Should 13-year-olds be hectored into charity?

I attended a Bat Mitzvah today. As is conventional for the Jewish tradition, the 13-year-old girl was encouraged to dedicate a major part of her life to helping the less fortunate and was in the middle of a project to assist some needy folks (collecting supplies for a local women’s shelter).

A variety of sources show that today’s 13-year-old will be, whether she wants to or not, spending her working years taking care of a lot more non-workers than her parents did. Here are some sources for the dependency ratio:

Furthermore, public employee pensions were not nearly as generous nor did public employees retire as early or live as long during her parents’ career-building years. Retiree health care costs were insignificant for governments.

If the girl is inevitably going to be paying heavy taxes to support retired public employees, interest on money borrowed for government deficit spending before she was born, interest on money borrowed to pay for wars that she wasn’t old enough to vote “yes” or “no” for (she’ll be paying for our Libya war, for example), etc., should we also try to guilt her into working extra hours to indulge in private charity? Suppose that she ends up paying 60 percent of her lifetime income in sales tax, property tax, income tax, gasoline tax, excise taxes, etc. And much of that will go so that others need not work. Can we say that she has done her share and the Jewish/Biblical obligations of charity have been fulfilled? If not, what if the government takes 70 percent of the fruits of her labor? Is there any amount that would relieve her of the obligation to engage in private charity?

[Separately, one of the guests at the event illustrated how challenging it might be for the young woman to carry her parents and grandparents, financially, on her shoulders. “We produce sheets for American retailers,” said the gray-haired New Yorker in a blue suit. “Everything was in South Carolina until about 15 years ago, but the unions made it impossible to deliver at the prices demanded by consumers. We were lucky because we were one of the first to move overseas, first to China, then Pakistan, and four years ago, when Pakistan became too chaotic, to India.” How many people did his operation employ in India? “We started working with a small company, with about 2400 people, but because of our orders they’ve grown to 27,000.” How many folks does his enterprise employ here in the U.S.? “Just one. You’re talking to him.”]

16 thoughts on “Should 13-year-olds be hectored into charity?

  1. Amen.

    The free market, with a rigorously restrained public sector, has been the greatest anti-poverty engine in the history of mankind. I really worry for my young teenage childrens’ future. We are the new European welfare state. Economic vibrancy, opportunity, and diversity are knocked back on their heels…What a loss. Most sad to me is the willingness of my fellow citizens to march down this path.

  2. The solution to your separate point is obvious: the US must declare US union worker benefits a universal human right (TM) and borrow more money from the chinese to go to war against countries that don’t enforce this universal human right; like Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and erm… well… China.

    It’s the only possible solution. I know I can’t think of any (cough tax and labor law reform /cough) other.

  3. It’s a little over a hundred years since the triangle shirtwaist factory fire. May I ask:

    Imagine a world with two countries. the US and Pakistan. Imagine the US has labor laws to protect workers from being locked into a factory with inadequate fire protection. And that Pakistan does not.

    1. Should we have free trade (no tariffs) with Pakistan regardless of any lack of labor protection?

    2. If we engage in free trade with Pakistan under those conditions, what can we expect to happen to the citizens in each country, and the labor laws and the markets and the costs and the wages? What will happen in the US to fire safety protection for workers?

    3. Traditionally, tariffs are used to protect an industry. Let’s make Japanese steel 20% pricier in order to protect Kaiser Steel. How do you feel about a tariff to equalize externalities of lack of OSHA?

    4. What happens in Pakistan and the US to the citizens, the laborers, the markets, the wages if the US imposes on Pakistan sheets an appropriate tariff UNTIL they implement some worker protection laws equivalent to those in the US?

    (Now generalize in a world where we have externalities for pollution, child labor, slave wages, carbon costs, and the occasional war for oil.)

    Some various positions to take might be, free markets for all.

    Self-claimed liberals like economist Brad DeLong who was a minor Clinton functionary helping to implement NAFTA believes we in the US have a moral obligation to help raise the living conditions of all citizens in Pakistan at the fastest rate possible, even if that means the US worker takes hits in terms of lower wages or even lower job protection laws. He is against “fair trade” tariffs.

