Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Defining the (almost) Undefinable

For many things, providing a definition of that thing is a simple matter of going to a dictionary. If you want to know the definition of "salt," the dictionary will tell you that it is "a crystalline compound, sodium chloride, NaCl, occurring as a mineral, a constituent of seawater, etc., and used for seasoning food, as a preservative, etc.; Chemistry . any of a class of compounds formed by the replacement of one or more hydrogen atoms of an acid with elements or groups, which are composed of anions and cations, and which usually ionize in solution; a product formed by the neutralization of an acid by a base." This is the denotative or straight definition.

Other things we wish to define are not quite this straight forward. We may be able to get a clear denotative definition that all will agree with, or maybe we won't. In addition, we can add the connotation of the thing being defined, loosely defined as where that thing being defined falls on the sliding scale of good to bad. Words such as "slim," "trim," "thin," and "scrawny" all fall within the same denotative definition and are considered synonyms of each other. Where they differ is in their connotation. Call your wife/mother or whomever "slim" or "trim" and you get points for having said something positive. Call that same person "thin" and you are skating on thin ice. Call that person "scrawny" and you are in the doghouse.

Now let's look at some words where the denotative/connotative divide causes some real problems in our society--let's look at the words "wealth" and "wealthy." Denotatively, the dictionary tells us that wealth is "a great quantity or store of money, valuable possessions, property, or other riches; an abundance or profusion of anything; plentiful amount." One who is wealthy, therefore, has an abundance of money and/or possessions. But let's also look at the word 'abundance.' Denotatively abundance means "an extremely plentiful or oversufficient quantity or supply." In plain English, abundance means having more than is needed or sufficient. Because abundance is part of the definition of wealthy, things start to get sticky.

Try and define precisely what is meant by an "oversufficient supply" of money and you run into a real problem. First, no one can agree what a sufficient amount of money is for a family to have. Oh, we can talk about what constitutes necessities for life, and those necessities cost money to provide, but try and get people, all people, to agree on how to define necessity--can't be done. So, if we can't decide how to define necessities then how are we ever going to be able to define sufficient, how are we ever going to decide what an oversufficient amount is? How are we ever going to be able to use the word wealthy applied to anyone?

John Doe makes $200K a year in salary. Is he wealthy? Does he have an oversufficient supply of money? Our government seems to think so. But is that true in fact? What are John's expenses? Is he married? Does he have children? How many? Does John have elderly parents? Does his wife? Does his wife work also or is she a SAHM? Does John carry credit card debt? Is John saving towards retirement? Is John putting away money to pay for his children's college education?

Now let's make John Doe be Yossel Shwartz. Let's make Yossel be a frum Jew. Now let's look at that $200K again. Do Yossel's kids go to yeshiva? Will Yossel's kids go to Israel post high school? Does Yossel give at least maaser in tzedaka? Lots of other things that could be added.

Point being made? We talk a lot about how wealthy people should be doing more for the frum community, about how "the wealthy" should be making up the deficits when yeshivas can't collect full tuition from everyone, for example. Frankly, some people have a really snide attitude towards those they perceive as being wealthy.We have some pretty negative attitudes that pop up when talking about people we perceive to have money--'They' have it so easy, 'They' aren't suffering like the rest of us do, 'They' don't have any problems. Really? Based on what?

Never thought I'd live to see this day, but $200K if you are a frum Jew in 2010 may not make you wealthy (okay, it doesn't make you impoverished but wealthy doesn't apply either). In some cases you are barely making it. So, $400K would make you wealthy? Errr, don't be so sure. That amount might make you comfortable, or maybe not, depending on just how many people and what requirements the family has.

So please, if we are going to throw into the discussion of solutions to Klal's problems that the "wealthy" could solve most of the problems, let's understand that wealthy is a slippery term to define and not one on which there is anything near 100% agreement.


G6 said...

