How is this justice?

The other week, as I peddled a stationary bike at my favorite health club, I caught a portion of a (close captioned) town hall meeting with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on CNBC.  He addressed the administration/treasury’s efforts in easing the recession and unfreezing the credit markets.   An initial observation: Mr. Geithner was speaking about policies favorable to “95% of working families,” parroting the administration’s line before (and after) the election, and I was struck that here was a bureaucrat speaking like a politician (per the “working families” instead of “citizens” or even “taxpayers”).  Now,  I understand Mr. Geithner isn’t technically a part of President Obama’s burgeoning “czardom,” as Geithner does hold a traditional cabinet position, but I think such language may underscore some of the criticism directed at the administration regarding czars (i.e., an objection to politicking under the auspices of federal authority, not to mention the etymology of the word “czar”– Caesar, one who wields unelected, imperial power.  Um, isn’t the whole idea antithetical to the American system?).  But this minor point is pure discursion.

What interested me more is what Mr. Geithner was saying related to taxes.  In addition to asserting that we must never again fight two wars “without paying for them” (another political line, though he might have a point), he said that we can never give a big tax cut to the wealthy without paying for it.  Several interesting points arise from his statement.  First, I applaud him for appreciating that the government should take in what it gives out, or that government should only give out what it takes in.  Such is simple financial prudence.   Second, he is most likely not implying that we should cut government spending (since he has already identified himself as a politician of the left), but rather suggesting that we shouldn’t be cutting taxes, which I think is the wrong economic solution to the tax/spend equation.   (Second and a halfly, does he think that we should raise taxes to erase the quadruple-record $1.7 trillion budget deficit?)  Third, “tax cuts for the wealthy” is a completely disingenuous political appeal, because the wealthy are disproportionately and heavily taxed under our federal system.  Any across the board tax cut will thus result in the wealthy receiving disproportionate benefit (i.e., more total dollars back in their pockets than people in lower brackets), because they pay more in taxes in the first place– all giving apparent justification to the misleading charge that any Republican tax cut is “for the rich,” who should be rather forced to pay their fair share.

This is such a tired political tact, because excuse me, the rich already pay their fair share.  And then some.  Remember, the top 1% of wage earners pay more in income taxes than the bottom 95%.  The top 1% earn 22% of the income, while the bottom 95% earns 63%. Meanwhile, 47% will pay no federal income taxes at all.

How do we justify this disparity?  Because the rich can “afford” it?  I realize each additional dollar has diminishing value relative to the previous one (i.e., the difference between a reasonable standard of living and the lavish is not so great as the difference between poverty and a reasonable standard of living), but how does that warrant the government taking private property from one group of people, effectively giving it to another group, because the government thinks the first group doesn’t need it?  That sounds like tyranny.

I know I’ve already written about the progressive tax system a couple times before here at the Discursionists.   I realize there are much more pressing tragedies and injustices in this world than a disproportionately high tax burden on an unfavored political class.  I appreciate that as Americans, we all have it very, very good in the grand scheme of things, which imposes on us some spiritual obligations.  But justice is not inconsistent or contradictory, and is required in the small things and the large. Even if we don’t think the rich deserve anything they don’t already have (and maybe not even that), they are entitled to a consistently applied rule of law, just like everyone else.  Basically, if justice per the law is truly blind, we should all bear a proportionally equitable burden.  And all refrains to “tax the rich” is our national context is an advocation for subtle, perhaps even somewhat painless but maybe not less profound, injustice.

Am I wrong?

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40 Comments

Filed under Brandon

40 responses to “How is this justice?

  1. I’m glad you wrote about this again and provided tax statistics for our readers to digest. The words of a former boss come to mind – “numbers don’t lie.” Of course, these tax numbers don’t prove whether or not the American tax system is just, but it confronts our readers with facts, and encourages thoughtful minds to suppress undue emotions.

    Some people really dislike a question being answered by a question. I, however, think answering a question with a question can be quite beneficial (if not intended to divert). So, what is the purpose of taxes? What and who do taxes enable? Well, in short, various public services (e.g., education, infrastructure, law enforcement, military, etc…) and anyone who uses those public services (e.g., you, me and everybody else).

    I propose, and I know I’m not alone, that if you use public services or benefit from them, you should help pay for them. How is anything less not freeloading? Do you want to be a freeloader? Perhaps you do. But, let me propose this. If you want to be a freeloader, rather than demonizing the rich and letting jealousy rule your ideology and way of life, thank the rich profusely for your education, kiss the roads they build and you use, say a prayer for them when you see an officer of the law, and salute them when you see them in public. Now, that was for the 47%.

    For the remaining 52%, and those of the 47% who don’t want to be freeloaders, why wouldn’t you want to pay your fair share, by which I mean being taxed at the same percent as the wealthiest 1%? Do you think the 1% didn’t earn their wealth? Do you think that others (including you) are entitled to their wealth even though their wealth is titled to them? If you’re worried about public services not being paid for, then good. That should awaken a heightened level of concern of how we spend our tax dollars. It should also prompt you to say that we should perhaps raise the percent of everyone’s share, rather than pushing your share of our collective burden on to another group of people that so happen to be wealthier than you and the wealthiest 1%.

  2. whb

    A couple responses: A) speaking of parroting a line, the whole czar complaint is parroting a red herring from ideologues. “Czar” is a word the media usually tack on to government officials to make it sexier. And, every president has them. Your first paragraph about czars somehow tries to indict Obama by associating him with Caesar and yet, there is nothing different about officials in his government than under any other administration.

    B) to call the rich in America an “unfavored class” is a joke. It is more of a sad joke than a ha-ha joke.

    C) The entire reason that the rich have so much money in the US is because American capitalism has increasingly built wealth upon the backs of the working class. The average CEO makes 262 times the average worker.(http://www.epi.org/economic_snapshots/entry/webfeatures_snapshots_20060621/)
    How is that justice? Because of this ridiculous disparity, there is less social mobility in the US than in France (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27295405/).
    Your comments pretend that somehow the poor/working class aren’t working hard enough and that they just want to mooch off of the hard work of the rich.
    D) Calling the poor/working class freeloaders is amazingly naive, arrogant, and I don’t know what else.
    E) There is no actual explanation how taxes are unjust (or more ridiculous tyrannical). Is it just when a securities trader (who does not make anything, but simply trades upon the profits created from the actual material production of a worker) earns multiple hundreds of a percent more than the worker who may have had little viable access to education and so is pigeon-holed into manual labor? If that is somehow more just than taxes, well then enjoy then, I’d love to read whatever Bible you’re reading. Sounds like a doozie.

  3. czfinke

    The gap between the rich and poor needs to close. If the tax system is unjust then find a new way to do it.
    The distribution of wealth in the U.S. is pure injustice. I don’t care how liberal that sounds, if we can’t agree on that (we certainly don’t have to agree on the reasons it is so), then what the fuck is the point?

  4. Legislating morality through taxes is not the answer. Sorry, try again (and I’m not going to call you “naive” or “arrogant,” or condescendingly ask you what Bible you’re reading). There is no pigeon-holing happening here. All public services including education can still exist. I’d rather see the wealthy give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and decide for themselves whether or not God’s command for us to care for the poor and oppressed matter.

    It’s one thing to just say that you disagree with another and not provide much rebutting substance, which is relatively easy. It’s another to respectfully present differing opinions, ideology and alternatives, which is something too often not done – and perhaps what was not done here.

  5. Brandon

    Gentlemen,
    Thanks for your comments. I was hoping to get a diversity of opinions on this, and you guys are always thoughtful.