    Paul Krugman is generally opposed to tariffs, but argues for a tariff against greenhouse gas producers.

    I believe that it would be a good thing to see the living conditions of all citizens of the world raised and that imposing “fair trade” tariffs to equalize the externalities of the conditions we believe are good and necessary for a well functioning, human compatible market (child labor laws, pollution laws, worker safety laws, …) would raise the living conditions of all citizens in the world, in the medium or long term, and would do so in (close to) a monotonically increasing manner. Meaning that any moral obligation we have to citizens in Pakistan is offset by our moral obligation not to let workers here be locked into factories and burned to death.

    It’s been a long time since that fire, and since the Jungle, but I am not ready to condemn unions and labor laws to the scrap heaps of history until you can provide reasons why we wouldn’t regress to those days.

    Difficulty: We all clamored to repeal Glass Steagall until the fat cats stole all our money and our politicians shoveled as much money as they could after that, so I am not sure I can buy just any old argument that we’re more enlightened now and that the Internet will protect the factory workers.


  4. Yes of course she should understand the obligation of charity or more precisely tzedakah whatever her tax burden. Taxes are involuntary. Teaching a child to give to those less fortunate should be instilled at a young age, initially even if it is imposed like many lessons of childhood that become habits later on. Note that tzedakah need not be monetary – there are plenty of other ways to help. Given this burden will be shared among all non-public workers, and that public workers will be ill prepared for inevitable loss of future benfits, there will be plenty of need for assistance.

    Remember that the tax burden of Solomon’s Temple ultimately split the country and led to the first Exodus. Where’s George Santayana?

  5. Ziv: I’m not sure if the girl in question is 12 or 13. As I do not attend her school I am in no danger of being “cool” enough to talk to. There were a lot of teenagers at the event and, in fact, none of them spoke to me (though some are my cousins).

    UPDATE: I talked to her mom and confirmed that she turned 13 last year.

    David: Taxes are involuntary for Americans under the age of 18, but for those over 18 can’t we say that we’ve voluntarily voted to have a paternalistic government that takes care of tens of millions of people at various levels? (We’re even “taking care” of some Libyans now, in a Sopranos kind of way.) This girl, simply by being part of the American tax base circa 2020-2070 (let’s assume she retires around age 70), simply by paying taxes, will be supporting more people than someone of my generation (born 1963) supported through a combination of taxes and a 10-15 percent of income voluntary donation. Traditional tzedakah requires a roughly 10 percent donation. A U.S. girl born around the year 2000 is almost sure to be contributing far more than 10 percent of her income to the needy (through taxes to support Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, pensions for disabled public employees (e.g., the 90 percent of Long Island Rail Road workers who become disabled ( ), direct aid to poor families, rent subsidies, etc.).

    Should she donate her time instead? Suppose that she is a very productive worker. Wouldn’t she help the needy more effectively by working additional hours and thereby paying additional taxes? She could donate her time to charity after she retires. Look at Bill Gates. He worked as hard as possible while he still had ideas for desktop software products. When he retired/ran out of ideas (don’t think it is worth calling Windows 7 an “idea”, unless the idea is “how can thousands of programmers spend ten years making something with almost exactly the same features as Windows XP”), he began spending his time on charitable projects.

  6. Jerry: I think that your idea of trying to tax undesirable externalities is an interesting one. A big challenge, however, would be how to evaluate conditions in countries where we don’t understand the language or culture. Also, we might find that we needed to tax American employers more than Mexican employers, for example. The Mexican employees can enjoy a great social life because they live in a small town around a plaza. Perhaps they commute to work by walking, cycling, or riding a bus. The American workers are isolated and depressed because they are isolated in their sprawled-out neighborhoods with no natural places to gather. They spend a lot of money and despoil the planet by driving gasoline-burning cars or SUVs into work every day. My biggest idea in is “Latin American-style towns for the U.S.”.

    So the Mexican worker might have a greater risk of on-the-job injury but a much happier life overall. How do we account for that? What if we find out that the places with the most inhuman conditions are right here in the U.S.?

