We’re all gonna die.
Some by COVID-19, some by fire, some by hurricanes, some by hunger brought on by drought. Many of us will die by missed medical procedures, many by the after effects of the collapse of our economies. Some will die this year, some will spend more time on this earth. Yet one constant remains: we are all going to die.
So how are we going to live? Judaism has at its core a fascinating instrument to remind us, year after year, of the tenuous nature of our existence on this earth: Yom Kippur. Unlike other faiths who push judgement day into the far future, the Jewish tradition is to contend with the moral and ethical impact of one’s actions on an annual basis. To think about how we live in the context of others, and whether our actions would be judged well or condemn us to punishment.
Whether you are religious or not, Jewish or not, I believe there is deep wisdom in an (at least) annual reminder that there is more to life than the daily grind and its financial remuneration. I also believe that there is no time like the present moment of upheaval to realize that we as a society put off our reckoning for far too long: how we value a person’s time.
In today’s world, the money one earns determines whether a person lives and dies. Valuing a person’s time, in essence and fact, has come to mean valuing a person’s life. As a society, we have allowed the gap in how we value humans to grow far too wide – and, with the economic crisis precipitated by COVID-19, the effects are hard to ignore. To take one example for this new year, as Robert Reich reminds us regularly on Twitter, “America’s billionaires grew their wealth by $970,000,000,000 since March 18 . That’s $5,300,546,448 a day.” The income gap in Israel is no less yawning, even as statistics are harder to come by. As millions of people with “knowledge working” jobs transition to working from home, hundreds of millions of ‘essential workers’ are forced under threat of poverty and death to head to work and risk their long term health.
To elucidate this number, let’s take one company and billionaire as an example: “Jeff Bezos could give every Amazon employee $105,000 and still be as rich as he was before the pandemic,” Reich calculates. Given that “Amazon’s median full-time U.S. employee made $36,640 in 2019,” the gap between what is and what could have been is especially stark. Especially since it could be argued that the warehouse workers of Amazon – who are on the lower part of that median – are currently keeping the rest of the world sane.
It would be easy to say that this is a shame and leave it with a tsk-tsk. The wisdom of Yom Kippur would remind us that guilt is collective as well as individual: each person is responsible for the actions one takes directly, and each person is also responsible for the actions one does not take.
In the case of Amazon and the other juggernauts of our global economy who prosper as the world burns, we the people bear responsibility for not demanding our representatives in government set moral standards for just distribution of earnings. It would be a mistake to categorize this moral requirement in the stark left/right political dynamics as yester-century. Legislating economic regulations for the long-term health of a collective is the job of government in even the most capitalist societies. Not intervening when unemployment is maintained in double digits and the health and well-being of society is threatened is both morally repugnant and bad for the long-term interests of the economy.
To elucidate the point using Amazon as the starkest example: nearly every reader of this article will be working from home; some of those readers will be working from home with children or other dependents needing their care throughout the day. Amazon of course has a class distinction between its workers: those essential workers who need to show up every day, 9 hours a day at least, to pack the boxes which meet the needs of the rest of us who work from home. Those essential workers also have children, also have dependents, who are alone, who do not have daycare, who will be irreparably harmed by the stresses put on them and their families because those workers cannot afford, like the rest of us who can work from home, to find flexibility in our arrangements to care for our loved ones.
Same with the nurses and doctors our lives literally depend on. The supermarket pickers and clerks. The delivery drivers. The public health officials. The sanitation workers.
Unless we change the way our economies regulate the employment of these essential workers, the harm this period will cause those workers and their dependents will be felt by our societies for decades if not generations to come. Education rates will plummet. Nutrition will be harmed. Domestic violence will rise. As will poverty rates, productivity, social disorder.
Those cynical enough to imagine that humans are inputs into a labor/capital equation may try to find a way to explain how this will be solved by a free market of labor. They will cough and excuse themselves when asked how investments in public education, public health, and sanitation affect the bottom line of those businesses they earn their keep from year after year.
There are many things we can do: we can legislate that, until COVID-19 comes under control, essential workers should be paid at least overtime rates and hazard pay. Or we could legislate a change in the workweek to encourage companies to hire 2 people for every formerly one-person role, cutting the hours of the workweek for essential workers to 20/week at the same level of full-time pay, enabling those workers to better care for their families. We can raise corporate taxes on companies with massive corporate profits – or just close loopholes – to encourage profiteers to redistribute earnings to their workers. We can fund life insurance for every essential worker so they do not need to fear the impact on their families if they were, god forbid, to succumb from being put in harm’s way. There are infinite ways for us to act morally as a society while encouraging free trade and enterprise. We just need the will.
Nowhere is this will needed more than in the State of Israel. As Times of Israel summarizes, the OECD reports that Israel is near the bottom in nearly every measure other than income inequality, and COVID-19 is making it even worse. Our people work harder, our children get less care and education, our environment is suffering, and our base expenses are too high. This isn’t an accident. It is a situation that needs mending.
Whether you observe Yom Kippur or not, let us take a moment to reflect upon our personal and collective responsibility for the way we permit profiteering in our economy. Let us remember that there are human beings essential to our lives who are suffering due to our inaction, and that the harm caused to them is not only tragic, it also has long term implications on our society as a whole. Let us remember that our actions matter, whether they are judged by a higher power or by the test of time. Let us find routes to action this year to change that we can change, so we can stand in judgement next year around this time and be found worthy.