Episode 58: Jewish Economics - Carmel Chiswick (Full Transcript)

Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound: Episode 58—Jewish Economics. 

Dan Libenson: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Dan Libenson . . .

Lex Rofes: . . . and I'm Lex Rofes.

Dan Libenson: And we're here today with Professor Carmel Chiswick, who’s going to talk to us about a recent book that she wrote called Judaism in Transition on which she applies principles of economics to understand the present, past, and future of American Judaism. Professor Chiswick is a professor of economics at George Washington University. She was previous at the University of Illinois Chicago, where she’s now a professor emerita. Her focus is labor economics and development economics, and it’s a fascinating idea to apply economic principles to Judaism. So, we’re excited to welcome her to join us today. Thanks so much for being with us.

Carmel Chiswick: It's great to be here.

Dan Libenson: Thanks. So, let's just jump right in, and I guess it would be helpful if you could give us kind of a summary of the basic ideas in your book Judaism In Transition and perhaps also how you came to write the book.

Carmel Chiswick: Well, actually, it's kind of interesting. When I read Jewish history, everybody always says something about how Judaism adapts to different socioeconomic . . . well, to different sociocultural contexts, but they never mention the economic context. So, I started sort of thinking in the back of my mind, “What about differences in economic context?” and I realized that that sort of is underlying a lot of our notions of sociocultural differences, or economic differences. So, I began to think about it, and once I did, I said to myself “Well, you know, 19th and 20th century America, but in particular early 20th century America, was an economic environment unlike anything that Jews had experienced before —unlike anything that anybody had experienced before.

We had tremendous increases in productivity of our workforce, and freedom to move about, and to associate with other people, and to practice our religions as we wished. But, in particular, it was the economic progress. When I teach economic history, I always emphasize the sense of excitement that people had at the opportunities for economic progress, which meant to them raising wages, raising real income apart from higher wages, and . . . in part, because goods were becoming so much cheaper with factory production. So, I thought “Well, how would this affect Jews?”  And Jews were moving right up the occupational ladder, and they were going into higher education — many of them — and those that weren't going into the professions, because they [required] advanced degrees, were in businesses that were growing, and growing successfully, so they sent their children to college.

So, I thought “Well, this was a whole different economic environment than Jews had ever experienced before. How does it affect their practice of Judaism?  How did Judaism fit into this new life?”  And that's what started me thinking about it, and I realized that economics was a blind spot in Jewish Studies; and religion in general, and Judaism in particular, was a blind spot in American Studies and in Jewish history. So, I just began to think of that.

Meanwhile, at just about the same time, there was, in the economics profession a new field. An innovative researcher started studying the economics of religion, and he did so in some very interesting and exciting ways. So, there were several of us that sort of jumped on that particular issue, and I was the only one who was interested in applying it to Jews. Most of that research applies to Protestants, in part because most Americans are Protestants, and in part because when you have data on religions in America, it's always dominated by the Protestant experience, and you never have enough observations to do anything about Jews.

But then the Jewish community funded a National Jewish Population Survey — one in 1990 and another one in 2000 — and that gave us a lot of information about American Jews. So, I put two and two together, and I began applying my economics to this or that topic that I had data on from the population surveys, and one thing led to another, and I started going to conferences where I would be the only economist in the room full of Jewish social scientists — mostly Jewish sociologists — and one thing led to another, and I became active in that profession.

And here I am. What this book does is it synthesizes the research findings from all those conferences and all those decades into a book that is, I hope, accessible to a general reader who doesn’t have to have any background in economics, because our economic behavior is pretty much intuitive. It's not like we need to study economics in order to behave in ways that economics predicts.

Dan Libenson: So, first of all, I think Lex and I can vouch that your book is definitely accessible for the non-economic-expert reader.

Carmel Chiswick: Glad to hear it.

Dan Libenson: Could you give us some basic capsule summary of some of the main points?  I thought it was particularly interesting, some of the ways in which you explain to the lay reader that might think that economics is the study of money, that it's not only that.

