I’m not going to get into the pissing contest between James Taranto and Nicholas Kristof over whether empathy will solve our social problems. I didn’t read Mr. Kristof’s lament for a high school acquaintance of his whom he apparently calls a victim of “inequality and a lack of good jobs” but I did read Mr. Taranto’s column reacting to it. Here’s a snippet:
Yet Kristof’s account of his friend’s life makes some good points on behalf of the straw men [ed. those lacking in empathy]. Green did make a series of bad choices, including fathering children out of wedlock: “He fell in love and had twin boys that he doted on. But because he and his girlfriend struggled financially, they never married.”
When he lost his job because of a back injury, the girlfriend took the kids and left him. That’s when he let his health go: “Kevin’s weight ballooned to 350 pounds, and he developed diabetes and had a couple of heart attacks,” Kristof reports. “He grew marijuana and self-medicated with it, [Green’s brother] Clayton says, and was arrested for drug offenses.”
Even Clayton Green lends his support to conservative arguments about the baneful incentives of welfare: “Disability [benefits] helped Kevin by providing a monthly check that he desperately needed, but it also hurt him because he might have looked harder for a job if he hadn’t been getting those checks, Clayton says.”
When I did I thought of Luke 21:1-4:
And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, 2 and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. 3 So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; 4 for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God,[a] but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”
That in turn made me think of Maimonides’s Ladder of charitable giving:
The greatest level, above which there is no other, is to strengthen the name of another Jew by giving him a present or loan, or making a partnership with him, or finding him a job in order to strengthen his hand until he needs no longer beg from people.
Below this is the one who gives tzedaka to the poor, but does not know to whom he gives, nor does the recipient know his benefactor. For this is performing a mitzvah for the sake of Heaven.
Below this is one who knows to whom he gives, but the recipient does not know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to walk about in secret and put coins into the doors of the poor.
Below this is one who gives to the poor person before being asked.
Below this is one who gives to the poor person after being asked.
Below this is one who gives to the poor person gladly and with a smile.
Below this is one who gives to the poor person unwillingly.
Giving to the poor via your tax dollars is the lowest level. The millions of words devoted to the tax code and tax regulations should make us confident that taxation is not strictly willing. Even those who believe in the causes supported by tax dollars, like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, only pay as much as they must by their own admissions.
The other question that occurred to me was are we really employing fewer cement finishers (the craft at which Mr. Kristof notes that his acquaintance’s father earned a decent living) than we did a generation ago? Or have we imported millions of people who want to be cement finishers?
The reason given for importing these people that is frequently given is compassion. Compassion, apparently, is a double-edged weapon.
I think that if we are to have a just and compassionate society we’ll need to come to the realization that some people’s highest and best employment is as a neurosurgeon while others will be farmers, cement finishers, or day laborers. This is not Lake Wobegone. All of the children are not above average. Some accommodation must be made among market economics, compassion, and human nature and we are far from that accommodation.