less moving, are the words he used in consecrating the battlefield at Gettysburg.

In just a small number of words, Lincoln summarized so beautifully what it means to be a martyr and what it means to be an American. I give you the last paragraph of that immortal speech:

“[I]n a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

That is how the Gettysburg Address ended. It began on a very similar note – by reminding the audience exactly what it was that unified us as Americans. This nation, Lincoln said, was “conceived in liberty,” and was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In that last phrase, he was harkening back to another set of immortal words – those in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration is but another short, and yet so sweet, statement that defines who we are as Americans. It was unveiled precisely 235 years ago on this very day by Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson is my favorite figure in U.S. history. I always carry with me two dollar bills to remember him and what he has to teach us. I frequently wear ties that celebrate him and his legacy. And when someone asks me to identify my favorite place in the United States, I have but one answer: Monticello, the place that Jefferson called home.

Monticello is a good 2 ½ hour drive from Washington, but it is always worth the trip. I’ve been there countless times. And whenever I go, it reminds me of the greatness of both the man and the nation that he was so instrumental in forging.

Now, make no mistake – Jefferson is no a saint. He is no Moses, he is no Jesus, he is no Muhammad. His flaws go beyond Moses’ shortcoming revealed in Chapter 20 of Numbers or Muhammad’s shortcoming revealed in Surah 80. But because Jefferson never proclaimed himself to be a saint, he is in fact a figure to whom we all can relate. A human, all-too-human figure, who nevertheless devoted himself to so many wholesome pursuits. You see all this in Monticello. You see how this one man was such a devotee of art, music, philosophy, science, anthropology, agriculture, religion, nature, language, architecture, literature … and of course, statecraft. And the more you study Jefferson, the more you see his footprints all over this nation as it has evolved over time.

We owe so much of our commitment to religious liberty to Jefferson. We owe so much of our commitment to public schooling to him. And we owe to Jefferson so much of our respect for equity and liberty. How, someone might ask, can one be passionate about both, if at some level, they conflict with one another? And the simple answer, is that to be a student of Jefferson is to realize that we have no choice. “We hold these truths as self evident,” he wrote. “That all men are created equal. And that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these, are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Equity and liberty are American values. They are Jeffersonian values. And so is commitment to the faculty of reason. For Jefferson was an Enlightenment philosopher. And the nation that he and his colleagues forged is very much a product of the Enlightenment. We must not forget that either. And when we, as Americans, go out among the world at large and fight for such principles as justice and peace, it is worth remembering a couple of key points.

The melting pot concept works for us, but that doesn’t mean it will meet the needs of everyone else. The fact that there is an America, for example, doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a China, an Italy, or an Israel. But when we do encounter ethnic or religious groups that wish to remain outside the scope of a melting pot state, and that are fighting over the same land, there is much that we can draw from as Americans to help them solve their problems. Specifically, we can draw from the same Enlightenment principles, the same commitment to reason, that so moved Jefferson and that has inspired Americans ever since. You’ll find those principles imbuing the words of Lincoln at Gettysburg, and of the actions taken by the founders of the Smithsonian. We must never forget those Enlightenment principles. They are our birthright as Americans. And as someone whose Judaism is more important to me than even my patriotism as an American, I can safely say that the principles of the Enlightenment are in harmony with the principles of Moses. If you think you’ve found a conflict, my advice is to think again.

So, if Jefferson, Lincoln and Lee were alive today, what would they ask of us as children of Abraham? They, who fought so hard to enable us to live in peace and prosperity, would they wish for us today to take this largess and just enjoy ourselves? Or would they beseech us to strive to live like they did – and better yet, to live as our Prophets did – and dedicate ourselves to the noblest of causes?

As one who believes that you don’t give up your ethnicity simply because you’re an American citizen, as one who believes that you cannot enjoy peace until your family is at peace, I come here today to tell you that there is no cause more noble for a Jew or a Muslim than to see that our peoples can live in peace in Israel and Palestine. Some think that can happen in one melting pot state, but we who have studied American history know the unique and often tragic circumstances that gave rise to a melting pot state on these shores. And the situation in Israel and Palestine is very different.

To me, the place that is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians will not know peace until Muslims come to love Israel as a Jewish state and Jews come to love Palestinian Nationalism. Right now, though, that is a vision few of us are willing to work for. But I ask you to think about think about it in the name of a God who commands us to create peace, in the name of our father Abraham who would have wished Isaac and Ishmael to live in peace, in the names of those great Americans who have taught us about war and peace, and in the name of family.

Jews and Muslims are not enemies. We are the closest of cousins. If there is anything I’ve learned as the coordinator of a Jewish-Islamic dialogue society, it is that.