Carmel Chiswick: Well, you have two budgets. Of course, you have more than two considerations in life, but you have two fundamental budgets from an economic point of view. One of these is your money budget, which is what everybody always talks about, and the other of these is your time budget, which recently, like in the last 40-50 years, has become extremely important in economic studies. Your time budget is different from your money budget in two ways. For one thing, it's fixed; there's nothing you can do to increase your time — it's 24 hours a day, seven days a week, etc. And that's just what you have to allocate. It's highly perishable — you can't really save it — because once those 24 hours are gone, they're gone. You can't borrow against it so easily. So, the time budget is fixed, whereas the money budget — there are all kinds of things you can do to make it grow or shrink.

On the other hand, the other thing that's important for your budget is the prices of the things that you want to buy. Now, money prices are the same for everybody — so, if you're buying a car, or you're buying a house, or you're buying day school tuition, or you're buying clothes . . . whatever it is, every buyer faces the same price, even though their incomes may be different. But in the case of time, it's the opposite. Everybody has a different value of time. There's nothing fixed about it.

As a first approximation, economists view the wage rate that you might be earning as the price of an hour of your time. There are various reasons for that, which I won't bother with you now — just take it, if you will, on assumption, but . . . I do explain it a bit in the book. But it's a theorem in labor economics. You start with the notion of a wage rate. If you're earning $10 an hour, then if you take an hour off from work, you have to give up $10 worth of goods and services. On the other hand, if you're earning $200 an hour, and you take off an hour of work, that means you have to give up $200 worth of goods and services. So, that's the easy approach to wages.

We know that a lot of people either don’t earn wages directly, or they earn them sort of indirectly — so, for example, a high school student may not have much of a . . . either doesn’t work at all, so there's no wage, or has a very low wage. But your high school studies are preparing you for a future career in which your wage will be high. So, you are investing —  even though you're not earning now, you are investing in your future. So, a high school student has a higher value of time than his wage rate would imply.

In some cultures, parents’ time is much more valuable than the children’s time, and the children just have to like it or lump it. And in other cultures, the children’s time is by far more valuable, and the parents make all kinds of sacrifices in order to conserve their children’s time. That might've been the case in the American Jewish community, in the immigrant community at the beginning of the 20th century, where parents were in low-wage jobs, but they wanted opportunities for their children.

And so they would work very hard and use their time in order to release their children from burdens and enable them to integrate into the American society, or to go up the educational ladder.

Dan Libenson: So, in terms of starting to apply these ideas to Judaism, could you give us some examples of how you see that viewing it this way makes a difference?

Carmel Chiswick: You have to squeeze your Jewish lifestyle into the rest of your lifestyle. And that's the fundamental problem. You've only got 24 hours in a day. And so, the question is: how do you do this?  We have well worked out, generally accepted economic theory about how consumers allocate their money budgets, and so . . . Judaism, of course, is one of the things that we spend our money on.

But we also spend our time on it, and allocating our time budget to include Judaism is a little difficult because Judaism is very time-intensive. Many religions are time-intensive, but Judaism is particularly time-intensive. Just as an example, synagogue services are short by traditional standards. Many people go into the synagogue either on Saturday morning or on Friday night, but not on both. People go to synagogue — some people go every Shabbat, but many people go every few weeks, or maybe once a month, or maybe once every six months if there's an occasion.

So, we conserve our time by . . . we reduce the time that we spend on Judaism in order to fit into our time budgets with all the other things we want to do. And our rabbis know this — dating from late 19th century and early 20th century up into the present, the rabbis talk with each other about the problem of how do you reach the spiritual needs of people when they only come to the synagogue three days a year, or when they don't know any Hebrew?

There was one couple that I was told about when I first started working on this that felt that to get the real flavor of Shabbat, you really had to spend the full 25 hours observing. But they couldn't afford that kind of time, they thought, so they only did it once every six weeks. And when they did, they had a nice Shabbat and they felt good about it, but they didn’t do it every week.

I know somebody else who says that “Well, there are four parts to the Shabbat service,” and she feels that she can miss any one or two of them and still have a satisfying observance, so she goes walking on the beach during one of the portions, or she'll do something else that she finds peaceful and relaxing. And that's her way of observing Shabbat.