    The impetus for my post was that I’m sick of hearing about different classes like there’s something wrong with one or more of them, and because the rich are spoken of so disingenuously, which like it or not, is an injustice. (In addition, when the poor are spoken of dishonestly, that’s also an injustice). The rich are privileged and fortunate in so, so many ways, but it is also true that they are a disfavored class, often both politically and under the tax system. I would understand this to a degree if the rich didn’t pull proportionate weight, but as I’ve shown, they pay much more than what most people would consider to be a fair share. And word, this is true even though supposedly the moneyed special interests control government.

    Finke, I do agree that the distribution of wealth is this world is significantly based on injustice. Jesus himself says so—he calls mammon “unrighteous,” and tells us to use it shrewdly for the kingdom of God. (But also consider, Wes and Finke, that it’s not always the rich living in ease on the backs of the worker—I am employed in an industry that cares about money to a sickening degree, but all the time I get emails from executives on nights and weekends, so it’s not like the rich have easy jobs. The average CEO of a large company (and many small ones) probably have jobs nearly as difficult as the president’s. I’m not sure if you are doing so here, but to imply that that workers are the ones doing all the hard work is as naïve as saying the poor are such because they are lazy.) Finke, I can really seize on your point that if the tax system is unjust, then we must address the distribution of wealth in other ways.

    Terrence brings up a great point. Using the tax system to create economic equality is legislating morality. It’s interesting that conservatives often try to impose their morality (or even try to establish a kingdom of God) through political means, and liberals object to legislating morality. And then conservatives get mad when liberals try to legislate morality in the economic arena. Which is it going to be, guys?

    The truth is, the Bible calls both for personal morality and economic justice. (And it also says not to be partial to the rich OR the poor.)

    What we are fundamentally disagreeing on here is the means to accomplish these things. I agree that a CEO making 262 times the average “worker” (since I don’t know how that’s defined) is certainly not God’s picture of justice. But does the government have the primary role in addressing that inequity? (And consider how to how many people the average CEO gives jobs to, and how most CEOs have taken risks that ordinary people who never dream of—the kind of risks that need to be taken for society to advance). It seems to me that often, when the government gets involved in these matters, it creates greater injustices. We don’t have to cover the typical bogeymen regimes here. And I don’t think it’s economic justice to take from someone who has worked for something to give to someone who has not, whether by their own fault they haven’t worked or not—I don’t mean to sound patronizing, although mea culpa for the multiple ways in which I’m a sinful hypocrite, but I don’t think it’s good for the poor to be conditioned to expect something from the government for nothing. That said, I do recognize that I have a bit of cognitive dissonance when it comes to some sort of minimum public safety net, but I think this can be provided without some people being made to pay more than their fair share.

    Not that I have fully attained either, but I think true economic justice and personal morality emanates from a changed heart and mind, something which the law cannot provide. Conservatives may too be disgusted at the excesses of capitalism, but the alternatives may lead to far greater injustices. At least within capitalism I also have the freedom to pursue justice with my own economic means (which, I’ll admit, create spiritual obligations for me that many others do not have), and seek to change hearts and minds, and lest not forget, I am also accountable to the One in whose presence we must work out our salvation in fear and trembling.

    I never said taxes were unjust; merely, that the progressive system is unjust. Implicit in my post was an endorsement of a flat tax system, where everyone pays, say, 20% of their income. That way, it would be equitable, we wouldn’t have to argue about a progressive or regressive tax system, and everyone would have an incentive to participate in the system—part of the rationale behind the so-called ownership society.

    Would a flat tax be justice, guys? And if not, how could justice be manifested in a tax system non-arbitrarily? I’m not trying to be flippant, but I just wanted you to interact with the question I brought up. Is the current tax system just, even though the distribution of wealth is not?

    I think Terrence is right. We either leave the tax system the way it is, but at least quit slandering the rich, OR make the tax system equitable to all, and then concentrate as private citizens to eliminate economic injustice.

    Lord, have mercy on me.

  6. czfinke

    I can get behind a flat tax in principal, but only for a while. Then I start to think about what you mentioned in your post: The diminishing value of the dollar.
    A 20 percent flat tax certainly evens the tax code issue, but it doesn’t change the fact that if you make 20,000 a year, the burden of 20% is greater than if you make 350,000 a year. Right? Because those 2000 bucks are far more necessary for basic living than the 70,000 dollars of the wealthier family. At least, it seems as much to me.
    That doesn’t necessarily mean that I think that the wealthy should pay a 50% tax, or that the poor should not pay, but I think there will always be grumbling about the tax code, and people are still going to have to buck up and pay their taxes.

    I think that we should address poverty seriously as a nation, which we don’t, and until we do, I personally don’t care much about the griping of the rich over their tax burden. I can’t put it much more succinctly than that.
    This morning I am helping at a Lutheran Service in Bonner, MT about Soil, and reading Deut 24: 19-22. This should be our economic model. If you don’t need it, then leave it for the alien, the poor, and the slave.

  7. Holly

    Wow! This is a great discursion!

    First, I marvel at the statistic that 47% do not pay federal income taxes. Does that mean I was in the wealthiest 53% when I was a grad student barely clearing $1,000 per month? I certainly paid federal income taxes; was I stupid for doing so? Could I have gotten out of them?

    Which leads to my next point: I see a big problem with certain people “getting out of” paying their fair share of the taxes. Like some of you, I disagree with Brandon in calling the rich an “unfavored class.” I think the upper class is made up of plenty of obscenely wealthy, left-leaning individuals who are adept at evading paying their fair share of the taxes — thank you, loopholes set up by the Czars who shape our tax code that grows ever complexer and complexer!

    (Brandon, you are correct at pointing out that the rich pay a disproportionate amount of the taxes; I think you need to amend this to say that the *honest* wealthy pay a disproportionate share.)

    Okay, one more “beat up Brandon” comment. (Don’t worry, B, I’ll come to agree with you later in this post.) Please show me in the Bible where it says that we are not to be partial to the poor. There are a lot of verses condemning partiality towards the rich, but I cannot recall any admonition not to favor the poor.

    There IS an income gap between the wealthiest and poorest members of our society that is growing ever wider. The middle class appears to be disappearing.
    That said, why doesn’t anyone ever point out that the states that have the widest gap also happen to be blue states; most of the red states have a more just distribution of wealth. Maryland, for example, which has been run by Democrats for as long as anyone can remember, has the highest per capita income. In short, it is the wealthiest state. However, Maryland also has the highest percentage of people living below the federal poverty level — yes, now even worse than Mississippi. If you study the income gap on a state by state basis and then note how each state voted in the 2000 and 2004 elections, you would find that in most cases, it are the states being run by more conservative ideals that have dealt better with the equitable distribution of wealth.

    Even though the income gap is growing as our country takes an ever increasingly left turn in its economic policies, in 2009, I think it’s inaccurate to refer to the “capital owners” and the “laborer class.” These distinctions are now blurred. I know people without capital who make six figure incomes under the employment of others; I also know people who have capital thanks to small business loans who make very little income. That’s the beauty of our free market system — almost everyone has the opportunity to decide whether to be a self-employed entrepreneur at great risk or to be employed by someone else with more security. Sure, access to a college degree more often than not gives entree to the middle class, but this is in itself an injustice that needs to be addressed apart from the tax code.

    Finally, what miffs me most about discussions of taxation is the lack of a pragmatic, basic view of what taxes are. Taxes are meant to provide revenue to finance a government’s workings. While conservatives generally want small government and liberals generally want big government, I wonder what would happen if both groups suddenly decided to implement the tax code that would MAXIMIZE revenues — at the very least, we could then provide more foreign aid to poor countries. Such a code wouldn’t have a “soak the rich” tenor — if it did, the rich, who have the means to move away, would do so, and the tax base would be depleted … effectively decreasing revenues. (This happened in Maryland; the governor raised taxes dramatically, and millionaires fled the state in droves, leaving us with a huge revenue deficit.)