    [And remember that I write as someone whose job (helicopter instructor/commercial pilot) is among the most dangerous in the U.S., at least. Should flight schools be taxed until they go out of business because their workers are at risk?]

  7. “Traditional tzedakah requires a roughly 10 percent donation.”

    It’s 10% AFTER the payment of taxes.

    See here =>

    “According to Jewish law, we are required to give one-tenth of our income to the poor. This is generally interpreted as one-tenth of our net income after payment of taxes. Taxes themselves do not fulfill our obligation to give tzedakah, even though a significant portion of tax revenues in America and many other countries are used to provide for the poor and needy. Those who are dependent on public assistance or living on the edge of subsistence may give less, but must still give to the extent they are able; however, no person should give so much that he would become a public burden.”

  8. Louis: Thanks for the link. Since I donate a lot of helicopter intro lessons to various charity auctions, I wonder if I can credit myself with the 8th level of tzedakah “Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant”? Can I modify it to “Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant in a Robinson R44 helicopter”?

  9. Yes, give yourself as much credit as you want for promoting self-reliance. Make Alisa Rosenbaum proud. We get it. Just be sure and pay your taxes too. And don’t count that tax payment as the Bat Mitzvah girl’s or your Tzedakah.

    To repeat:

    “Taxes themselves do not fulfill our obligation to give tzedakah, even though a significant portion of tax revenues in America and many other countries are used to provide for the poor and needy.”

    So, pay your taxes, enable the 8th level of Tzedakah and leave others with the understanding that the payment of taxes is not a part of one’s charitable obligations.

  10. Louis: Thanks. I do wonder if all of Jewish philosophy is applicable to the modern U.S., however. Maimonides, the last major Jewish philosopher, died in 1204 A.D., nearly 800 years before the modern Welfare State. So I don’t think it is a given that we can uncritically impose all of his philosophy on an American teenager today. Most Jewish thinkers did not claim that their writings were directly inspired by God, did they? So their writings aren’t like the Koran, which contains the actual words of God, and therefore must be as valid in 2011 as it was in 632 A.D. Maimonides was a working philosopher in a real-world society that differed in important ways from ours.

    [And that fact that I might have paid taxes from 1978-present or donated money to charity during that period should not necessarily justify me lecturing an American teenager today about her obligations; as noted in the original posting, the involuntary burden laid on her shoulders will be much larger than the involuntary burden that was laid on my shoulders.]

  11. A big part of it may be who is doing the hectoring. I’ll start collecting my free unlimited health care (Medicare) in 2028 and Social Security shortly afterwards. Let’s assume that payroll taxes to pay for these programs are 20 percent of income and that the current Bat Mitzvah girl will work 50 hours per week in order to support herself in 2028. So she’ll already be working 10 hours per week on my behalf. It would be one thing for one of her peers to exhort her to devote additional hours or funds to charity, but I don’t feel comfortable telling her “Your 10 hours/week aren’t enough; you need to do more for me.”

  12. Taxes are not charity. A financial transaction taking place with a gun to your head is not a gift, it is a robbery (or, if the person with the gun also has a case of business cards with the words “Department of the Treasury” on them, we call it a “tax”…but it’s still fundamentally a robbery).

    The duty of charity has nothing whatsoever to do with how much one pays in taxes. Indeed, the unconscionable level of taxation we face in this country is largely attributable to the number of people who have been deluded into thinking that it does.

  13. This is a problem of judaism in general that it is based on thoughts of thinkers who lived a looooong while ago. In contrast to, for instance, buddhism, which gets constantly updated and applied to realities of contemporary life (by Dalai Lama, for instance), judaism requires more and more witty contrivance and motivation to be applied in real life by real people.

  14. Ed, you’re simply not keeping up. There is plenty of ongoing discourse worldwide, in a regular attempt to bring jurisprudence to modern situations. Discussions and rulings cover a broad discourse from what is the definition of a Jew, to whether certain products are kosher, to which keyboards can be used on the Sabbath.

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