Monday, January 08, 2007

Tradeoffs (Part II)

There is a very simple rule in life -- there is nothing that is ever truly free. Everything that we do comes at the cost of something else. This is known, in economics, as opportunity cost. If I decide to spend $100 on an MP3 player, I'm not only incurring the cost of the player (the $100), but I'm also incurring the opportunity cost in that I am losing the opportunity to do something else with the $100. In other words, I'm making the tradeoff in that in exchange for the MP3 player, I'm forgoing the opportunity to buy new pair of sneakers, lend the money to a friend, give it to charity or invest it in the stock market.

The idea of opportunity cost doesn't only apply to things that have a monetary value: If I spend time reading a book, then I can't use that same time to learn Torah, watch a TV program, blog or fix my bicycle. By spending the time reading, I am incurring the opportunity cost of the other things that I could be doing in that time, since I cannot read *and* fix my bicycle at the same time. (Even if I *could* do both at the same time, the same rule applies -- unless I can do an infinite number of things at the same time, I can only do n things at any one time. By reading, I'm using one of those "channels" and now I can only do n-1 things, and so on.)

The idea of opportuntiy costs applies to just about any finite resource that a person or community may have - time, land, money, etc. We all, individually and communally, make opportunity cost decisions every day, whether we know it or not: where, when and how to build public facilities (is it a better use of land to build an airport or a school?), which public policies should be persued (should we make infant seats mandatory on flights?), where resources should be allocated (do we need more teachers or more policemen this year?), what we eat (ice cream may taste better, but will it give me the nutrition I need and keep me healthy?), what we wear (I'll look a lot more professional if I wear a suit to work every day -- but can I afford to have it dry cleaned constantly?) and how we spend our time (should I excercise, or write this blog post -- well, we know the answer to that one.)

Communal decisions regarding opportunity cost have to be made on a basis that will further the community's goals. Those options that bring the community closer to what it wants to achieve are the options that should be persued. A community that desperately needs a hospital must make decisions that bring it closer to a hospital being built. If the hospital was the only goal of the community, they'd confiscate the land and building materials, conscript the residents into forced labor and have the hospital built in no time. Since communities have *other* goals as well (including the preservation of the rights of private property and freedom from slavery), the community has to decide how to achieve both goals of having the hospital built and respecting people's rights to the greatest degree possible. The result would probably be some combination of taxes, eminent domain purchases and hired labor. In other words, the community has to make a tradeoff between the need for a hospital and its desire to preserve the rights of its citizens. Of course, if the community had an infinte supply of land, building material, money or labor, then the tradeoffs would not need to occur. However, we generally don't have an infinte supply of any single resource, let alone everything.

Much has been written about the recent decision in Israel of the rabbinic authorities to disband educational opportunities for women. Some have hailed it as a blow for Torah-true values, others have lamented that it is a mistaken over-reaction to a minor problem and yet others have made the accusation that this decision is a misogynistic attempt to keep women uneducated and dependent upon men. I'm not going to discuss that aspect of the decision - I don't think that there is anything new that I can contribute to the discussion on that count. What I would like to discuss, however, are the costs involved in making such a decision.

As with any communal decision, the first thing that has to be determined are the community's goals. A facility dedicated to the treatment of polio may be a great idea in a community in India, but would be a terrible misuse of resources in New York. In other words, the priorities of one community are not the same as the priorities of a different community.

So, what are the priorities of the chareidi communities in Israel? Well, to be honest, not being a chareidi and not living in Israel, I have to guess based upon my knowledge of chareidim and Israel. However, I'm fairly certain that we can all agree that the main (but not sole) priority of the chareidi community in Israel is to live a life in accordance with the Torah (as they understand it) - which is fine and well - if that's the decision that they want to make, it's their right to make it. However, any decisions that are made in accordence with those priorities have to take into account opportunity costs. It's opporutinty costs that prevent us from setting up communities where everyone (and I mean *everyone*) learns Torah every day and does nothing else. After all, if *everyone* learned, we'd be forgoing the other necessities of life - buying food, securing shelter, etc.). So, any decision that increases the amount of Torah being learnt must be balanced against the resources that are being taken away from other necessities. If everyone learns, then there are no bakers to make the bread. If everyone learns, there are no plumbers to fix the toilets, etc.