    Setting up the tax code to maximize revenues is a lot like when a company sets prices… it balances out price with demand so that it can sell the highest number of units at the highest possible price. If it charges $20 for a $5 good, no one will buy. If it charges $1 for a $5 good, it will lose money it could have otherwise made.

    There’s a certain level of taxation that is fair and equitable to all. In the biblical nation of Israel, it was 10%. Taxing the poor is not necessarily unjust, but it does require the government to provide everyone with the same equal protection under the law. If I make $12,000 per year and pay $1,200 in taxes, then I have the right to the same benefits from the state as someone who makes $800,000 per year and pays $80,000 in taxes. However, the injustice lies in the fact that the person making $800,000 can get a lunch date with the Senator, while I cannot.

  8. blraatikka

    Thanks for your comments guys— I don’t have time to respond in full right now, but Holly I wanted to show you these:

    “You shall not follow the masses in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute.”
    Exodus 23:2-3.

    “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.” – Leviticus 19:15

    “Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike.” Deuteronomy 1:17.

  9. Do we really want to build a tax system that is centered on standard of living? That seems far more subjective and prone to public abuse (e.g., irresponsible personal spending, reduced incentive for ascension, etc…) and political corruption (e.g., bribes, special interests, etc…) than a flat tax system. More than anything else, I believe this debate reflects the increasing and unhealthy dependence on government, the dying of community, and the diminishing role of faith and morals in America.

    Yes, poverty in America is a problem (not nearly as bad or unavoidable as in other nations). I’ve just seen too many rags-to-riches stories in America to buy into the socio-economic pigeon-hole theory. I believe that America would have less poverty and an overall higher standard of living if we had a flat tax because people would be more apt to be engaged citizens and value their time, money and resources more – including the stewardship of tax dollar spending. Any shift towards an understanding that tax dollars are not that of the government, but yours, is a very good thing.

    One more brief thing… with the current climate of American culture in mind, imagine the standard of living for America’s poor if the wealthy did not pay taxes, or pay the grossly disproportionate amount taxes that they do. I’ll bet your mind is conjuring pretty unpleasant things. This is why, at the very least, the wealthy should be thanked as I previously stated.

  10. czfinke

    People do not deserve to be thanked for following the law. Only a sense of entitlement would ask for it.
    Thanks comes for doing something even if you do not have to, like giving to charity or serving those whose needs are great.
    The rich deserve no more thanks for paying their taxes than I do.

  11. Ironically, based upon your comment Finke, it appears that entitlement lies on the other side of the equation – the side that expects things to be provided to them at the expense of another’s earnings.

    So, let me make sure I understand you correctly. Are you saying that under no circumstance would you thank someone for following the law?

  12. czfinke

    Can’t we just have a conversation about taxes instead of trying to draw every comment to it’s furthest logical conclusion, thereby attempting to trap people in hypocrisy? This is the biggest problem with these discursions.

    Of course people should be thanked following laws. But paying your taxes is not among those laws. If everyone is obeying the law, then there is no one who is getting a leg up. As Holly said (rightly), the person paying their share below the poverty line is just as deserving of the benefits of the person making a million bucks a year. That’s how it works. Or at least it should.
    And no, not everyone is following the rules. Including the “freeloaders” mentioned above, and also the filthy rich tax dodgers and schemers. That’s how it goes.

  13. whb

    Brandon, that was a good follow up. I won’t continue with my line of argument since using economic studies isn’t working (but I will say in response to Holly that I’d love to see any proof of wage disparity being higher in Blue states. All I can find is information on the gender gap: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/01/the-gender-wage-gap-state-by-state/).

    The verses you quote from the Bible, I think are pretty far out of context to be applied to dealing with taxes and wage disparity.

    As for a flat tax, I don’t agree with it for the reasons Finke mentioned. Let’s say I make $2k a month ($20k/yr and over the poverty line) and I pay $400 a month in taxes. That is pretty hefty portion. Rent is $600, groceries $100, utilities $200, etc. etc.).
    What I object to is pretending that everything is fair in a free market system as if the only reason someone has for being in poverty, being unable to move out of the working class, is because they haven’t worked hard enough. I know there are plenty of the rich working hard (thinking of the 80 hr. week lawyers), but the idea that those who are long-term unemployed, those people who aren’t given health benefits, those people who didn’t have access to a decent education, that they should thank the beneficent wealthy… well, my harsh words might come out again.
    A final note about taxes and government. There was the suggestion that it should be up to individuals to take care of the poor (giving to charity). The government is not separate from its people. We pay taxes so that the government, our society, can make ensure justice. Our government uses our money to educate and at times subsidize the poor because it is just and an extension of our collective will to do so. (if you want to talk about money and justice, why not look at the neo-con wars?)

    Now, does this mean I say keep on taxing the rich? Nope. I suggest we all read The Economist’s take on this (http://www.economist.com/surveys/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13356686). That link has more links to their special report on taxes. I’m still going through it all and I’m not sure I agree with it all, but as a certain conservative prof once told me, always read the smartest people who disagree with you.

  14. Finke, I would have liked to continue discursing on this matter, but your arguments seem to be unduly accusatory, at times inconsistent and perhaps over emotional. I’m completely turned off. I respectful dissent and elect not to reply to the remainder of your comments. Nevertheless, I’m glad we’re both passionate about caring for the poor and oppressed.

  15. GCC

    I’ve been absent on this one, but started to type up some thoughts last night…

    At some point in this, the idea was presented that even if the tax regime stays the way it is, we should stop slandering the rich.

    I think that in order for that to happen the root of the slander needs to be addressed. I do not believe that there is anything unique about the slander of the rich, but that it is simply another manifestation of extremist rhetoric that currently pervades society.

    I think (that is Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., president of Penn more or less thinks and I’m parroting) extremist rhetoric can be defined rather simply as single-minded and impervious to reason. Here’s how it works in this case:

    Person A: “Rich people are thieving bastards who exploit workers to line their own pockets.”
    Person B: “But rich people foot the bill for the majority of public services and, in many cases, are at least providing jobs for those workers you claim they are exploiting.”
    Person A: “But rich people are so rich and they’re exploiting people to become so. The amount they pay is irrelevant. They’re bastards.”
    And on and on…

    The same thing happens in reverse (from a left/right perspective):

    Person A: “The many welfare programs are bankrupting our country. And it’s all the illegal immigrants who are driving up costs. We need to deport them all. They are criminals after all”
    Person B: “But many illegal immigrants are here based on a deep desire and motivation to work. In many cases they’re doing jobs American’s would rather not do, supporting society and allowing many American’s to pursue careers in other fields. And they often pay taxes.”
    Person A: “But their criminals. They’ve broken the law. They’re just an expense. They must be deported.”
    And on and on…

    In both cases, Person A is focused on a single point (exploitation/criminality), and sticks to that point regardless of the reasoned points raised by the other side. Ultimately there is no discussion or deliberation – and hardly even democratic process – that occurs in such a case. Rather there is nothing more than a simple reassertion of a position regardless of its foundation. (It’s kind of like the Monty Python skit about the guy who pays to have an argument. It’s also kind of like the talk of death panels in the health care “debate.”) This becomes exacerbated when extremism on one side is countered with extremism on the other. The example for our topic would be: A: “The rich are thieving bastards.” B: “Yeah, well the poor are lazy freeloaders.” And on and on…

    I think the real problem is that such extremist rhetoric is popular precisely because it is so easy. Extremist rhetoric completely avoids the issue; it doesn’t require thought. We’ll never be able to work together (which is ultimately what is necessary and democratic) to solve our problems without truly addressing the issues. By avoiding the issues, we never have to make decisions, but extremism offers us a sense of psychological security because we are standing for “what’s right.” It also plays very much off our Us vs. Them attitudes, as seen by the demonizing language (thieving bastards, lazy freeloaders) used to attack the other side. Extremist rhetoric is effective because it is easy for us to absorb and understand, it is not at all challenging, and ultimately plays on what might be considered the worst of our humanity.

