Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, Sodom, and Tzedakah in Yad Binyamin - Part 3

Part 3 of 3 - Continued from this post. (You can find part 1 here)

When I think about the Occupy Wall Street movement, I can't ignore their utter foolishness at failing to actually articulate a demand, but their weirdness shouldn't really be what determines whether they were right or not. The underlying facts must be brought to bear. They want less capitalism. Less "mine is mine and you should go get a job." They want more sharing. More communal pots - to support the poor, fund health care, whatever. Essentially, they'd like to move the bar away from total, "Mine is mine" to something somewhat more nuanced, where "Mine is still mine, but I should share a little more." I used to think that people like that were crazy. But I don't anymore, because of my house.

I bought my home in Oak Park, Michigan, which I still own, for a price of $215,000. (I write this because you can look it up on the Internet.) Yet today, my home is not worth nearly that much, as much as I'd love to hope that it is. When I finally sell my house, I will lose a significant amount of money, tens of thousands of dollars. Why will I lose all that money? Of course it's incredibly complicated, but many indications point to a small group of people working on Wall Street who took advantage of quirks in our financial system to enrich themselves, without any regard for the consequences of their actions. As long as they could earn a fee - and earn fees they did in great numbers - they encouraged banks to lend money to people who could never pay it back. And they bundled those loans to make them look more attractive than they actually were, because other people were willing to buy anything that would give them a slightly higher return. And they issued huge, risky insurance policies on those securities, without even wondering whether their firms (which were too big to fail) could cover, because they earned a fee for the policy. And the people borrowing all that money had no issue with taking out a mortgage they couldn't hope to repay because, hey, the banks are lending, so what could be bad?
Did anyone ever stop to ask: Who might get hurt from all this? Who will pick up the pieces if and when everything falls apart? What happens when the music stops? Do I have a moral obligation somewhere in this mess? No, they didn't, because they functioned in a system that says, "What's mine is mine. What's yours is yours. And what's yours is just not my problem."
Tragically, the people who have suffered the most from their self-centered narcissism are those who didn't borrow more than they could pay; who paid their mortgage each month, as they were supposed to do (and even paid back a little extra each month as well - don't I feel stupid!) Because the guy who borrowed three hundred thousand dollars more than he could afford never actually owned the home that he lost. But what about the people who paid off their homes but now can't sell them? They're up the creek, and it's not their fault.
Perhaps things have gotten out of whack. I've started to think that the role of government must be to reign in the innate human selfishness that plagues us all. Left unchecked, we worry only about ourselves, and give not a moment's thought about the ramifications of our actions. We legislate selfishness and self-preservation, to the point where execution of the charitable becomes the law of the land. Without intervention, "what's mine is mine" quickly morphs into Sodom, where millionaires walk away from the wreckage of their own doing whole, while the rest of the country pays for their misdeeds.

All of this brings me back to the tzedakah collector in shul. He was wrong. Limiting donations in order to prevent cheaters is a good practice, and encourages people to give to worthy causes. But any action that limits how much we give is dangerous. It smacks of Sodom, and demands that we act with care and caution, so that we don't somehow one day wake up and realize that with all of our good intentions, we've become our own worst nightmare.