People just fit the ritual into their lives in different ways.

Lex Rofes: As I'm thinking about the principle you're laying out — that time and money are both limited resources that we have to look at, as a Jewish community, as we think about how people allocate them, both their time and their money — I'm thinking about the ramifications of that. And when I look out at contemporary institutions, I think there's generally an understanding . . . they know that people have a variety of different amounts of money that they're willing to allocate into Judaism. People, as you spoke about with budgets . . . rabbis know that some of their congregants are willing to put in thousands of dollars a year, others are not. But what it doesn’t seem we've totally reckoned with is the time budget side.

And so, I'm curious if you could talk about what it would mean to think about . . . sort of, cheaper forms of Judaism, for lack of a better term, from a time perspective. So, what would it mean if three-hour services weren't three hours, but shorter?  What would it mean if shifts happened, such that the time of Judaism was less of a demand?  And is that a direction that you've seen communities start to take?  And is it one that maybe should be considered in the future?

Carmel Chiswick: Well, I think it was a much more important issue in the first half of the 20th century, or maybe the first three-quarters of the 20th century, than it is today. People at that time were upwardly mobile economically, and Judaism was not high on their list of priorities as to how to spend their time. And their time was becoming more valuable, and shorter services . . . it's not just the services that were shorter, but the holiday observances at home were shorter. People spent less time learning Hebrew and with . . . Jewish education, in general, was not a priority. So, you ended up with a generation that sort of had . . . the parental generation of the 1950s, who really just didn’t know very much, and couldn't practice Judaism very much just because they didn’t have the background. So, what we see towards the end of the century is a split in the community.

So, when you have children raised by parents who don’t know very much about Judaism, and don’t practice it very much, and don’t spend much time on it, one very, very economic response is, “This is really not worth my time, and so I'm not going to do it, or I'm going to do so much less of it that it's just a token.”  On the other hand, an equally economic response is to say, “Ooh, this isn't worth my time because I don't have a clue what's going on, I don't have the depth to enjoy it — I better take a course, or read a book, and see if I can learn what's going on.” 

So, you had what Jack Wertheimer calls “apathy and revival” going on at the same time. It was like of a renaissance of Jewish adult education and, for that matter, the growth of the day school movement from people who were saying, “We need to invest more in our skills — in our Jewish skills — in order to get something out of this experience,” and other people saying, “Well, I'm going to spend my time some other way.”

Dan Libenson: So, let me ask you first: is there, to your knowledge . . . or do you sense an economic difference between the Jews who respond to these feelings of lack of competence, etc., by investing in their education and spending more time on Judaism in order to become competent and then be able to spend even more time (because they now feel good about it) vs. the Jews who respond by exit or minimal participation or something like that — is there an economic difference between them, and or is it just, kind of, a personality difference between people who choose those two different routes?

Carmel Chiswick: I don't know that it's an economic difference particularly. I personally think . . . well, it's probably a personality thing as much as anything. Many of the people who choose to walk away were not really raised in homes that were deeply Jewish and just aren't interested in it. So, we talk about the intermarriage rate all of a sudden going up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but in fact a lot of the in-marriages in the middle of the 20th century were marriages between two Jews who had no interest in religion. And so, they raised children who had no Jewish background. So, technically, statistically, that was not an intermarriage, but in terms of the Jewish content in the home, it was equivalent.

Now what we're seeing is a lot of the Jewish intermarriage are children of intermarriage, or second or third generation intermarriage. So, it's leakage from the community. The community is smaller for that, but stronger for the educational side of things.

Lex Rofes: So, I'm really intrigued by so much of what you're bringing here, and I'm also flashing to a part of your book that speaks about not just the extent to which Jews will allocate time to Judaism, but which parts of Judaism they choose. Because that's a big question — you know, you could be a Jew and you could allocate your time to services on Shabbat, you could be a Jew and allocate your time to holidays, you could be a Jew and allocate time to something less particularly Jewish, something that's a a humanistic or universal kind of value, like social justice, through a Jewish lens.