Eizehu Oshir? HaSomeach B'Chelko ;)
(and therein lies your problem)

tesyaa said...

If being a frum Jew means you have to earn twice as much as an average American, there's something wrong with frum society. While material comfort is certainly not forbidden by the Torah, middos and chessed need to come first. If the only place you can properly teach children the important of middos and chessed is an expensive private yeshiva, we need to rethink our educational system. (I bring up tuition because it's the biggest chunk out of many people's budgets, but living in nice suburbs, having many sets of clothing for Shabbos, many human hair wigs, and many electronic gadgets is also not required by the Torah).

Anonymous said...

Might as well mention that those we may consider as falling into the wealthy category have someone else holding out their hands first--our government. Make that $400K or more and you've moved out of regular tax bracket into the alternative minimum tax. And some of those people also have expenses that are required to meet the standards for their positions in their companies or businesses.

We're also forgetting that those wealthy people mostly do give more then the rest of us do. Just how much more are we going to require? Since when is 50% maaser a requirement? Or 40% or anything above the 10-20% level?

And if we're going to hit on the wealthy let's be fair and also ask why some people are putting us in this position where we are looking to the wealthy to bail us out. Why should a whole bunch of able to work people who don't work be entitled to complain that the wealthy aren't doing enough?

Mark said...

The confusion between "wealth" and "income" is very common. What you are describing are high incomes, not wealth (and, yes, our government also confuses the two, often intentionally to influence voters).

High wages can lead to wealth, but it can also lead to ruin, depending on the level of responsibility of the people that earn those high wages.

Perhaps the best rough description of wealth is the state at which your assets work to provide you with income. As your assets provide you with more and more income when compared to your income from your labor, you become wealthier and wealthier. Once your assets provide all your income, you become what is commonly known as "independently wealthy" (independent meaning not dependent on a job for income).

So, like almost everything else, it can be defined with a little work :-)

JS said...

Tuition is one big cache 22. If you're MO, you're given a strong secular education and are encouraged to go out and land a well-paying job. But, that doesn't help you, because you need to earn significantly more than the median family income to afford the absurdly high tuitions and MO communities you're expected to live in.

If you're RW, your tuitions and communities are far cheaper, but you're not given the secular education or the encouragement to land even the run of the mill jobs needed to afford even these lower required expenses.

It's one of those situations where you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Somehow each community figured out a way to price out it's members.

As for being "wealthy", I think a lot of it has to do with personal comfort. Given how hard people work to make even $200k let alone $400k, and yet still many struggle (whether those struggles are of their own doing is irrelevant), those people do not feel wealthy. They certainly don't feel that the weight of the community should be upon them.

You take a family with an income of $250k and they can barely pay their full tuition, they work very long hours, are constantly tired, wish they saw their kids more, and get butchered by the tax code, and then someone tells them they're wealthy? They'd be incredulous. Because they're saving for retirement and have a bit of a financial cushion? I think what really gets to these people is that they don't live all that much better than their peers. Some probably think they're worse off. Granted a lot of this is jealousy and thinking the grass is always greener, but I think it goes to the heart of wealth - do you FEEL wealthy. As pointed out above, Pirkei Avot already said it best.

It's really sad this is what living in our communities have come to.

Dave said...

If you need to make more than 97% of the American Public (*) to be Orthodox...

...I don't think the problem is that the government is considering you "rich".

(*) That would be where $200,000 puts you.

Miami Al said...

It's NOT a Frum problem. It's an upper middle class American squeeze...

In October 2008, Fortune talks about The Henrys -- High Earners, Not Yet Rich.

Guess what, these guys look EXACTLY like the MO upper middle class Jews you are talking about. They did the right thing, worked hard, fighting to get ahead, and struggling.

They have childcare expenses like ours (please note, non-Orthodox $250k earners aren't sending their kids to a ghetto preschool and then the crappy public school) -- private schooling or very expensive neighborhoods with good public schools and TONS of after school activities.