    Of course, the media doesn’t help, because they’re job is not to report, but to get ratings and (for the reasons cited above and more) extremist rhetoric is entertaining. Given our sources of information, I’m largely convinced that very few of us have any real idea of what the actual details of any of the issues we currently face are.

    Regarding taxes and other things:
    A flat tax might be fair, but it might not be just. But it could be both. There are a lot of variables that go into that determination. I believe we are operating in an unjust economic system, but I do not currently know what the best solution would be. I don’t think that the best way to “even things out” is to bring to top down closer to the bottom. But I don’t think any reasonable person thinks that. And I think suggestions that they do is simply another example of extremist rhetoric.

    The progressive tax system might not be fair, but it may be just. But it could be neither. There are also a lot of variables that go into that. It seems clear that at the extremes the progressive system is not purely “fair” but that there is “justice” in it. I personally feel justice is a more compelling argument than fairness. One might say that justice is a moral issue and that it should not be legislated. I’m not sure. I’m inclined to think though that there is enough general agreement that a certain sense of justice can be legislated.

    I agree with Terrence that basing a taxation system on a standard of living would be difficult and complicated. Though I’m not convinced that’s a reason no to do so. I also think that general agreement could be reached on what the standard should be, and that fears of problems created by relativism are insufficient grounds to avoid making the attempt. I’m not sure, but I don’t think it makes much sense to set policy based on outlier cases.

    It’s hard for me to talk about taxation while ignoring spending. In fact, I think we should talk about spending first.

    Given the variety of taxes people pay and the interconnectedness of the economy, it seems rather disingenuous to call anyone who at some point has a dollar pass through his/her hands a freeloader. I think this should be obvious. Indeed, if someone who simply pays no income tax is a freeloader, then tax law is actually set up to allow people to be freeloaders. Obviously, our overall contributions to society and everything that entails is not limited to our income tax contributions. It’s hard to see how reducing people to their tax returns is at all productive or reflective of society. Thanking someone who pays more taxes for roads makes little sense precisely because of the fact that all taxes are our own money. It someone earns a dollar and pays a portion of it in taxes to help build a road that I use, should I be thanking them if I provide the dollar to them through commerce? Or should they really be the one thanking me? What if they use the road too? Isn’t it me who provided not only the “wealth” but also the taxes? Of course, that same person might buy something from me. It’s a huge cycle of money in which we are all involved. We should be thankful we have a system that is reasonably efficient in actually providing us these services, not thank full to a certain class of people.

    When it comes to paying our “fair share,” I think we simply need to be cognizant of the fact that fairness and justice are not always the same thing. Obviously we should all strive to contribute. But determining a “fair share” seems rather arbitrary, and a focus on income taxes alone seems rather myopic.

    Legislating morals is difficult, and I think should largely be avoided. But equating personal issues (e.g. gay marriage) with public issues of economic justice is a false analogy. Also regarding the legislation of morals, I think we would be well served to explore new ways of dealing with human nature in our lawmaking. It seems that we often try to legislate morals by attempting to tamp down human instinct, e.g. greed. What if we set up a system that leverage our impulse toward greed for the common good? I had a conversation the other night with a friend who is working with a company to devise a pay for performance system in health care, for instance. Ultimately, a just society will require rules, regulations, limits, etc. The question is just which are most fair, effective, etc. When we move beyond extremism we might be able to start working together with mutual respect and reason to figure some of these things out.

    I think it was Brandon who suggested he does not think it is just to take from one person what they have worked for and give it to another who did not work for it, even if that second person’s situation arose through not fault of his/her own. If that’s not justice, what is? This seems to be the opposite: a dog-eat-dog system in which we all gather and horde whatever we can, and those who cannot are simply out of luck, and must rely on the charity of others. Is that justice? It seems to me that in such a case we would see more dependence of one class on another rather than less (or we’d see social Darwinism at work). It doesn’t seem to me that there is any reason why a progressive tax system necessarily conditions people to expect anything from the government for nothing. I think that probably happens, but I don’t think it’s the tax system that creates it. I would speculate that if we stopped reducing people’s value to society to their tax returns, and focused on a more holistic perspective of human value, we might find that more people wouldn’t expect something for nothing, but rather understand their individual contributions to society and how it is an integral part of the whole, possibly driving them to seek to achieve and contribute more. Maybe not.

    It seems there’s a real disagreement about what is or is not a “fair share.” Again, I find that to be an odd reduction of individuals to their tax returns, rather myopic, and not the same as the question of justice.

    I think that framing an issue in terms of “capitalism (with its potential excesses)” and “the alternatives” (which are apparently not at all capitalism) is a bit of a false dilemma. Thinking that the government providing health care, for instance, would make us any more socialist than we are now, or that the government staying out of health care would preserve our current capitalist system seems foolish. Obviously, a government providing services does not socialism make, nor does a service-less government capitalism make.

    I like Holly’s idea of using the federal system as sort of a laboratory for policies. That’s definitely one of the benefits. We can see the overall effects of a given set of policies in one state and compare them with the policies of another. It seems that good, reasoned think that would result would be a nice way to combat extremism.

    I also like Terrence’s recognition of the non-monetary benefits of a monetary contribution (i.e. an attitude change). That’s start at moving beyond simply valuing tax returns.

    Regarding the bible:
    The passages Brandon cited are about judicial justice and judgments of the courts, not about treatment of the poor and economic justice. For more on this see the Mishneh Torah. For the laws that do pertain to the treatment of the poor, workers, etc. see (also enumerated in the Mishneh Torah):

    Ex. 22:21
    Ex. 22:24
    Ex. 22:24
    Lev. 19:9; Lev. 23:22
    Lev. 19:10
    Lev. 25:43
    Lev. 19:13
    Deut. 15:7
    Deut. 15:11
    Deut. 15:13
    Deut. 24:15
    Deut. 24:17
    Deut. 24:19-21
    Deut. 23:25-26

    And then there’s all the stuff in the prophets, e.g. this past Sunday’s lectionary (RCL) selection from Amos.

    Then of course there’s good stuff in the Christian Scriptures. The Sheep and Goats of Matthew 25 come to mind. So does this week’s gospel reading (again, RCL) of Mark 10:21. And so does that thing about dinner parties (Luke 14:12-14). That’s all I have off the top of my head.

    But ultimately, I don’t think we can or should rely on the bible (or any other singular source) as our (only?) guide on these (or any) issues. Indeed, such single-mindedness that is impervious to outside reason sounds rather extremist! J In reality, the bible doesn’t actually say or teach anything. Rather, we interpret its words and understand and absorb them as our own teachings. To paraphrase Dr. Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Emeritus in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University, “The bible doesn’t speak. We speak. We interpret. Thus, to say, ‘The bible says…’ is disingenuous for it is I, and not the bible, who is speaking.” Take, for instance, Brandon’s citations that he understands (apparently) as indicating that the poor are not to be favored. I disagree with that interpretation, and so does Maimonides. But that does not mean that either side is absolutely right. So, I think the real question becomes why do we interpret things in the bible the way we do? But that’s a whole different subject.

  16. czfinke

    I’ll take over emotional and accusatory.
    It’s very emotional.

  17. Holly

    Thanks for those scripture references, Brandon. I stand corrected.

