Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Artfully Sheltering" Your Money

The lead article on page one of the New York Times today (Nov 27, 2011) concerned the "Artfully Sheltered" wealth of Ronald S. Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder fortune.  The piece goes on to describe Mr. Lauder's "shrewd use of the United States tax code" to shelter his substantial income.  Many examples are listed.  Lauder is criticized for generating charitable deductions (which support many worthy enterprises) as just one "facet of a sophisticated tax strategy used to preserve a fortune...."  He is said to have been involved in a "tax-sheltering stock deal so audacious that Congress later enacted a law forbidding the tactic."

What is the message here - the lead story in the Sunday New York Times?  Are readers to find Lauder's financial "shenanigans" intolerable, and regard him as nothing more than an execrable member of the "1%."  What has Lauder done?  Has he broken a law?  Has he been too meager with his benevolent financial assistance?  Has he bilked naive investors of money?  Has he run a Ponzi scheme?  Has he been nefarious in not publicly calling for the elimination of tax loopholes? 

Ronald Lauder is no crook.  The article cites no illegalities.  His actions are the actions just about every one of us would take.  We are all "guilty" of using  loopholes as methods to limit our taxes.  Most of us would opt for ourselves before we opt for the "greater good."  Most all of us are dedicated to preserving our fortunes for ourselves and for our heirs.  When our tax preparers advise us of legal ways to preserve income, we jump at them - gleefully embracing legal tax havens!

Rather than making Lauder seem like the "bad guy," the Times should have emphasized who the real bad guys are - Congress.  Lauder and his wealthy cohorts did not write the tax codes.  Lauder is doing what every red-blooded American seems to do - finding legal ways to preserve his wealth.  If we want Lauder, etc. to start paying more taxes, it is up to us to close those tax gaps!  If we don't want wealth to be perpetuated for fear of advancing a plutocracy, perhaps we should eliminate the ease with which this is accomplished.  "Occupy Wall Street" should be "Occupy Washington" (with the appropriate acronym "Ow!")

It is wrong to crucify the wealthy for legally-acquired wealth.  It is wrong to crucify the wealthy for  attempts to legally retain and pass on their wealth.  We would all do the same.  It is we, the people - the "99%" and the "1%" - who bear the responsibility to change a system we feel is not equitable - and to do so thoughtfully and legally

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Israel - A State or a "Jewish" State

"His Majesty's Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people  and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

These are the words of the 1917 Balfour Declaration.  "Jewish Homeland in Palestine" was also the term used in the original 1897 Zionist Declaration at Basel.

Does "Jewish Homeland in Palestine" imply a "Jewish State?"  Should Israel be regarded as "The State of Israel" or "The Jewish State of Israel?"  A series of articles in the current issue of Foreign Affairs addresses this issue.

With a significant growth in Israeli Jewish ethnocentrism,  questions have been raised as to how non-Jewish Israelis could not be considered as "second class" in a Jewish State.   Is it not difficult for  such a citizen to relate to the strikingly Jewish symbols of the Israeli state - its flag, its seal, its national anthem?  Is it possible for a Jewish state to be governed by a non-Jewish prime minister?  Is it possible for a future Jewish state to have, a citizenry which is only 50% ethnically Jewish?  (It is now less than 80% Jewish.)  It was interesting to read that neither Jordan nor Egypt, though recognizing Israel, acknowledges Israel as a Jewish state.

To us Jews Israel is unique and our relationship to Israel is unique.  Many Jews (if not most) draw a very thin line, or perhaps no line at all, between Israel and Judaism.  We are ethnically and historically and religiously forever joined at the hip!  I can think of no other extant 5000-year-old people-land connection.  As Jews, in our hearts, Israel is and always will be The Jewish State!

But that's us.  And we are not the world!

When I was a boy Christmas was celebrated in my public elementary school every year.  I learned all the carols which were to be sung at "assemblies."  Jewish holidays were unrecognized and, for the most part, unfamiliar to our teachers.  Weekly "assemblies" started with a hymn (Abide With Me) or The Lord's Prayer (which, of course, I still can sing and recite.)  I can't say that it bothered me very much at the time, but it certainly made me regard my standing as very different from that of the overwhelming majority of my fellow students.  They were part of the "real America," whereas I was a member of a sort of "subset of America." Things are clearly quite different today.  P.S. 22 of 1945 is not P.S. 22 of 2011!  Though "Christian" is a very important concept in the history of the United States, the exclusive teaching of Christian customs and liturgy is no longer permitted.

Right or wrong, the terms  "Jewish State," "Muslim State," "Christian Republic," or "Buddhist Republic" - even "Gallic State" or "Anglo-Saxon State" - imply an ethnic or religious affiliation contained within that "state" associating it with a particular religion or ethnic identity which may be incompatible with the views of a significant minority of its citizenry.

Thinking objectively (not easy) it may prove more constructive if ethnic and/or religious references were omitted from the names and identities of states, since such recognition would tend to promote exclusivity on the one hand, and exclusion on the other.  History is replete with nation-states, but the concept of a true nation-state is very questionable today.  I strongly believe in Israel as the home of the Jewish people and as a state that should be culturally and historically Jewish.  But, perhaps illogically, to include the subtitle "The Jewish State" is somewhat difficult to accept.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Abortion - The Ineffective Pro-Choice Arguments

The abortion wars continue.  A recent article in the respected New England Journal of Medicine addresses the issue of "The Supply Side Economics of Abortion."  It points out that attempts to limit pregnancy terminations are now being accomplished by making it more difficult for such facilities to set up shop (the supply side.)  Up to now, difficulties in obtaining abortions were effected primarily on the "demand side," - waiting periods, parental consent, counseling, etc.  Regulations, citing safety issues, are now mandating space requirements for abortion clinics that make it far more expensive to construct them.  Additionally, a number of states (Missouri, Virginia, Arizona) are requiring facilities performing abortions to update to "hospital status," or that the carrying out of abortions be restricted to physicians only.  (In many facilities they are performed by fully qualified nurse practitioners or physician-assistants.)  These are the "supply side" issues discussed.

Yes, attempts to restrict or eliminate abortion continue - and always will.  Yes abortion has always been with us, and will most likely continue to be with us in the future.  But be sure to understand the motivation of "pro-lifers."  Realize that no argument exists that will budge them from their point of view - their belief in what constitutes a human life.  Arguments - that abortion, legal or not, will always be part of our civilization, or that an increase in "back room" abortions will result in an increase in significant morbidity and mortality, or that giving birth to "unwanted" children will only result in a greater number of ill-cared for and abandoned children - are destined to fall on deaf ears.  Justifying the procedure as being a woman's prerogative will not work.  As a nine-month old fetus is hardly considered merely a part of the mother's body, so, too, the newly created product of conception.

The conviction that the preservation of innocent life is a moral imperative will eternally close the mind of the believer to such arguments.  No true believer will ever consent to the "murder" of a human being in order to accomplish, or in order to prevent, any foreseeable incident.  One does not "kill" a human being that was created as a result of rape or incest. One does not "kill" a human being because it may be economically advantageous, etc.  It is important to always remember that to a "pro-lifer" a product of conception exists as a human being (has the same DNA) from the moment of fertilization to birth, infancy and beyond.  This moral imperative is permanently moored in the "pro-lifer."

Those of us who are pro-choice must invariably stay aware of the powerlessness of our arguments.