And you speak a little bit about what leads some Jews to choose those universalist values and what leads others to choose other avenues, and I'm curious if you can expand on that. What is it about the economics of Judaism that pushes us towards . . . whether it's social justice or universalist elements of Judaism, or on the other hand the particularist?

Carmel Chiswick: We're talking about our Judaism as though we have to spend our time either on our Jewish life or on our secular life, with no overlap between the two. That is what we call “substitutes,” because you can spend your time . . . you're substituting Jewish time for secular time, and if you walk away from Judaism, you're substituting secular time for Jewish time.

But there's also the principle of “complementarity,” which is, I think, extremely helpful to think about. Complementarity is referring to synergies between the two spheres of our lives. So, I'm just trying to think of a synergy . . . well, social action is actually as good a one as any. If, in our secular lives, we feel that, from our political expression or our social expression, that it's really important to help the needy or to . . . I'm trying to think of some other social action . . . some sort of political activity — lobby . . . advocacy, some sort of political advocacy, is important . . . so, if we think those things are really important, then if we can find a way to make that a part of our Jewish life as well, then the time we spend doing these things has a double outcome. It accomplishes what we want to in the secular world, and it also enhances or sense of being Jewish.

In the case of tikkun olam [literally, “repair of the world,” often used as a term for Jewishly-motivated social action], that's pretty easy because that is an important part of Judaism and Jewish teaching — helping the needy, repairing the world. And it's being used today as sort of an umbrella for all kinds of social action — secular social action — and it makes us feel as though we were “doing Jewish” when we do these things. And that's okay. That's actually a good thing, and our rabbis have always valued that. The problem arises for the community when that tikkun olam becomes the only thing, or even the most important thing, because Judaism is a very, very rich heritage, and has many dimensions.

Dan Libenson: You talked about tikkun olam, which we've talked about before on our show — it's a Hebrew term that means “repairing the world,” but really is drawn from a kabalistic concept that, in its origin, meant something different from acts of social justice. And there's certainly an ancient prophetic tradition in Judaism that excoriated the kings of Israel for their lack of social justice. But it does feel that, in the last 2,000 years of Jewish history — let's say, between the destruction of the Second Temple and the 1920s or ’50s or ‘60s — that it wasn't actually a major concept of Jewish practice to work for the betterment of the larger world.

There was a sense of internal Jewish charity for other Jews in need — I mean, Jews were generally walled off and living by themselves, so there wasn’t even an opportunity — but it seems that the whole development of the concept of tikkun olam was actually, in large part, an American invention that came from the new context in which American Jews found themselves, and, as an example, it seems like that's one that has really taken off, right? I mean that's one that . . . we told the joke a few weeks ago — I'm not sure if it's a joke or it's an actual story —that one time a Jew came to his rabbi and said, “Rabbi, how do you say tikkun olam in Hebrew?” — you know, because it's become such an ingrained . . . people don’t even realize that it's in Hebrew.

But I think that that's interesting, right?  Because in a sense, you are raising this point, which I think . . . many of us would think, initially, that in order to fully embrace Judaism, you have to enter into the totality of it, and it's such a complex system that it has so many pieces, and that requires a tremendous investment in education — just as we would say that, if you want to be an economist, you have to get a Ph.D. in economics. There's no other way to do it. You have to master this material, right?  But I guess the question, though, that it feels to me that that doesn’t fully capture is the idea that maybe Judaism isn't like economics, in the sense that it's not this permanent thing that might . . . of course, there are always new discoveries in economics, that's why people win the Nobel Prize and whatever, so it's changing, but it's always this basic set of ideas, as opposed to something which is really just a realm of human endeavor that can change, that can be radically changed, just as it was when the Second Temple was destroyed and Rabbinic Judaism came about.

And I wonder what this conversation would've sounded like if we were talking about the economics of Second Temple Judaism, and folks would say, “Look, it's so complicated. You have to know exactly how to make the sacrifices and . . . .”