Of course, here in the modern world, our communities are not isolated. We can always open up the yellow pages and call a plumber from the non-learning (or non-Jewish) community. We can hire construction workers from outside the community to build our houses, and so on - and that's the way the modern world works. I don't have to spend time studying plumbing manuals when my toilet backs up - I pay someone to study the manuals and fix the problem for me. I don't have to study how to bake bread (although eeees does a wonderful job of making challah) because I can hire someone else to learn how to bake my bread for me.

All of this hiring, however, takes money. Unless a community is completely self-sufficient, it will need to spend resources (including time) procuring needs that it cannot generate for itself. Many of the needs of the chareidi community are the same as those of other communities in the world - food, clothing, shelter, child care, skilled labor, etc. Since the chareidi community is not self-sufficient, money (or barter - which requires a surplus of some tradeable resource) is required to bring in the needs that are necessary. Since the community has decided that it is a priority that as many men as possible learn Torah full-time, it generally falls on the women to earn the income that is necessary to bring in the goods and services that the community needs to survive.

We all know that more education generally equals a higher income. For example, at one time, I was working as a customer service representative earning about $23,000 per year. I decided to invest about $5,000 and some time and effort into learning new skills, which provided me with the opportunity to greatly increase my earning potential. Of course, I recognize that it's not all kochi v'otzem yadi (by my own efforts) - God certainly had (and continues to have) a hand in helping me maximize my earning potential. But the fact remains that there is a direct link between education and income potential. This has been proven over and over again.

Another thing that we all know is that poverty is a Bad Thing. Poverty has many deleterious effects on communities from health to marital harmony. Tevye may have reminded us that it's no shame to be poor, but it can be harmful. People in the throes of poverty have worse health care and nutrition. *

It would behoove the chareidi community, to try to maximize the earning potential of earners in the society. Why? Well, there are several reasons - the first of which is to try to escape poverty. Every family that is below the poverty line is a family that is more open to a host of problems than a family that is above the poverty line. Another reason is that having some families higher above the poverty line will allow them to help other families that are below the poverty line. A third reason is that having disposable income will allow them to set up a communal infrastructure with whatever they might want and/or need - tzedaka organizations, gemachs, Hatzoloh units, educational facilities, etc. In short, having families exist at (or even just above) the poverty line with little chance to move above it retards the growth and health of the community.

Of course, one has to balance that with the other side of the equation. As Rav Elyashiv is quoted as saying "all manner of heresy can creep into those programs." Well, I suppose it depends on the type of program - I can't see much heresy creeping into a C++ course; but nonetheless, if one of the priorities of the community is keeping out heresy (however it is defined by the community), then that must be taken into consideration.

To take an absolutist position, that heresy is bad and cannot be countenanced under any and all circumstances is clearly not the position that the community takes - after all, there are chareidim that do become doctors - and to become a doctor you have to attend a university where you are likely to encounter a lot more "heresy" than you would find in a women's teaching program, and these chareidi doctors aren't ostracized and shunned - on the contrary, they are usually honored members of the community. So, it is fairly obvious that "heresy" is tolerated to some degree - a tradeoff in exchange for having doctors and other professionals in the community.

However, the number of chareidi doctors is generally small. Since there is much societal pressure to remain in the beis medrash all day, many who would otherwise be skilled doctors, dentists, etc., do not become so (another tradeoff the community makes). Chareidi doctors are the exception, not the rule.

The question that must be asked is this: is it worth dragging more of the community into poverty to enforce a "no heresy" rule? By eliminating job-skill developing programs, the community is limiting the earning potential of the main breadwinners in the community. How much poverty is acceptable in order to keep heretical teachings from being taught? Or, to put it another way, how much exposure to possible heresy should be allowed to give families the opportunity to economically better themselves? Obviously, then answer isn't an absolute zero - otherwise they'd forbid anyone to come into contact with anyone outside the community where possible heretical ideas could be communicated. On the other hand, as evidenced by this latest ruling and the community's ideas regarding higher education, the answer isn't absolutely in the other direction.

So, where does the boundary lie? Where do you make that tradeoff? Where can you say "ad kahn" (until here)? And at what point does the price of keeping out possible heresy become so high that the vibrancy of the community and the physical, material and emotional health of its individual members are threatened? Is the price of the new ruling too high? In my opinion it is -- but then again, I'm not a member of the community.

Ultimately, we'll see in the coming years what the community thinks. It will either sink, adapt or flout rabbinic authority. Either the community will become economically insolvent and unable to sustain itself, it will change it's model (i.e. rabbinic rulings will change), or else women will contunie to go to educational programs even if they don't have the rabbinical seal of approval.