    Whb, I agree that it’s prudent that I furnish evidence for my claim that the most egregious income gaps are found in blue states. A careful search of the Web has turned up empty, so I’m determined to create my own map that notes which states have the worst and best income gaps, as defined by the ratio of the lower limit of the second-t0-lowest household income quintile compared to the lower limit of the highest household income quintile. Unfortunately, I cannot seem to find that data by state, so if anyone could point me in the right direction, it would be appreciated. (Yes, I tried census.gov, but I couldn’t find where it divided up state household incomes by quintile.) I’ll keep looking…

    What my Google search did reveal, however, is that the areas with the largest income gap tended to be urban. (Even though many rural areas were amongst the poorest in terms of number of individuals living under the poverty level, these same areas do not experience an income *gap*, i.e. — in these areas, pretty much everyone is poor.) Urban areas historically have voted Democratic, and there’s also the greatest degree of income inequality in these areas. I’m not sure if there’s a correlation or not; I will concede that this may be coincidental.

    That said, I did find on the Internet a graph that demonstrates that from about 1970 onward, the income of the bottom quintile has remained the same while the income of the top quintile has climbed, thus exacerbating the gap. (See: http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/j/msnbc/Components/Art/BUSINESS/040816/Income_gap.gif,hsmall.jpg ).

    It’s of note that in the mid 1960s, President Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” with the express goal of closing the income gap between the poorest and the richest. Unfortunately, as the graph above illustrates, the exact opposite has happened, with incomes of the poor stagnating.

    Now, I don’t know a lot about Johnson’s specific policies, but empirical evidence strongly suggests to me that he inadvertently imposed an unjust structure on the economy even though he was trying to help the poor.

    In Johnson’s defense, the stagnation of poor incomes also happened to coincide with seismic societal changes — the introduction of the birth control pill and resulting so-called sexual revolution for one — which may have led to the demise of the nuclear family. Much statistical evidence abounds that this break up of the family has led to greater poverty for a number of reasons: unequal gender pay, lower educational attainment, higher crime rates, etc.

    In short, I think it’s fair to say that our worsened state of affairs in terms of the income gap is either due to non-traditional social changes or else to well-meaning economic policies gone awry. Perhaps it’s due to both. Thoughts, anyone?

  18. whb

    GCC,
    Good thoughts. I think you’re on to something there. Among the most salient points are the recognition that we live in a crappy system. That’s the first step (of the 12?)–admitting we have a problem. My rhetoric about the rich not deserving their riches (hyperbolic) is a response to the idea that somehow everyone else is lazy. We have wage gaps that occur because capitalism is flawed (not necessarily unto death, but flawed). Now, if we understand that there are systematic flaws that lead to wage disparity (access to education, or gender/race discrimination), then as a government (read: as a society) we can try to address those problems. This is done via taxes and equal rights laws, etc… (This is also not to say that those taxes or laws are inherently good and can either do more damage or move the problem elsewhere).
    Most of all, though, it is important to note that we cannot hold up the supposed ideals of capitalism to the reality (this leads to cynicism, pessimism, etc…). Nor can we, as you note, hold our society up to an arbitrary interpretation of a religious text.
    This said, all legislation is moral. “Legislating morality” is a tricky phrase. It means one people group trying to answer large moral questions for others (read: abortion). Outlawing murder is moral legislation, but it is something that as a society we are in agreement. However, trying to answer huge moral questions such as when a human life is viable or sentient, that’s a big one (but, anyone should be quick to note that either allowing it or banning it is a moral decision). But let’s go back to taxes because that is tangential.
    Holly, I am glad you’re scouring the internets for answers, but I don’t think you’ll find that data (and if you did, it would probably be some economic tome that would require a translator for all of us)–especially since you have a lot of complex issues at hand: urban areas will have the most disparity, but this is because you have lots of diverse socioeconomic people groups and it doesn’t take into account suburbs and commuting.
    This is just to say, wages for the rich (if you look at the economist articles you’ll see that the super-duper rich are really the ones who should freak us out) are drastically increasing and wages for the middle and working classes have stagnated. And I’m sorry to say it, but it is in large part due to Reaganomics, which continued largely unabated under the Bushes and Clinton. But regardless of who is to blame, the state we’re in is the reason so much class warfare (and people yelling tax the rich) is going on.

  19. blraatikka

    Dang it you people. Quit saying interesting things. I’m like 8 comments behind.
    Tomorrow night, maybe…

  20. GCC

    Holly said: “Much statistical evidence abounds that [the] break up of the family has led to greater poverty for a number of reasons: unequal gender pay…”

    Now the context for this was more or less mid-century, right? And – broadly speaking – the “traditional family” at the time involved what we might call a stay-at-home mom, right?

    I don’t think that it’s being suggested that the evolution of the Family created unequal pay among the genders. Clearly, the women who were working during the time in question were paid far less than their male counterparts – if one could even say that had male counterparts.

    So what is really being suggested here? That women leaving the home has forced us to recognize the issue of unequal pay among the genders and that we are a hopelessly unjust lot who can’t figure out how to treat people equally? Or that unequal pay among the genders is real and that the solution to it is for women to shack up with men who will make more money so the women aren’t considered poor?

    You’re not suggesting that are you, Holly?

  21. Holly

    I was suggesting the unequal gender pay is a fact, then and now. (This is an injustice, and there’s still some work to do to aright it.)

    The breakup of the family, which has resulted in more female heads of household, has led to higher poverty because these female heads of household make less than their male counterparts.

    I did not say that anyone should shack up with anyone.

    Also, “traditional family” does not mean that the mom does not work outside the home. All it means is that you have two parents who are married to each other and who live in the same household.

  22. Joseph

    Wow, this went somewhere very fast! I was beginning to think you guys were stagnating here.

    Holly, as for income levels and political leanings, I think you’ll find the exact opposite swing. The data I’ve found in the past 15 minutes is not exactly new, but historically, it has been more common for higher income voters to vote Republican. The following link is all I really have to back this up right now:

    http://www.newsaic.com/mwelection2000.html#familyincome

    While there are a few prominent billionaires with money who are “liberals,” these people are a statistical anomaly. Hollywood stars and popular folks like George Soros only make up a small percentage of the wealthy and their voting records. It is the exception that catches our eye, not the norm.

    As for the “family breakdown” being the primary cause of a drop in income levels, I’d like to see some correlative data to back this point up. Even if we allow that the family has broken down since the 50s, suggesting that as a cause of lower income levels is likely backwards. That is to say that lower income levels are the cause of the breakdown of a family unit.

    If a family has a lot of negative stress put upon it – low income – individuals are more likely to look for alternatives. This may mean someone takes a job out of town, or it may mean that both spouses need to work to make ends meet, or it may mean children have to make due with little adult supervision, or all of those things. There are families that stay together during these rough times, and we should applaud them. A working family faces an uphill battle when economic conditions are tight.

    Another thought: for all the emphasis placed on the enemy that is The Freeloader, I would like to submit that I am a freeloader. My family made enough money for me not to HAVE to work through high school. I was only made to work by my dad as a lesson in social order, to put it nicely. My parents wanted me to have experience in a workplace, and to have some experience handling the responsibility that comes with having to manage my own spending money. They never said as much, obviously – getting a job in high school is just one of those “things you do.” The same with college. I didn’t have my college financed by my folks, but they did get me started and helped me get access to student loans (with government-established interest rates, and for the feds were not allowed to check my credit score!) And it wasn’t only out of the goodness of their hearts either – there is plenty of societal pressure to help your kids graduate from college and get a job if you have the money to do it.

    My point is this: I think the concept of being a freeloader is something one assigns to everyone but themselves. But if you really look at all the “entitlements” you’ve taken without question, whether it’s access to clean water, safe roads, contractual obligations upheld by law, etc…..you’re probably a freeloader too. And it’s okay to admit it. We’re all just people, using the tools at our disposal to eat, stay warm, and keep clothes on our backs.