Carmel Chiswick: Let me just back up for a moment. To be an economist you need a Ph.D., but to behave economically, you don't need to know anything. As my mother-in-law likes to say, “Even a dummy is smart for himself,” right?  People figure out what's the best thing, regardless of their intellectual level or their education. You don't need a Ph.D. to be Jewish. And you don't even need a lot of education to be Jewish. For some people, it's a profession, but for many of us it's more akin to a hobby than it is to a profession. And so, everybody doesn’t have to be an expert in everything, but you want to be participatory in the things that you do. So, you can say you're an “amateur Jew,” maybe, rather than a professional Jew. You can think of it that way. You can think of it the way you think of sports or music or whatever — that there are different degrees of participation, but each person has to feel that they are participating enough to be satisfying.

At one point you said something about improving quality. When we talk about the economics of the family, and it sort of spills over into other fields, we have what the jargon refers to as a “quantity/quality tradeoff.”  So, think of having children, and how many children you have is the quantity, and how much you're going to be prepared to spend per child is a proxy for quality. If you want your children to have a higher education and good medical care while they're in your care, then you need to budget for that, you need to have a money budget for that. And the more children you have, the bigger that money budget has to be.

So, people who want those things for their children, who expect their children to go on to college, will not have as many children as people who don’t have that expectation. What we say is we just can't afford a large family, but of course poor people have larger families than middle-class people, and who's to say they can't afford it? Well, they can afford it because they don’t spend as much on these other things. And for American Jews, health and education are really high priorities for your children, and I would like to put some Jewish education in there as well. And so, we say we can't afford to have a lot of children. So, that's what we mean when we're talking about the tradeoff between quantity and quality.

Dan Libenson: I'm thinking . . . now I've got two things in mind, they go to the same place:  One is just thinking back to what if we had been having an analogous conversation back at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple? And we know that the Rabbis actually reinvented Judaism.

Carmel Chiswick: We were having that conversation at that time. During the Second Temple period you began to have this problem: suppose it was too expensive — too costly in time as well as money — to come to the Temple three times a year if you live in Babylon, given the technology of transportation in those days. So how can you be Jewish? How can you practice Judaism if you can't come to the Temple three times a year? That was the kind of problem that the Sages, the Mishna, say, was addressing and worrying about. And they developed alternative rituals and alternative celebrations of Jewish holidays and events that you could do if you didn’t come to the Temple, and it had gotten far enough along by the time the Temple was destroyed so that it could be codified and it could serve as a guide to all Jews. But it started before the Temple was destroyed.

Dan Libenson: As we look in our time, and we look at a time where, for example, we have the explosion of the internet and the idea of people being prosumers, the idea that many complex fields are able to be turned into apps that you don't have to be an expert in computer coding to do all kinds of things that you could never have done 10-20 years ago unless you had a computer science degree, are there ways in which we might look forward to a reshaping, a repackaging of Judaism that, rather than being something that you have to go to as a more passive participant, where it's really a question of how the clergy is presenting it, is it possible that, really, what we ought to be looking at is some kind of new form of Jewish “engineer” that would be able to create the prosumer version of Judaism that allows people to be empowered to be Jewish actors, but without necessarily having to master all of the complex and arcane knowledge that may have been necessary in a previous form?

Carmel Chiswick: Yes. I think that there are some really, really interesting changes afoot, and I personally don’t have a clue about where we're going to end up, but I definitely think that the change in technology that we are experiencing in our world will certainly affect the way we do Jewish. Now, I heard a really interesting talk at a conference that I went to last year, and unfortunately for this interview, I do not remember the name of the speaker. But his notion was as follows: If you study Talmud, it's not linear in its structure; it hops from one topic to another, it's not linear/logical, but it has its own kind of logic, but you have to sort of alter your mindset in order to really get into it.

He says that's really a lot like the internet. That's like using Google to find out what you want to know, and then you hop from one link to another link. Then he said that if you think about science, the logic of science is very linear — the analysis of science is very linear — and what we tried to do in the Enlightenment period was to subject Talmud study to that kind of linear thinking and to interpret the meaning of Talmud subjects in that fashion. And that's not a natural fashion— that's not the way the Talmud was written — but it's one way that we can understand it that complements our secular education and our secular knowledge.