The Wolf

*Yes, of course rich people have medical problems and educated people are poor. But as a rule, the rich are better off health wise and the educated do have higher earning capabilities.


Anonymous said...

Fair enough economic analysis. Problem is that there's an external agent here - a whole group of people who work and donate money to these chareidi communities. It is these communities that tell us that learning to the exclusion of all other activities is prioritised over earning. So we are made to feel the lesser for balancing our learning and earning, while keeping the great chareidi experiment afloat... (let's recognise that in its current form, chareidi Judaism is a very recent phenomenon)

BrooklynWolf said...

Very true, Meir. There are outside contributors - and that does help keep the community solvent. Will they be able to increase the outside contributions to offset the lowered earnings that this ruling will create? And will this ruling create more donors or less? Those questions need to be considered as well.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

Very long post Wolf!
IMHO the Israeli system is due for a major correction, like you have in over-inflated financial markets. There will be a crash and I pray that many will not be hurt.

While in this instance there may be a good justification for the ban (the Deah Vdibur site had a good explanation), you are right it contributes to the overall economic problem. It's just another straw which will eventually break the camel's back. I don't view this one issue as having major economic consequeces. And I don't think anyone can honestly claim it does. The outrage on the 'net is mostly over the issue of women's higher education, which in general I support. I think the economic issue is a minor one being used by many bloggers (not you) to argue the bigger issue.

baal teshuvah guy said...

I think it's crazy that these charedi learn Torah all day long and that the women are the primary breadwinners. The men should learn a bit each day, a bit more on Shabbos, get a real job and the women should take care of the children.

I believe in the Torah it says that "By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the ground, from which you were taken: For you are dust, and to dust shall you return." (Breishit 3:19) G-d says this to Adam, not to Chava.

baal teshuvah guy said...

actually I meant the phrase "...accursed is the ground because of you; through suffering shall you eat of it all the days of your life." (Breishit 3:17)

I think that suffering means work in this verse.

Anonymous said...

baal teshuva guy:
Is there no place for full-time learning in your view of the world? Just because there is a curse on Adam, everyone must participate? You may recall something called the Yissachar-Zevulun partnership. Or that Shevet Levi were also dedicated learners (according to the Rambam).

Is your objection to the women working or the men not working or both?

BrooklynWolf said...

Not to speak for BTG, Answer, but I think we can agree that there are plenty of people in yeshivos today learning full time who should be in the workforce.

Certainly there are those who should learn full-time. As with any other discipline, those that are truly dedicated and capable at it should persue it full time - and, since as a community, we need people who learn full time, we should support them.

But the idea that everyone (or nearly everyone) should learn full time and not work is not the proper model, IMHO.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...


I agree with you. A small percentage should be learning full time. I think < 10% would be sustainable, as it was with Shevet Levi etc. The current situation in EY has around 50% of charedim learning full time. This is a huge problem and a disaster in the making.

BrooklynWolf said...

Actually, Shevet Levi was more like 4% -- 23,000/600,000.

(ducking and running)

The Wolf

Anonymous said...


I did say "Levi etc". The etc. included Yissachor / Zevulon partnerships and others who were community supported to learn. Also I think the 23,000 number is for a smaller age group than the 600,000. I need to look it up.

In any case, you agree to less than 10%

BrooklynWolf said...

Ah, but Y/Z didn't occur until after the entry into EY. With HKBH supporting them with the manna, there would be no need for Z to support Y.

In addition, the 23K for the Levi'im are for a *larger* age range (1 month and up) than the 600K for the rest of the Jews (20-60 years).

Nonetheless, I do agree with less than 10%.

The Wolf

baal teshuvah guy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
baal teshuvah guy said...

I think that in general women are better at running the household and taking care of the children then say earning an income. I believe that is the reason they are not obligated in timebound mitzvot.

I'm not totally against women working, but I think it should be to supplement her husband and not too much so she will be unable to take care of her children.

I also think that everyone should learn at least a little, but no one should do nothing but learn. Part of the reason a person learns Torah is to live a Torah life, not learn all day.

Shira Salamone said...

What about the cost-benefit analysis vis-a-vis the children? If Abba is learning full-time and Imma is *both* working full-time *and* still carrying the primary responsibility for child care and housework, just how much time do these children get with *either* parent? If these women could make enough money to bring in take-out from the local glatt kosher place and hire cleaning people, they'd have more time to help their kids with their Torah studies, not to mention read to them and tuck them in.