Saturday, January 15, 2011

What I Have learned From Rabbi Michael Lerner

It might seem odd that I would look to a Rabbi for enlightenment. I'm not Jewish.

In fact, I'm part agnostic and part atheist, depending on how angry I am with the Religious Right at that particular moment. But Rabbi Lerner is a brilliant and compassionate man. He teaches a gospel of social justice, not hatred and arrogance. More Tommy Douglas than Charles McVety.

And I often turn to his book: The Left Hand of God, when looking for political direction. In it he tells of his days as a social change activist:
I had participated in sit-ins for civil rights, had organized teach-ins and demonstrations and nonviolent civil disobedience against the war in Vietnam, and had been involved in the early development of the environmental movement. Yet I felt uncomfortable with the way movements at times seemed more interested in proving their own righteousness than in finding ways to attract and build an American majority that supports peace and social justice. (1)
That's what I believe is necessary in this country if we want to turn things around. An alliance of all groups marginalized by the neoconservative movement. And our aim will be to remove the Harper government from office, by encouraging political dialogue, and above all getting people out to vote next election. It's our only chance.

Working From the Middle

Lerner relates how in the 1970s, he tried to convince his compatriots to link their movements "with a critique of the prevailing tax structure, which placed a huge burden on middle-income working people." And what he proposed was an initiative to shift more of the tax burden onto the rich.

And four decades later, many are now attempting to do just that. Neoconservatism has often been called 'the revolt of the rich', and they are winning to the detriment of the rest of us.

But understanding their motives and tactics, while important, are not enough. We also have to understand their ideology, and present compelling arguments against their misguided "logic".

William Gairdner is the Canadian William Kristol, and his book The Trouble With Canada, helped to shape the policies of our current government. In his revised edition: The Trouble With Canada ... Still, Gairdner attempts to justify allowing the corporate sector to dominate:
Fundamentally, all socialists are united in believing that present social arrangements are inegalitarian .... They will generally argue that the conditions of our lives are for the most part not of our own doing, that wealth tends to end up in the hands of too few, and therefore the State should play a strong and permanent role in redistributing it. (2)
Most neocons will go right to socialism as being the only opponent to their right-wing philosophy. I am not anti-capitalism, nor do I resent the riches of the wealthy. However, I feel that they should be paying their share and playing by the rules.

They forget that much of their success comes because they have been able to exploit our natural resources. And that public education has helped to give them a pool of employees, who all contribute to their success. And public healthcare, helping to reduce costly sick days.

It is in their best interest to contribute their fair share for the betterment of society. That is the problem with so many foreign takeovers. They have no vested interest in the Canadian community.

I would also challenge another point of Gairdner's:
They [socialists] are careful to ignore the fact that, with the exception of the very top level of earners, whom we reward handsomely for their expertise and for taking the risks they do, democratic-capitalist societies have a record for wealth distribution as good as or better than that of any socialist nation in history. Nor do they consider it important that the wealth created in democratic capitalism is freely exchanged between sellers and buyers, whether individual or corporate, and that it is individual consumers who gladly make certain people wealthy simply by eagerly purchasing what they have to offer. None of the people who made Oprah Winfrey, or Microsoft's Bill Gates, Celine Dion, or Lance Armstrong, or the shareholders of so many companies very wealthy did more than buy a book, some software, a concert ticket, a bicycle or any of a million other moderately priced things ... in very large numbers. (2)
I agree that we voluntarily provide them with our business, but we do it with the confidence that there are measures in place to make sure that they are not selling us products that are harmful to our health and safety. Using Gairdner's simplistic logic we should then allow free rein to con-artists who cheat seniors out of their life savings. I mean, after all, didn't that senior freely hand over their money? There are reasons for laws controlling good business practices.

But there is another factor that Gairdner ignores. In their book, The Trouble With Billionaires, Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks, tell the story of Michael Caine and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who opposed the plans of Britain's Labour government to raise the marginal tax rate on high-income earners from 40 to 50 percent.