Sure, they might not define the "extras" they give their children as "holy" but the socio-economic impact is the same. Many of the other spoiled rich kids I knew did a year abroad in college... Just because you decided that your son's "year in Israel" was a "religious requirement" doesn't make it so, you indulged your kids.

The problem is not frumkeit, it's the upper middle-classdom costs a TON of money. Because of the tax code, for a family of 4 or 5, you don't pay ANY taxes on the first $100k, then like 40% until you have a total tax bill of 35% or so... net-net, the family making $200k only has 60% more money than the $100k family, and that doesn't seem fair.

Also, a family making $100k is working with other middle income people. The lawyer making $200k works for a junior partner making $500k, so his concept of available money is VERY different.

JS said...


I think the subtle difference is that the Orthodox feel REQUIRED to expend all this money, which further leads to not FEELING wealthy. It's much easier to feel wealthy if you view all your expenses as choices. But, these people look at their expensive communities and instead of thinking "It's great I have the wealth to live in this upscale suburban community that is a short commute from NYC" they think "I have to live in this town because I am Orthodox". Ditto on the yeshiva. It's not, "It's great I can send my kids to private schools where they get more individualized attention due to small class sizes" it's instead "I have to send my kids to these ripoff yeshivas which bleed me dry".

The fact that the high earners are next door neighbors with the lower earners doesn't help matters either. Nor does the fact that they all socialize together by going to the same shuls and the same restaurants.

Of course the flip side is that the lower earners feel they have to live like the higher earners - throw the same parties, eat the same food, have the same number of dinner guests (Shabbat meals), etc.

It's a vicious cycle and no one is happy in the end.

Dave said...

The lawyer making $200k works for a junior partner making $500k, so his concept of available money is VERY different.

That is self-inflicted. I've worked with people who have net worths high enough to be rich by any standards, because they were in the right place at the right time during the DotCom era.

That doesn't mean I plan my spending on what they can manage.

Rae said...

No, this is not just a frum problem, but that it is a frum problem should disturb us. And it's also part of a different problem we have--the one where we have to place the blame for everythng and anything on somebody else. Saying that the wealthy don't give enough to support everything that needs supporting in klal is one way to let everyone get off the hook. If it's somebody elses fault then it can't be mine. It's entitlement run amok.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for at least mentioning that $400K+ doesn't necessarily make you wealthy either. Plenty of people who have made nasty comments where we can hear them about how we don't give enough because we certainly have the money to do so. I mean look at our house and where we live. I'm not required to tell everybody else my business, but maybe they would shut up if I told them that in the last 17 months we've had $278K in unreimbursable expenses in caring for three elderly and not well parents who don't have that kind of money. B"H we had the money to do it and I'm not crying poverty, but wealthy? Lots of extra money around? Just making it is more like it.

Miami Al said...


Correct. If Jews realized that to be Orthodox one has to keep commandments, NOT live in Teaneck. There certainly are SOME residential limitations, but Chabad is pretty prevalent out there, so there are plenty of places you "could" live.

You have an obligation to give your kids a Torah Education, Chabad will do that on Sundays. Want more, sure, you can choose to upgrade that to a RW Cheder program, which will give your kids a Torah educations.

Even if we've decided that full-time education is an entitlement, I don't understand why anything over that isn't seen as a luxury.

The fact is, we keep letting people define up the minimum entitlement, so the Chumps are mad at the Strugglers who get 90% of what they get and they don't pay anything. The Chumps look at the Winthropes and think, then I would be okay, because tuition+taxes would declines as part of my income.

The Winthropes look at the Chumps/Strugglers and don't really understand the difference there.

The reality is we need less economically diverse communities. In theory, it's great exposure, blah, blah, blah...

The middle class is being made to feel poor, the upper middle class is tired of being dragged down to the middle class, and the upper class likes helping the working class but finds the middle/upper-middle entitled and spoiled.

Therein lies the rub.