Monday, April 20, 2009

A Conversation at the DMV, Israel Style. And the US Economy. Really.

Rena needs to transfer her driver’s license, so we drove up to Holon, one of the few places in the country where you can get your paperwork done. (The picture to the left is pretty much exactly what it looks like. Crowds. Long lines. I knew it would be an all-morning affair. I brought my laptop.) About an hour into the waiting a man sat down next to us and opened a conversation with, “So, what number are you?” We were 56, he was 68. They were up to 40. We had time for a talk.
He pulled out his papers, as he wanted to know whether I thought that the clerk would accept his paperwork. (No, I’m not sure why what I think matters either. “I hope I don’t get the religious clerk. She’s mean.”) It turned out that he only had a paper license without a photo ID. What happened to his regular license? They took it away when they convicted him of securities fraud before they deported him.
Throughout the entire conversation, he seemed unperturbed by his former profession. I didn’t get the whole story, but he apparently worked at a firm whose entire purpose was to steal from insurance companies and the like. “What – you pay your premiums your entire life, and then when you want to make a claim they don’t pay! That’s not stealing?” He had particular scorn for Bernie Madoff, who stole money from Jewish organizations, and organizations that gave money to Israel. But stealing from corporations? In his words, “Hey, הגונב מן הגנב פטור (one who steals from a thief is exempt [from repaying]), right?” (Actually, he’s not at all right. It turns out that this is a huge, well-known dispute among commentators on the Shulchan Aruch, and the Torah expressly forbids the act of stealing intentionally from anyone. But I digress.)
We got to talking about buying a new car, and how instead of paying 120% tax on our new car, we only had to pay 100% tax on it because of our rights as new olim. He was incredulous. “Hey, all these Jews from around the world want to move here, but they don’t because of the high taxes.”
I disagreed. To my mind, it’s all about the jobs – which brought me to his job. What would he do now that he was “out of work”? I suggested (probably naively) that he go into investment management for the Russian community. After all, I said, you speak Russian, (Georgian, he added), English, Hebrew. Plenty of immigrants need good advice. But this time you’ve got to be honest, I added just to make sure.
He didn’t think it was a good idea. “The yetzer hara is too great,” he said. “The money’s there for the taking. On Wall Street, you’re the criminal if you don’t take it.”
His honest explanation of his predicament – having been convicted of a white collar felony, spent time eating kosher food in a Federal prison in Pennsylvania, and deported to Israel (free flight!) – explains the mess of the American economy better than anything else I’ve heard so far.