Webber appealed to the public to reject what he characterized as a tax increase on those who create wealth: "The last thing we need is a Somali pirate-style raid on the few wealth creators who still dare to navigate Britain's gale-force waters." And Michael Caine "... echoed the outrage, threatening to leave Britain if taxes at the upper end went even one percentage point higher."

The suggestion is that the British government had no hand in their wealth creation, so why should they have to give up any of it? But this is a myth.

... the mythology that allows Caine, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and other big earners in the entertainment world to believe that their large incomes are simply the result of the exercise of their talents in the free market. Make no mistake about it: their good fortune has come about because of government intervention in the marketplace. And no, we are not talking about government subsidies for the arts, but rather something much more basic and enriching—the elaborate set of copyright laws that allow artists and performers to receive royalties for their creative efforts. Without these laws the movies Michael Caine appears in could be copied and sold to people all over the world, without Caine receiving a penny.

Under such a wide-open system, no movie production company would be willing to pay Michael Caine a huge wage for his performance, or much of a fee at all. (3)

So it was government intervention that enabled Caine to become rich, and yet he balks at paying for those services. The same would apply to others that Gairdner mentions, like Celine Dion and Bill Gates. If Gates couldn't register his product, and have that registration protected by law, anyone could legally pirate it, and we might now be asking "Bill who"?

Gairdner also mentions that many of the wealthy are rewarded "handsomely for their expertise and for taking the risks they do." But what happens when those risks blow up in their face? They are the first ones with their hands out looking for government "interference" in the name of bailouts.

Governments are not just there to protect and look after the poor, but also the rich. Eliminate safeguards and another collapse would mean the end of businesses like Goldman Sachs.

In the 1970's Lerner tried to convince his colleagues to advocate for fairer taxes on the working class, but they saw no need. They later regretted the decision, because the right-wing anti-tax movement steamrolled over everyone. But the only ones who really benefited were the wealthy, while the middle class stagnated. Yet they were the ones who were the backbone of the economy.
... I thought, this would be a moment when liberal and progressive forces could consolidate power, end the cold war, and devote America's massive resources to promoting social and economic justice. Unfortunately, though, some­thing different was happening beneath the surface, at least among middle-income Americans. I detected the first inkling of a major shift I away from the Democratic Party and the Left on the part of white working males—ironically, people whose economic interests were far better served by the Left than the Right. I was puzzled by this phenomenon. (3)
We need to get everyone committed to change, to work through the centre. The corporate sector and their political backers, will argue that they donate to charity, so are responsible citizens. But the wealthiest providing handouts to the poor, creates a slave state. Whereas labour movements and social activists, promote good jobs and benefits, and social services for those who are unable to work or have already paid their dues. Like seniors and veterans. And they fight against child poverty and homelessness, not suggest that they are poor because they are lazy.

Gairdner says:
This sad truth leads us to the conclusion that all forms of socialism are little more than vast parasitical schemes for the forced redistribution of the freely created wealth of some, to others deemed worthy, by the class of elites ministering the redistribution after taking their considerable commission.
Kinda' sounds like places like the Fraser Institute and the National Citizens Coalition who take enormous commissions to sell citizens on the notion that they need to feed the wealthy first.


I've debated Irving Kristol and William Gairdner in the same week. I'm pooped.


1. Where There is Room for Fear There is Room for Hope


1. The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right, By: Michael Lerner, Harper-Collins, 2006, ISBN: 978-0-06084247-5, Pg, 39-41

2. The Trouble With Canada ... Still, By: William D. Gairdner, Key Porter Books, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-55470-247-3, Pg. 118-119

3. The Trouble With Billionaires, By Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks, Viking Canada, 2010, ISBN: 978-670-06419-9, Pg. 15-18


  1. Take a nap, get some rest, and we'll read you in the morning.

  2. I have read some of Rabbi Lerner's stuff and it is quite good

  3. Yes. He writes of his spirituality, but focuses on social issues and how people can use their spirituality for the common good.