    This is what makes me side on the middle of the road piece here. I can understand how someone who believes they have worked hard feels like they are entitled to their fair share. What I don’t get is the lack of empathy from either side when determining what your neighbor’s fair share is. Whether you think he is too rich to deserve it all, or too lazy to deserve anything, it really seems like no one wants to walk a mile in anothers’ shoes.

  23. John

    I’m not going to discurse here (although I have serious problems with Grant’s comment that the Bible doesn’t teach–for another time…), but it seems like I’m the only person here with access to the Lexis Nexus Statistics database. Below is some hard data. As a firm believer that there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” I’ll let others draw conclusions from it–go crazy, y’all!

    * A couple points. The data is derived from the Bureau of Census, “Family Income–Distribution by Income Level and State,” _Statistical Abstract of the U.S._, (October 2005), table no. 685, p. 455. Note that this is family, not individual, income. The table include the 50 states and Washington D.C. but no territories. I have only included the income extremes of households making less than $25,000/year and over $250,ooo/year. The table is not adjusted for population density, ethnic group, occupation, race, etc. Finally, I have given the red/blue designation based on the 2004 election results (meaning that NM and VA went for Bush). The first listing of Mississippi will give you the legend for reading the various numbers.

    10 Poorest by Household:

    1 Mississippi (RED STATE: 760,000 households)
    households with income under 25K: 225,000 (29.6%) / households with income over 200K: 12,000 (1.6%)

    2 Louisiana (RED: 1,137,000 households)
    306,000 (26.9%) / 27,000 (2.4%)

    3 West Virginia (RED: 500,000 households)
    134,000 (26.8%) / 7,000 (1.4%)

    4 Arkansas (RED: 742,000 households)
    194,000 (26.1%) / 12,000 (1.6%)

    5 New Mexico (RED: 483,000 households)
    125,000 (26%) / 11,000 (2.3%)

    6 D.C. (BLUE: 108,000 households)
    28,000 (25.9%) / 11,000 (10.2%)

    7 Alabama (RED: 1,224,000 households)
    312,000 (25.4%) / 28,000 (2.2%)

    8 Kentucky (RED: 1,119,000 households)
    282,000 (25.2%) / 20,000 (1.8%)

    9 South Carolina (RED: 1,103,000 households)
    267,000 (24.2%) / 24,000 (2.2%)

    10 Oklahoma (RED: 934,000 households)
    224,000 (24%) / 19,000 (2%)

    Top 10 Richest by Household:

    1 D.C. (BLUE: 108,000 households)
    28,000 (25.9%) / 11,000 (10.2%)

    2 Connecticut (BLUE: 893,000 households)
    102,000 (11.4%) / 74,000 (8.3%)

    3 New Jersey (BLUE: 2,172,000 households)
    275,000 (12.7%) / 169,000 (7.8%)

    4(t) Maryland (BLUE: 1,398,000 households)
    159,000 (11.4%) / 90,000 (6.4%)

    4(t) Massachusetts (BLUE: 1,570,000 households)
    221,000 (14.1%) / 101,000 (6.4%)

    6 California (BLUE: 8,281,000 households)
    1465,000 (17.7%) / 483,000 (5.8%)

    7 Virginia (RED: 1,939,000 households)
    280,000 (14.4%) / 111,000 (5.7%)

    8 New York (BLUE: 4,616,000 households)
    878,000 (19%) / 256,000 (5.5%)

    9 Colorado (RED: 1,164,000 households)
    180,000 (15.5%) / 52,000 (4.5%)

    10 Illinois (BLUE: 3,126,000 households)
    505,000 (16.2%) / 136,000 (4.4%)

    If the group would like me to look up any other stats just let me know; however, I’ll have to email you the image files of the tables instead of breaking them down like I did here–I *do* have other things to do, you know… 😉

  24. GCC

    Nice, John! Thanks!

    OK, it must be an end of the day thing, but I’m having trouble synthesizing this. Does it make sense to say that the closer the two % are, the smaller the overall income difference is? That might not be the right way to articulate it. What about this, it’s better to have a larger % in the high income category and a lower % in the low income category?

  25. I never said the freeloader was an “enemy,” or should be vilified. I did say that I think it would be best if all paid a flat tax for various aforementioned reasons. I understand that I’ve been a freeloader at points in my life. However, those freeloading years have been almost exclusively as a minor and under what I would consider a “family umbrella” that contributed it’s fair share of taxes to the system. I would even support a flat tax for those of “freeloading-age.”

    Ironically, the point about parents encouraging their teenagers to work for the purpose of teaching their children a “lesson in social order” supports my point. Just as this teaches teenagers civic, social, workplace and fiscal responsibility lessons, so would their participation in a flat tax system. I believe America would have a higher propensity to flourish if we focused on equitable personal contributions rather than reinforcing socio-economic class divisions.

    Now with that said, I understand that wages and taxes are very closely related in a free market system, but it appears that the real grievance of the “liberals” involved in this discursion is with wages, not with taxes. With a liberal slight of hand, they are perhaps ingeniously using the American political system to seek just compensation by promoting an unjust tax system. Of course, one could argue that the government will only tax what the “market” can bear – as to suggest public acceptance of the current tax system. But, has anyone heard of the Tea Party movement?

  26. GCC

    Terrence, I particularly agree with you regarding mutual participation in/contribution to society. I’m not convinced that a flat tax is the best way to achieve that goal though. (Neither am I’m convinced the current tax system’s any good.) Without fully understanding the background or proponents of a flat tax, I think its spirit is generally good – everyone contributes. It reminds me of wanting to host soup kitchen that requires some sort of contribution from those who ate there (obviously very tiny and proportional to ability), which would be subsequently donated to a charity dedicated to helping those even worse off. I think everyone should contribute. There’s Talmudic teaching that no one is relieved from the obligation to Tzedaka, not even the poor. Naturally, they’re not expected to give as much as a rich person, but the assumption is (more or less) that there’s always some one who has it worse that we do. So, I think the question boils down to a determination of what is the best way for each person to contribute their “fair share.” I’m not sure what the best way is, but my suspiscion is that a system so cumbersome and convoluted as Taxes is probably not it. It seems like that (particularly if it were a simplfied flat tax) would be akin to using a sledgehammer to put up baseboards. (I think I have my home remodel analogy right 🙂

    Regarding vilifying the “freeloader:”
    Whether right or wrong, I think the term “freeloader” itself has become (or probably just is) vilifying, and certainly polarizing (i.e. Us – those who pay – vs. Them – those who don’t) and thus creates enmity. So, whether you meant to or not – or said so explicitly or not – I think you have vilified those whom you would consider “freeloaders,” simply by virtue of the fact you used that word. (I think the fact that thesaurus.com has “parasite,” “leech” and “moocher” listed as synonyms for it underscores this point.) I also think the context in which the term first came up indicates the intent – albeit porbably just rhetorical – of vilification. The interogative (“Do you want to be a freeloader?”) approach that plays on people’s internal cognitive dissonances is a rather powerful rhetorical – and psychological – approach to take in this context. (Not that I think you thought that out. It’s just natural. I do the same thing. We know internally what has such rhetorical power because we experience it ourselves through our own cognitive dissoanance.) And for the rhetorical effect to actually be there, the negative associations must also be present. For me what’s important about the freeloading issue is not that we may all have been freeloaders at some point, but rather that I suspect it would actually be rather difficult to consider anyone (I think its reasonable to exclude minors) to be a freeloader. I tried to state above that payment of income taxes is not what makes someone a productive member of US society, and even less so humanity. Ultimately the whole freeloading thing is dependent on an arbitrary standard (in this case income taxes), so there’s no need to bring it up anyway. And because “freeloader” is an inherently divisive term that pits the givers against the takes, I see it as unproductive – and possibly destructive – because I don’t believe division will bring society any closer to solving the problem of economic justice.

