Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Cliff’

THE SLIPPERY SLOPE

If a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, that first step often is the most difficult. So we go nowhere. Witness the fiscal cliff and gun violence. Why? We fear the unknown leading us down a slippery slope.

Fear of the slippery slope is ancient. Proverbs 2:12-15 warns against a series of actions actions culminating with following evil people. The Mishna (Pirke Avot 1:1) calls for building a fence around the Torah to prevent violations of the Law. For example, while Torah (Exodus 23:19 and 34:26, Deuteronomy 14:21) forbids boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, the Sages push the fence out by forbidding mixing any meat and dairy.

Recently, I mentioned to a friend means testing for Social Security. He dismissed discussing the idea. Tax the full Social Security benefit (85 percent now is taxable) instead, he said. What did he fear? Even mentioning reductions for upper-income retirees would cause fear of the slippery slope. Americans en masse would assume that everyone’s benefits eventually would be reduced.

That’s no way to create policy. Sure, you have to do the math to determine whether fully taxable benefits might sufficiently ease future pressure on Social Security versus cuts at the upper end. But let’s be honest. If benefits for recipients with incomes (tax-free included) of, say, $125,000 were lowered by 10 percent with a 15 percent cut for people with incomes of $200,000 and above, those folks’ lifestyles wouldn’t suffer. Meanwhile, people who must survive on Social Security would retain their full benefits and could count on them in the future.

Discussions about gun violence produce the same illogic. Ban AR-15 military-style weapons, according to the National Rifle Association, and Washington will ban all guns. Thus Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, stated this morning that armed guards should be posted in all schools. Which leaves assault rifles unaddressed until attempts are made at mass murder. So let’s get serious. Many people hunt. Their weapons should not be confiscated. Others want to protect their homes. Fine—if they’re properly licensed and thoroughly trained. And they understand the risks Nicholas Kristoff pointed out in yesterday’s New York Times.

But whatever your opinion, it’s nonsense to withhold rational discussion so we can separate fact from fiction and find a gun policy that makes more sense—even if it’s not perfect—than the one we have now.

The problem is that many people equate putting everything on the table with accepting everything on the table. So they refuse to talk at all. If you’ve ever been involved with a group trying to solve a problem, you know that the first rule is to consider all suggestions. Censorship, other- or self-directed, greatly limits finding good solutions.

What now? We’ll likely find ourselves suffering from paralysis yet again. And that’s what demagogues love. They stir up fears of the slippery slope to obstruct—and chase political payoffs at the nation’s expense. When Proverbs 2:15 warns against “Men whose paths are crooked / And who are devious in their course,” we should take notice. Because what’s really scary isn’t the slippery slope. It’s slippery people.

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Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

HUMILITY

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey just won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. (The Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera won the AL MVP.) I hope neither tells the world, “I’m humbled.” Baseball players often say that, given the game’s roots in small-town America where seemingly no one can be humble enough. But I’m rankled by false humility and the inability to offer a gracious thank you. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing.

I’m taking a class on Mussar (ethics or soul-traits) with Rabbi Larry Raphael at Congregation Sherith Israel. We’re reading Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar by Alan Morinis. From a Jewish perspective, humility doesn’t mean denying one’s worth but rather acknowledging it without inflating it. Morinis graphs the teachings of Maimonides in which humility runs on a scale from self-debasement (“I’m not worthy”) to arrogance (“I am the greatest.”) Writes Morinis, “Proper humility means having the right relationship to self, giving self neither too big nor too small a role in your life.”

Recently, we’ve seen humility practiced and also abandoned. Republicans thought that Mitt Romney would be a shoo-in to win the presidency. We know how that went. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie showed humility by complimenting Federal relief efforts and President Obama. He also wisely instituted alternate-day gas rationing. In New York City, according to The New York Times (11-9-12), Mayor Michael Bloomberg considered rationing “and also mused in the Sunday meeting that perhaps the best option was to simply allow the free market to dictate how people would find gas.” Days later, the hubris of free markets having failed, Mayor Bloomberg instituted rationing. The situation improved immediately.

Recent geopolitical events also have demonstrated a lack of humility—and disastrously so. The George W. Bush administration believed that the United States could assert its will anywhere—even in the treacherous Middle East. It provided us with debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. So did our generals, according to Thomas E. Ricks (“General Failure”) in the November Atlantic Monthly. Ricks states that American generals, particularly after World War Two, increasingly have let a lack of humility keep them from developing more informed and nuanced understandings of the wars they led and the broader, long-term implications of their decisions.

Now we approach the Fiscal Cliff. If President Obama and Congress believe they have solutions to America’s sluggish economic growth and burdensome deficit, that’s good. Problem solving requires healthy egos. Who would vote for a candidate who says, “I have no clue but give me your vote anyway”? On the other hand, real humility dictates that we learn from others and that while we have thought through our positions, we may have overlooked other options along the way.

Hopefully the President and Congress will agree on sound policy decisions in the coming weeks. If so, the culture of politics is not likely to lead them to say, “I’m humbled.” But if uncompromising partisanship leads us over the cliff the American people will rightly say, “You have a lot to be humble about.” And just maybe, voters will do something about it in 2014.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.