And maybe in the 21st Century that's going to change, because maybe our secular knowledge — our children are learning — is more, sort of, train of thought. He said that we Jews are experts in that because we have Talmud, and that's what Talmud does, and that's the intellectual approach that the Talmud redactors used, and that we should be teaching our children Talmud because that's what's most complementary to the information systems that they're familiar with.

Lex Rofes: I have a question that might seem out of left field, but I'm curious . . . there are listeners out there — I would suspect there are listeners out there — who might be resistant to our tendency, in general, to use economic terms to discuss Judaism and religion, who see that step as maybe taking away some of the emotion or passion from religion and treating it like it's sort of a business. And I'm curious, since you've written a wonderful book on the subject, what would you say to folks out there who are resistant to economic language being used about Judaism or religion in general, and what would your case be that doing so can really elucidate important understandings that will enrich our tradition and our religion, not just take it in a direction that feels corporate or something?

Carmel Chiswick: Well, in my book I was really, really careful never to discuss theology. And in my talks also, I say this book is not about theology. It's about behavior of Jews with respect to their religion, but not about what they believe. The economics . . . one of my professors used to say, “Economics is not a subject; it's a discipline. It's a set of tools that you can use to study whatever subject interests you.” I am not saying that economics determines your religious behavior. What I'm saying is that there are economic incentives that affect your choices with regard to your religious behavior — not your belief, your behavior. So, that's definitely one kind of answer that I would give.

Another answer that I sometimes think of is I think of the story of the blind man and the elephant — the fable which says that one blind man feels the leg and says an elephant is like a tree trunk, another one feels the trunk and says the elephant is like a snake, etc. And so together, the moral of the story is they each see a part of it, but they don't get the whole thing. And I think that's true of any subject. My analogy would be suppose there was a blind person who was a zoologist, and he would feel around the relevant parts of the elephant and say, “Oh, this elephant is a mammal.”  Well, that tells you a great deal about the elephant, a great deal about the elephant. But it still doesn’t tell you what the elephant is —it's not a human being, it's not a mouse. It's a mammal — that's all it tells you.

So, I think that's the way to think of these different social sciences. We're all studying the same people, and people have many different dimensions to their behavior, and each of the social sciences looks at some aspect of that behavior to see how it gets influenced by their particular bag of tricks. But we're not determining what the behavior is. We're merely looking at some aspect of it.

If I go to the synagogue every week, it's not only because of the price . . . well, actually, let me give you a better example: When you go to buy a suit, you go to the store and you look at the suits. Now, what determines whether or not you're going to buy it?  Well, you're going to look at the style, you're going to look at the color, you're going to look at the washing instructions, you're going to think about how it fits with the other items in your wardrobe. You're going to try it on to see how it looks on you. All these things are relevant for the decision about which suit you're going to buy or whether you're going to buy it. But you also look at the price tag. Very few people will even think about making this decision without looking at the price tag. And that's what I'm doing — I'm looking at the price tag of Judaism and seeing how that influences our choices in some of the other dimensions.

Lex Rofes: Thank you so much for that. Are there any final thoughts that you have that we haven't been able to touch on yet that you want to communicate before we wrap up?

Carmel Chiswick: Yes. It would be unnatural for us to practice our Judaism the way they did in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, but that nevertheless is Judaism, and that Judaism has a long history of changing in response to changing economic environments.

Lex Rofes: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a fascinating conversation. We really appreciate you coming to join us and talk about Judaism In Transition.

Carmel Chiswick: You're welcome. Thank you for having me, and I look forward to future conversations.

Lex Rofes: Thanks again to Carmel Chiswick for joining Judaism Unbound today. We would definitely encourage folks to check out her book Judaism In Transition. You can find it on Amazon, and if you don’t to head straight there, you can head to our website, www.JudaismUnbound.com, look at the show notes for this episode, and you'll find a link to it there.

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