    Back to the flat tax. I like the idea for a number of reasons. But I also get hung up on the fact that $2k off of $20k is far more significant than $80k off of $800k. So, how do you deal with that problem? Is it just not a problem for you? Is there another way around it I haven’t heard? I’m curious what everyone thinks about that.

  27. *Note: I’d really enjoy receiving questions to clarify what I mean rather than receiving assumptions. Nevertheless, I don’t understand why Americans find it increasingly difficult to “call a horse a horse.”

    The reason I ask if one wants to be a “freeloader” (by which I exclusively mean one who takes advantage of others for free things – http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/freeloader) or not is because I personally feel less a part of something (e.g., family, citizen, community, etc…) when I do not contribute even though I’m capable of doing such (no matter how little). For example, if someone makes me a meal, I’ll at least help clean-up. I understand that the meal is a gift, but if only take and don’t give, it opens the door to abuse, complacency and selfishness. These are the very same pitfalls that exist for wealthy people, even though manifested in different manners (e.g., paying unjust wages out of greed, ignoring the poor and oppressed out of complacency, embracing narcissism out of a false sense of superiority). I think the equitable and mutual participation of all helps close the door these pitfalls – thus my support for a flat tax system.

    Again, it appears that the real grievance of liberals is with wages, not with taxes. It appears that liberals are using the tax system to redistribute the wealth as a way to provide what they believe to be just work compensation. The problem with this is that it promotes an unjust tax system rather than addressing the root problem – just wages. Obviously this is their political right. They are operating within the bounds of the American political system. This appears to be a case of using the ends in attempt to justify the means. But, two wrongs don’t make a right.

  28. blraatikka

    Alright, I certainly don’t have the time to respond everything I’d like in these comments. Suffice it to say we have a pretty robust discursion going here that has taken many unanticipated turns. Earlier in the thread I felt like we were conflating religious decrees with what secular law should be, but I can’t remember exactly why, and if Wes is correct that law is the product of what people agree on, perhaps it’s not so wrong to hope more people would be convinced that secular law should have particular religious underpinnings.

    A couple brief points. I’m not willing to concede that the verses I cited are not instructive here or ripped too far out of context. I understand God requires us to have a special consideration for the poor– Finke and Grant, your verses are not new to me. But, to put perhaps an inappropriate American gloss on it (realizing ancient Israel was what it was), God is speaking to private citizens of their private property, and how they are to share it with the poor. However, I think the verses I mentioned show that God requires the authorities to be blind in administering justice and that the law should apply to everyone equally. This resonates with our deepest sense of equity– in the same way, I think, that a flat tax or consumption tax should. In the end, I don’t care about the efficacy of a flat tax in maximizing government revenues, or closing the wealth gap. I like it only because it is fair. Everyone pays the same percent. The law applies equally to everyone, regardless of their particular situations. No one bears a different proportional burden than anyone else. Even if it was 75%, it would be fair (now mind you, I’d be complaining about the particular rate, for very different reasons). I realize this is pretty simple-minded, but that’s it– that’s all. It’s common sense. Not too mention how a simplified tax system would save millions of man hours a year in April and add productivity to the economy, and how we’d then be removing loopholes and incentives those crafty rich people take advantage of (which I’m for removing, although Holly, do you realize that you’re saying that under the current tax system, rich people should be paying an even higher share of the overall tax burden?)

    Also, I came across this article the other day which compares people who hold certain government philosophies and their charitable giving.
    http://www.trolp.org/main_pgs/issues/v12n1/Willett.pdf
    I actually wasn’t going to post it, because I didn’t want to come off as smug, but I think because the discussion has ventured into wealth, disparity and political alignment, it would be appropriate. One key point for our purposes here is that liberals make 6% more income than conservatives, which flies in the face of the whole “the rich are mostly Republican” wisdom. Yet, I couldn’t help but thinking (and when interpreting the data John posted) that costs of living and wages are higher in the blue states than in the red, so perhaps it’s hard to compare. But in any event, the author of the book notes that people who reject the idea that “government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality” give an average of four times more (in terms of a percentage of their income) than people who accept that proposition. That just floors me, especially when the overall disparity between conservative giving and liberal giving is only 30%.
    If you don’t want to read the entire 25 page article, George Will offers a one-page Cliff Notes edition:
    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/03/conservatives_more_liberal_giv.html

    Grant, as to your very last question: perhaps it would be fair if everyone paid at least something, instead of 47% effectively paying nothing…

    And Wes, I can only think of one conservative prof at Bethel—Dr. Ritchie?

  29. whb

    Quickly: Brandon, who are those people giving to? A lot of it is to missionaries and churches, which is great, but how much of the “giving” that you’re citing is giving people health care, helping them get subsidized loans? That would be relevant to the taxes issue.
    As for the idea that liberals take issue with wages rather than taxes and try to take from the rich and give to the poor, I was hoping that my previous comments would make this point: the American system of capitalism is systematically flawed so that the rich are rewarded for being rich (easy access to education, large amounts of wealth transferred between generations, relatively safe communities, access to ideas such as investing) and the poor/parts of the middle class are kept stagnant. There’s a lot in that claim, but if you take it as at least possible, then you understand that the issue of taxes is not about freeloading. Rather it is about making sure that we try to address the problems created by the system from which we benefit. It is not redistribution, because the distribution in and of itself is flawed.
    As for freeloading, it is a weighted word and in a political context cannot be said without the obviously harsh and accusatory connotations.
    Lastly, as for the statistics, I really think it would be hard for us laity to pull much from them. For example, how “red” are those states’ tax codes? Also, “red” voting may speak to conservative social values, but not beliefs about tax codes. There are just too many variables to make many salient points.
    Thanks for the good responses. I’ve appreciated it.

  30. czfinke

    I could care less if the wealthy in this discussion are liberal or conservative. That is a moot, and distracting point.
    The consideration is of income and tax system burdens on the wealthy vs. the poor. The poor do not belong to an ideology, nor do the rich.

    Also, is it not an American gloss on the Hebrew Scriptures to say “God is speaking to private citizens of their private property”? That’s about as American as a gloss can get, isn’t it? Particularly in the face of the agrarian nature of the Hebrew community, and the rules for managing agriculture in said community laid out in the Old Test. This can be argued. But let’s not pretend that American gloss somehow favors the poor.
    This is just an aside.

  31. Joseph

    whb – you make an interesting point about the charitable giving question. I had never thought of it framed that way. Charitable organizations don’t build highways or enforce contractual obligations. Giving to them is a great thing, but it’s not a substitute for the collective infrastructural investment that actually sustains our society.

    John, I don’t think that data in your post is as granular as the data in the link I had posted – income levels across voting lines are not represented. And George Will is not exactly a statistical expert any of us should rely on for straight, unideological interpretation. 🙂 Nonetheless it is true that political ideology is somewhat of a red herring here. I’m not exactly sure what that has to do with the idea that we should work toward a fair taxation system.

    All this being said, I think despite our differences, we must admit that the common thread of this discursion is making the tax code fair. And I think that’s definitely a discussion worth having. In order to talk about fairness, we have to acknowledge the unfair pieces on all sides of the spectrum. Even this does not need to be an ideological discussion. We should be talking straight facts here.

  32. Holly

    Okay, I haven’t had time yet to read many of the newest comments, but I wanted to comment on one of Grant’s:

    “OK, it must be an end of the day thing, but I’m having trouble synthesizing this. Does it make sense to say that the closer the two % are, the smaller the overall income difference is? That might not be the right way to articulate it. What about this, it’s better to have a larger % in the high income category and a lower % in the low income category?”

