Reviewing the story of Joseph prior to our Torah class, I’m reminded by my cousin Marty that the state’s current budget crisis is hardly unprecedented. Just like Egypt during the time of Joseph, Oregon is “merely” having to adjust to an economic drought following several prosperous years.
However, that’s where the similarity ends, according to Marty. Had Joseph (who created a rainy-day fund to save Egypt during its hard times) been running the show in Salem, there’d be no talk now about “that ill-advised January ballot measure” to increase income taxes.
“But Marty, if Ballot Measure 28 fails, deep cuts in human services, education and public safety will take effect the very next day,” I say on our way to the rabbi’s class.
“You’re only looking at the revenue side of the equation while totally ignoring the spending side,” Marty replies. “The best analogy I’ve heard for our state budget is that it’s like an inflatable boat with air leaks – you know, inefficient and ineffective programs that waste taxpayer dollars. Now you’ve got this income tax surcharge, which is akin to a huge pump that’s just going to keep pumping more air in while the boat continues to leak. That’s pointless. We need Joseph’s wisdom – we need to fix the boat.”
“Yes, and apparently you think it would be easier to fix the boat if first you throw off all the low-income seniors and disabled adults – without life preservers!” I say. “Of course, it could be that the boat is ‘leaking’ because it’s too small to accommodate all those additional people who’ve fallen on hard economic times. Instead of fixing it, perhaps what we really need is a bigger boat.”
“That sort of thinking will make things even worse for those who are just trying to make ends meet,” Marty insists. “Look, didn’t you ever take a college economics class? If you did, you’d know that the worst thing government could do during a recession is to increase taxes. It’s certainly not the Jewish way. I mean, what greater hardship could there be than taking money out of poor Joe Shmoe’s pocket when he’s struggling to feed his three children?”
“Forcing Joe Shmoe to pay for a month of child care in May due to a shortened school year comes to mind,” I reply. “Besides, Marty, the majority of Oregonians – the poorest 60 percent – will see their taxes go up less than $3 a month on average, and over half of our seniors won’t pay an extra dime. I’d say that’s in line with the Torah’s values, wouldn’t you?”
“Well, if you’re searching for a Torah portion that’s relevant to this issue, then this is the week,” Marty says. “After all, what did Joseph do? He convinced Pharaoh to collect a fifth of the grain harvested by the people during the seven years of plenty in order to tide Egypt over during the seven drought-ridden years that followed. Now, what does this teach us?”
“That Pharaoh was able to raise taxes without having to call his advisors and magicians into a special session?” I reply.
“Don’t be so dense,” Marty snaps. “It tells us that by imposing fiscal discipline, we should always be able to live within our means.”
“Alternatively, it warns us that if we don’t act prudently today, we won’t be able to avert costly problems later on,” I say. “So if today we cut programs serving thousands of frail elderly, tomorrow we’ll be faced with rising hospital costs and more expensive emergency-room services. If today we eliminate psychiatric services for abused or neglected kids, we’ll pay for it tomorrow when those kids turn up in the criminal justice system.”
“Nobody’s suggesting we shouldn’t help people in need, but why is throwing money at the problem always the solution?” Marty asks. “This proclivity toward tax-and-spend liberalism that permeates the thinking of the organized Jewish community – I swear it’s going to drive me to drink!”
“Given the reduction in residential alcohol treatment services that’ll occur if Measure 28 fails, I suggest you find a different outlet for your frustration,” I reply.
“Measure 28 isn’t going to solve our budget problems,” Marty persists. “As long as there’s uncontrolled spending, we’re going to continue facing deficits year after year. So are we just going to keep raising personal, not to mention corporate, taxes? How will we ever lure new businesses to Oregon?”
“I see your point,” I say. “No doubt, we’ll look much more attractive to businesses with the shortest public school year in the country, the highest college tuition, a growing number of children without health care, and the number one ranking in hunger. I can just see our new motto: ‘Come to Oregon: the only state west of the Mississippi to resemble Mississippi.’”
“If we’re going to right this ship, we need fiscal conservatism and ingenuity, not new taxes,” Marty says. “Those were Joseph’s strengths, and it’s because of him that Egypt ended up with storehouses full of grain even during the famine. Imagine that famous scene-long lines of famished people from all over the region coming to Joseph, the one-time slave, for food.”
“I don’t need to imagine it, Marty,” I say as we finally arrive. “If Measure 28 fails, I’ll just go down to the local food bank the next day and witness the scene firsthand.”
This “CenterPoints” column from the Oregon Center for Public Policy was written by Bob Horenstein, Community Relations Director, Jewish Federation of Portland, and is re-distributed with permission from the Federation and their newspaper, the Jewish Review, where it first appeared.