Welcome to Jerusalem. Alternate Side of the Street Parking Rules Are In Effect.

Say you’re driving in to Manhattan on a Sunday night from, I don’t know, western Massachusetts, and you find a parking spot right in front of your mother’s apartment on the downtown side of an Upper West Side crosstown street.  Score.  You’ve struck gold, and you are now one of the special people in the city with a Good Parking Space.  You walk around with a kind of a jaunty swing to your step and a bit of a chip on your shoulder.  When it’s late at night and you need to get something from your trunk, you can just pop right downstairs and do it, maybe even in your pajamas.

This lasts until Tuesday morning, when you wake up and realize that your whole day, until the early afternoon, will be taken up with the question of moving the car for the street cleaners.  It’s got to not be parked there between 11:30 am and 1 pm.: should you double park, lurk in the neighborhood with an uneasy conscience, and then come back and repark it, and THEN go downtown to try to make your meeting?  Should you sit in the car for an hour and a half?  Should you maybe try to drive the car downtown?  Do they even HAVE parking spaces down by the Seaport? Other than for helicopters?

It’s a whole big thing.  But consider the alternative: unswept streets would be the least of it.  If there were no alternate side of the street parking, once you got a space, you would never give it up.  Never.  It wouldn’t matter that, for example, vacation is over and you have to be getting back to western Massachusetts.  You would just keep walking around the city like a different, special class of person.  And you’d feel justified: you’d forget that you’d prayed for the parking space.  “That’s the breaks,” you’d say to people who you met at parties who were looking for parking spaces of their own, maybe wanting to borrow yours.  The barriers to entry would be impossible to surmount: new people, fresh-faced youths driving in from Connecticut, would drive back up 95 to New London beaten down by hours and hours and hours of slowly trolling the streets, made cynical by the hundreds of mirage spaces that turn out to be fire hydrants.

In the Old Testament, God has an interesting way of addressing the inequities that naturally crop up after a market has had a certain amount of time to chug along.  Every fifty years, in the community established by the Torah, all debts were to be forgiven, all lands that had been sold were to revert to their former owners, slaves were to be freed.  Essentially, contracts were dissolved in favor of the Covenant.  It didn’t matter whether a man had gained his favorable position due to hard work and diligence or luck and inheritance.  It didn’t matter whether someone had fallen into debt through laziness or shopping addiction or a horrible agricultural injury of some kind: either way, every fifty years the reset button was pushed in the Israelite economy.

It was a risky strategy on God’s part.  I imagine that the World Bank would have had a couple of choice words to say to him.  They’d have called him a populist, unrealistic, destructive of capital accumulation.

That’s not entirely the case. Jubilees don’t impair capital accumulation based on improved husbandry or new efficiencies within the bounds of a widely-distributed property ownership.  Indeed, the relevant texts in Leviticus go on to address issues of justice within the context of such a lease-holding approach to land that one buys (as opposed to land that was part of the original land-grants to the tribes: in that case, tenure was secure, although it was understood that you still shouldn’t be a jerk about it because a) the rest of the tribes had similar properties, so there was no point in comparing yourself to others, and b) it was all a gift from God anyway.)  The price paid for the land must be proportional to where in the Jubilee cycle you are when you make the contract.  As God put it,

‘If you make a sale, moreover, to your friend or buy from your friend’s hand, you shall not wrong one another. Corresponding to the number of years after the jubilee, you shall buy from your friend; he is to sell to you according to the number of years of crops. In proportion to the extent of the years you shall increase its price, and in proportion to the fewness of the years you shall diminish its price, for it is a number of crops he is selling to you. So you shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God.

(Leviticus 25:14-17)

This does not promote an unrealistic approach to land tenure, it just addresses the economic inequities that are genuinely in the realm of the zero-sum game; above all, they encourage those who want to make a living based on others’ long-term debt or slavery to think twice.

They are radical, the Jubilees.  But the health of the society as a whole, and the health of the souls of God’s people, apparently called for this kind of radicalism.  We can see the good consequences– cleaner streets, no parking-based caste system– that result from Manhattan’s jubilee-esque parking laws.  Can we imagine what the results would be if we incorporated at least some of this approach into our economy?

Photo from flickr by Bosc d’Anjou

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4 responses to “Welcome to Jerusalem. Alternate Side of the Street Parking Rules Are In Effect.

  1. I’m preparing a Sunday School lesson on “How a Moral Economy Looks” in response to Sojourners magazine’s request that Christians write a description and send it to their local paper. This post definitely belongs in there!

    Redistribution is just if people know in advance that it’s coming. One reason it meets such resistance is that we always let the elite drive right into the “capitalist’s coffin corner” (where they’ve laid off all their potential customers) before we reveal the fix. Then, just as they’re panicking in the realization that they don’t actually know much about how to increase wealth, just as they’re throttling their fortunes in a death grip, we announce that the only way they’ll ever start making money again is to let go of some of what they have.

    Tough sell!

    • I’d love to see what you come up with for the Sunday School lesson! Kids or adults?

      From what I can tell about what the Jubilee laws are aiming at, the idea is less about periodic redistribution of wealth (i.e. money, or in that culture grain or whatever) after it gets all piled up in one person’s bank account (or, um…silo), and more about keeping the means of production of wealth legally in the hands of people who are actually using those means of production. I.e. you are the one farming; the field you are farming ought to be yours, if we can manage it. If you’ve gotten into a situation where you had to sell your field and then go work for a wage on someone else’s, then the Jubilee fix would be to put you back on your own field– not necessarily to redistribute the accumulated wealth of the guy who’s been sitting around while you’ve been working for him, but put you in a position to generate your own wealth. I think that approach leaves everyone feeling less ripped off. (Of course, the calls to generosity would hopefully lead your erstwhile landlord to send you off with some cash, or at least grain for seed.)

      I think the modern non-agrarian equivalent would probably be some kind of co-op situation.

  2. The course is intended for adults. I have taught a one-hour session on Biblical Economics (based on Leviticus 25) already. Modern minds fed with a lifetime of “greed is good,” or “redistribution is evil” find it hard to absorb what’s in the Bible quickly. They also have no idea that corporate capitalism is a recent phenomenon.

    I agree, the real objective was a steady-state, where excessive accumulation of the means of production in a few hands was discouraged, and broad distribution was encouraged, by the fact that everyone knew that the Jubilee was coming. (Unfortunately, there’s no historical evidence that it was ever observed, even once.) The idea of a permanent wage-earner class was so far from Biblical thinking that it’s not even discussed.

    I love the idea that either you or your kids would get back a level playing field, if you wanted. Redistributing income (Keynesian) is “partial,” or “superficial.” It’s even worse when it is imposed without any warning. That’s objectionable, perhaps unjust, and ineffective in the long term. It might be necessary at this point, but it is medicine, not food.

    • I love the “medicine, not food” trope. That seems like one of those really useful pieces of intellectual gadgetry to have available when you’re trying to think about this stuff. It reminds me of the realism of God’s line of thought in Deut. 15 where He says that “there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today… If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites… do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need…There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” It’s like, He knows we are going to screw up, and measures to restore equity will be needed, but you can’t lose sight of the fact that the original design was for everyone to be (the good kind of) self-sufficient. God-sufficient would be a better term, I guess, in co-operation with others.

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