THE BLOG

The Idea of Trickle-Up Ethics

12/30/2013 04:11 EST | Updated 02/28/2014 05:59 EST

Rabbi Hillel, a native of Babylonia who moved to Jerusalem in the time of Herod wrote:

"If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?

And if I am only for myself, then what am I?

And if not now, when?"

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about social policy. Rightly so. We live in a land of plenty with plenty of people who are poor. Some unemployed. Some unemployable. Too many called the working poor. What an oxymoron. To work a full time job and still be poor-poor to the point that you cannot pay all your bills. Will it be heat or prescriptions? Will it be hydro or lunch for the kids?

All this after the promise of trickle-down economics.

I remember asking a neighbour about money. How much does one need, I asked? Do you think 10 million dollars a year would be enough?

I was told that capping income is communism. True. But still, there is something wrong when a few earn billions and the vast majority eke out a living.

I doubt that any government can force goodness on others, even with all the power they have over income distribution and redistribution. The desire to see others do well, at least not fall by the way-side requires that we consider instituting trickle-up ethics. Ones that teach compassion and empathy. The kind of ethics that make those who earn billions, and I mean billions, reconsider minimum wage. How many billions does one need to live well? How many billions do one's children need to live well?

Jim Sinegal, co-founder of Costco(USA) pays his hourly workers an average of $20.89 an hour, not including overtime, compared to the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. In 2011 Jim Sinegal's total yearly compensation as a Costco company executive, including salary and bonuses, was $629,000.True that doesn't include millions on stock options, but his employees are doing much better than most and give the company highest ratings for salary, health benefits and work-life balance. This is the result of the personal values of Sinegal who refused to give on to pressure from Wall Street to reduce costs. The share price is up 30 percent under the leadership of its new CEO, Craig Jelinek.

If one man can treat his employees with dignity, why can't others do the same?

Perhaps we wouldn't have so many social programmes to provide a safety net if more of our citizens could provide for themselves.

We are by nature selfish and greedy. To say otherwise is to be an ostrich. We can't fix the problem if we refuse to name it. Less greed, more money for others; smaller safety net. This won't happen magically.

There was a great deal of poverty in 19th-century England. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) suggested that poverty had its place in the natural order of things. He wrote "The beneficent Providence consisted in the natural checks to the growth of population: war, famine and disease. It followed that any interference with these checks through almsgiving, hospital care or peace societies, was cruelty to the rest; while starvation, pestilence, and bloodshed were merciful gifts from on high."

Whiffs of these beliefs linger in our culture. To undo this "natural selection" we need to teach ethics. From the first day of school. We need to teach the meaning of enough. We need to teach the importance of compassion and empathy for others. Those lessons are found in the Bible. Stories that are 3500 years old and more relevant, today, than ever before.

The lessons were introduced to teach two important behaviours. One: the meaning of enough. The other lesson is the importance of allowing those for whom we care to maintain their dignity.

"The Book of Ruth" tells the story of two women, Naomi, the Jewess and Ruth, the Moabite, her daughter- in-law who refused to leave her.

"Where you go I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16).

The two were offered the opportunity to glean the crops from Boaz because there was an injunction against clearing the land to the very edges.

"When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you." Leviticus 23:22.

Surely there will be enough for you and yours without clearing the edges of your property.

This made it possible for Ruth to obtain enough wheat, with her own hands, to turn into bread and feed the two women, while maintaining their dignity and promoting a sense of independence.

Jesus taught, "Do unto others as you would have them do into you." The Golden Rule. Jesus, a Rabbi who preached in the Galilee, was well versed in expressing the essence of the moral life. He was well aware of the admonition in Leviticus19:18. "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." Tobit who lived in eighth century BCE, and whose works are part of the Catholic and Protestant Canon decreed, "What is displeasing to thyself, that do not unto any other."

Jesus would have been familiar with the writings of the second century BCE Rabbi Ben Sira, whose wisdom writings are now part of the Catholic Canon, who said, "Honour thy neighbour as thyself." In the second half of the first century CE, after the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Akiva declared, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." And then Ben Azzai followed with the teaching that "All men are created in the Divine image, and, therefore, all are our fellowmen are entitled to human love."

Jesus, the descendent of the Moabite, Ruth, the ancestor of King David, brought forward to us the importance of caring for others. Jesus preached the Golden Rule to His Apostles and his followers, who passed them down through the generations to Jesus' followers, today.

If we teach that ethic from a very early age, perhaps we will develop into a culture that will have wealthy people who know when enough is enough and will be willing to earn fewer millions so they can willingly pay their employees a living wage, a wage that would allow them to buy many of the products that they produce, requiring fewer interventions by a government that no matter how small is still too big to care for the least amongst us.

In Christianity, during communion, one eats of the flesh and blood of Jesus. As Jesus said when he blessed the bread and gave it to his disciples; "Take it and eat, this is my body." And then he handed them his cup after the blessing and said, "Drink from this, all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant" (Matthew26:26-28).

This is a physical incorporating of the Son, the most immanent manifestation of God, in order to identify with and internalize the teachings of the Father. To imitate the teacher and walk in His path, to spread His teachings, His laws, His love. Communion is a constant reminder of morals, values and priorities. The words of God bear fruit through morality which develops from constant, conscious choice.

Over time, trickle-up ethics will succeed. First you teach the mind the importance of a caring society and how each one of us has a role to play, and over time, that lesson will touch the soul, become part of one's DNA and more of us will automatically act with compassion.

Merry Christmas.Happy New Year.