Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

March 3, 2005

The Rabbi Prince of Safed

Filed under: — Different River @ 7:35 pm

People come from all sorts of interesting backgrounds, to do all sorts of things, but this one is pretty amazing.

Natan Gamedze is the grandson of a former King of Swaziland — and an orthodox Rabbi in Safed, Israel. And it doesn’t hurt that he speaks (at least) 14 languages.

His story is told very well by Steven Plaut in this article. His web page is here. There is another interview with him here.

At “Wits” University [i.e., the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa] he studied a series of European and African languages. One day he was sitting next to a student who was doing some homework in a language with bizarre-looking letters. “What alphabet is that?” he asked. “Hebrew,” was the response.

The following semester the Russian language class he wished to take was fully booked. So instead he signed up to study Hebrew. Most of the other students in the class were non-religious white Jewish students with whom he would form many long-lasting friendships. His brothers and sisters poked fun at him for his choice of courses, nicknaming him “The Rabbi” in jest.

Toward the end of his studies there, he was approached by an Israeli professor on sabbatical from Hebrew University. The professor suggested that the prince come to Jerusalem on fellowship to continue his language studies. He jumped at the chance and entered Hebrew University in 1988. Some of his Jewish friends from “Wits” were now also in Jerusalem, several studying at the Ohr Sameach yeshiva there. The prince would visit the yeshiva to see his South African friends, occasionally sitting in on evening classes. He soon started reading on his own, particularly the works of Maimonides.

In the fall of 1989, he traveled to Rome while Hebrew University was shut for the religious holidays. One morning he woke up in a hotel near the Vatican feeling hungry and went down to the breakfast room. Sitting there, he stared at the food, but each time he took some in his hand, his arm felt weary and seemed to resist the notion of carrying the food to his mouth.

Back in his room, he recalled that he had heard that Jews have one day a year when everyone, regardless of level of observance, fasts. Curius, he checked his Hebrew University calendar. Sure enough, this was that day – Yom Kippur.

But the real change in his life came a few days later. He stood in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and contemplated the centuries of suffering the Jews had experienced at the hands of the Church. It was there and then that he made up his mind. He was going to convert to Judaism. Back in his hotel near the Vatican, he recited the “Shema Yisrael” for the first time.

Social Security Privatization

Filed under: — Different River @ 4:34 pm

I’ve been debating whether or not to add my voice to the din about Social Security reform/privatization/crisis-management. On the one hand, lots of “prominent” people (politicians, “journalists,” etc.) are saying a lot of dumb things, showing they don’t get it. On the other hand, lots of economists more famous (and often better qualified) than I are saying the right things. And if no one is listening to them why would I think anyone would listen to me?

In the meantime, here’s an excellent point, made in different ways by Lawrence H. White of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Ed Prescott of Arizona State and the Minneapolis Fed (and the 2004 Nobel Prize winner in economics):

If done right, there are no “transition costs” to switching to private accounts.

Lawrence White:

I’ve been making the point that letting people opt out of Social Security is “self-financing” if done right. Letting Ms. Smith move $100 of her payroll taxes into her own savings plan is a break-even proposition for the federal government if she also signs away just enough future benefits to retire the debt that the government incurs replacing her $100. (Because Ms. Smith’s payroll taxes are used to pay current retirees, the government needs replacement cash to continue paying current retirees). Namely, Smith signs away her claim to future payment of $100 plus interest, with the real interest rate she “pays” set equal to the Treasury’s real borrowing rate. The transitional debt then requires for no additional taxes or benefit cuts. Opponents of Social Security reform who cite “trillions of dollars of borrowing costs” as a fiscal irreponsibility are being frightened by a phantom: there is no additional cost to taxpayers.

Here’s another way to make the same point, courtesy of 2004 Nobel laureate Ed Prescott. The debt incurred to replace Ms. Smith’s payroll taxes, because it matches the cut in the government’s obligation to pay her future benefits, does not even represent new debt. It merely swaps one debt for another. Instead of owing Ms. Smith $100 plus interest, the government owes a bondholder exactly the same amount.

“There are no transition costs,” Prescott said at the Cato Institute Feb, 9. “Re-labeling debt is not a cost.”

Prescott added that the federal government is being less than honest when it calls the money it has borrowed from current FICA taxpayers to pay retired workers’ benefits an asset rather than a liability.

“Firms are required to list pension fund liabilities,” Prescott stressed. “I think the federal government should as well.”

Why Free Trade is Good

Filed under: — Different River @ 4:22 pm

Here’s a way to demonstrate that free trade is a good thing — in a way that fourth-graders (if not adults) can understand.

The Integrity of a Businessman

Filed under: — Different River @ 4:20 pm

From Zig Ziglar via Yosef Sebag:

A New York businessman dropped a dollar into the cup of a man selling pencils and hurriedly stepped aboard the subway train. On second thought, he stepped back off the train, walked over to the beggar and took several pencils from the cup.

Apologetically, he explained that in his haste he had neglected to pick up his pencils and hoped the man wouldn’t be upset with him. “After all,” he said, “you are a businessman just like myself. You have merchandise to sell and it’s fairly priced.” Then he caught the next train.

At a social function a few months later, a neatly dressed salesman stepped up to the businessman and introduced himself. “You probably don’t remember me and I don’t know your name, but I will never forget you. You are the man who gave me back my self-respect. I was a ‘beggar’ selling pencils until you came along and told me I was a businessman.”

The Talking Vacuum Cleaner

Filed under: — Different River @ 10:00 am

There is now a talking vacuum cleaner that can order its own spare parts by phone. Amazing…

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