Sunday, February 19, 2012

D'var Torah: Money in Politics

A d'var Torah I wrote for Open Scroll, Hillel's weekly parsha sheet, on parshat Yitro:

At the beginning of last week’s Torah portion, Moses is acting as the judge for all the Israelites. All day, the people bring their disputes before him, and he rules on them according to the laws God has given him. This is exhausting both for him and for the people who must wait for his ruling, and Moses’ father-in-law tells him that this can’t go on. Instead, he should delegate the tasks out to other judges, and limit himself to ruling on only the most difficult cases. These lower judges, Moses’ father-in-law explains, should be “men of substance, God fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain”.

Ignoring for a moment the sexism inherent in the idea that only men should be judges, most of these prescriptions seem like obvious qualifications for a judge. A judge must be fair and honest, an upstanding person who values God’s law. However, there is a seeming contradiction here: Rashi explains that “men of substance” means “wealthy men”, yet the Torah also specifies that the judges must be men who “hate monetary gain”. What does it mean to say that a judge must be both wealthy and uninterested in making money?

This is not merely an intellectual question. In the modern day, money is an enormous factor in who becomes a leader in our country. Although we’ve moved past the times when only those rich enough to own land could vote, the wealthy still have a disproportionate political influence. The average member of Congress is far wealthier than the average American citizen, and many politicians and bureaucrats move seamlessly between the public service of governing and the lucrative business of lobbying the government on behalf of the wealthy industries they were so recently responsible for regulating. Moreover, with lax campaign finance laws, donors can give unlimited, anonymous funds to super PACs, which flood television stations with ads for one candidate or against another, while claiming not to be “coordinating” with any particular candidate’s campaign. All the current candidates for president have super PACs that are not-so-secretly working to support them.

As political candidates increasingly find their support coming from the wealthy, they have an ever-stronger incentive to pass laws that favor them. Increasingly, we hear rhetoric from politicians about how it is wrong to “punish” the wealthy for their success by raising their taxes. The assumption behind this statement is that those who are wealthy worked hard to get there and thus deserve the money they’ve made — an assumption that stems from the cultural idiom of the “American dream”. Yet if we continue to craft policy that disproportionally favors the wealthy, this promise of class mobility will grow even dimmer than it already has.

What does this Torah portion tell us about the current political climate? At first, it might suggest that it is proper for the wealthy to be in power. Yet Rashi explains that the reason for requiring a judge to be wealthy was to reduce the incentive for him to accept bribes or flattery — in other words, to reduce conflicts of interest. Having wealthy donors as the main source of funding for candidates achieves exactly the opposite effect, encouraging our political leaders to be biased in their choices. In addition, the current enormous influence of lobbyists and the revolving door between politics and lobbying demonstrates that our politicians hardly “hate monetary gain”.

The message of this parsha is clear — if governance is to be fair, it must be uninfluenced by outside money. In biblical times, the best way to achieve this may have been to have leaders that were independently wealthy. In modern times, however, there are ways of achieving the same goals without limiting public office to the already-rich: public campaign financing, a ban on gifts from lobbyists, and a law preventing congresspeople and other federal employees from lobbying for the industries they once regulated after they leave office. By enacting these policies, we will come much closer to ensuring that our leaders are as the Torah demands: honest, just, and unbiased.

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