    I agree that the stats John posted don’t show the entire picture. We’re talking about states that have the highest income gap, and for that, I need access to the income quintiles for each state — that is, take the state’s households, divide them into the 20% poorest, the 20% second poorest, the 20% in the middle, the 20% second richest and the 20 richest. Then, look at the number that separates the 20% poorest from the 20% second poorest and the number that separates the 20% second richest from the 20% second richest. Next, compare those two numbers — it’s one way to measure income disparity between the poorest and richest members of a society. Some states will have a smaller difference between these two numbers (my hypothesis is that they are primarily red states) and other states will have a larger difference (primarily blue states).

    If I’m among the 20% poorest members in my state, and there’s 20% of the population making a drastic amount of more income than I am, then that’s going to affect me more adversely than if there’s, say, only 5% of the population making gobs of money. Because if such a large portion (20%) of the population has means, it will cause me to pay more for things such as housing, food, and other goods and services.

    However, if the upper quintile (20%) is making closer to the amount that I’m making, even though I’m in the bottom quintile my money will go further.

  33. Wes, I understand your viewpoint, but on various levels, I’m not buying what you’re selling. However, I agree with your red and blue state analysis and that current American capitalism has flaws.

    Finke, I’m not sure if your last comment was directed to me or not, but for the record, I never said any liberal or conservative in this discursion is wealthy or not – I actually have no clue and find it moot too.

    Ideologies are sometimes incomplete generalities, but I believe I’ve stayed within the realms of proper assignments. I agree that the poor and wealthy do not belong to any particular ideology. In fact, I know poor people who have conflicting ideologies, and the same for wealthy people.

    I also have not said that the American socio-political-economic system favors either poor or wealthy. I’m guessing I could share some personal experiences that would likely raise a brow and reveal/remind another side to the story.

    Yes, I don’t want to be misunderstood.

  34. Paulo

    I’ve often thought that the frowned upon phrase ‘legislating morality’ to be an interesting one. To me, the benefit of any law seems to be proportionate to the wisdom of the one legislating! Did not God himself give us a moral law, and expect us to live by it in the Torah, “Love your neighbor as yourself” ? Lev 19
    We’ve learned from history that laws, only lead to more laws, hence the tax code laws of America are contained in a book now 7 times the length of the Bible itself.
    The concept of “Sabbath” in deuteronomy 15 is tied very closely to the land, and the economic well being of all peoples in the community of Israel. If a man comes into hard times, and has to sell his land, he can be assured that his land will one day belong to his family again, not to a more fortunate capitalizing, opportunistic soul than he. The laws regarding “slaves” are important to us today because they resemble men like my father who work for one company their entire life, and often find themselves in precarious positions later in life. Companies who “follow the bottom line” break these simple commands. The implementation of the impersonal “corporation” in America’s history is perhaps partially to blame here.
    In my opinion injustice is too strong of a word to be using in regards to the treatment of the rich and powerful in our country. When governments are deciding over whether the rich keep 8 million or 4 million of their “own hard earned money”, morality is not at stake and there are better battles to be fought on the front lines of real injustice.
    A report came out today stating world hunger is getting worse. This is injustice, lets work on behalf of the poor, not the rich. But you might say, working on behalf of the rich in this way is working for the poor! Once again, the Bible teaches us that this is not the way of human beings. The rich young ruler walks away saddened by the command of Jesus, for his possessions were great. Lets not confuse the kingdom of heaven built inside of people, for the kingdoms of the earth which is made with human hands, and the collection and distribution of money, and possessions.

  35. Paulo

    Interesting to note that in the source provided, the “disparity” is justified by the fact that the rich continue to get richer.

    The third chart down on the first link provided by Brandon:
    Quote: “You’ll see that one major reason why the share of taxes paid by the richest Americans has risen is that the richest Americans have experienced much greater income growth”

  36. GCC

    Paulo:
    I definitely agree that “(in)justice” is the wrong word to be using as it relates to things like the rich paying more than their “fair share.” But the correct word is right there, “fairness.” I see fairness and justice as two separate things, which may or may not coexist. In all cases, however, I think our priority should be justice. I feel that way primarily (I think) as a result of my religious convictions. (I think it’s worth pointing out that the word “justice” does have two senses – maybe meanings – with which is it often used. There is the broad sense, in which it refers to those things that we just sense and feel are unjust, e.g. the fact that wealth of the world’s 7 richest people is greater than that of (in terms of GDP) 567,000,000 people who come from 41 of the world’s poorest countries. And then there’s the more narrow sense in which “justice” is virtually synonymous with “fairness.” I think we see this particularly in cases of retributive justice, and also when things are reduced to mere quantities without regard to any quality.

    I also agree with the general tenor of your comments. You raise some great examples, I’m sure you know there are more. One of my favorites that I came across recently is Deuteronomy 32:7-8. This passage is hugely important. When read carefully and with deep interest and understanding, recognizing the nuance that must be present in anything that could seriously be called the word of God, it tells us at least three things that I’m aware of. First, and most simply, that faith is rooted in the past, and that the experiences of our foremothers and fathers are important. Second, it gives us a clue as to he way in which God would divide land and resources among the peoples, namely equitably according to number, ensuring that all have what they need. This last one isn’t really relevant here, but finally, this passage points back to the creation story, indicating that any chronologically literal interpretation thereof is misguided.

    I also rather enjoyed your interpretation of biblical “slaves.” I suppose we should not be surprised, however, that such biblical teaching is ignored (or probably just plain missed) by so much of America’s faithful. So many simply have no idea how to get on with the Bible, a fact made obvious by, for example, Jerry Falwell’s claim that God is pro-war or a group of oafish – yet legal empowered – Texans, citing their favorite Bible passages to determine and justify their application of the death penalty. (Another post to come on both of these things and more!) I imagine that many of America’s “Christian Businessmen” have no idea that they’re breaking these commands because they simply think they don’t apply (that is if they even no them). Their fixed (and arbitrary), simplistic, literal interpretation of these texts does not allow them to see the will of God that is so clearly there. (I’m also reminded right now of the time that Ann Coulter suggested that we own the world, that its ours and we can – should? – rape it, in reference to a couple verses in Genesis – I’ll have to post about that too. And I’m also thinking of how so many of these issues surrounding our lack of care for the poor may be exacerbated by a misguided – and frankly rather primitive, maybe even pagan – understanding of “salvation” – but that’s going to have to be another post too.)

    I appreciate you pointing out that little detail in some of the figures available on these tax issues. There are many misleading statistics for many things. This is one of them. And this is such an obvious thing. (Real quick, I don’t think anyone here was trying to mislead!) It’s amazing to me that people (myself included) don’t catch things like this more readily. I have recently become quite skeptical of “common sense,” finding that it is often little more than folk-wisdom that fails to fully consider an issue. I feel this way because I’ve found myself falling into that trap.

    When it comes down to it, I feel the appropriate response to the plight of the poor both here and abroad is to solve the problem first, and worry about issues like fairness later. (That is likely rather impractical, and I don’t think that in the real world it needs to be taken to the extreme. For instance, I’m all for health care “reform” – whatever that means – but what I know of the current plans makes them seem rather misguided, and not simply because taxes or premiums would rise. So maybe we should slow down and find a real solution rather than a band-aid that might be infected.)

  37. GCC

    Forgot to add this too. Not terribly significant, but I thought it was at least somewhat apropros:

    http://fightingpovertywithfaith.com/f2/?page_id=2

  38. Paulo

    I checked out that website, looks interesting. I like the title of the site, certainly it is by faith that we fight poverty, or please God at all! (Heb 11:6) By teaching the rich and the poor to have faith, we can experience the kingdom of God, which requires us to love God more than mammon (possessions). This is exactly the problem, it is too often the poor who are rich in faith, and the rich who are poor in faith. Thus, rich continue to hoard (luke 12) and refuse ‘sabbath’ as described in Deut 15. Jeremiah the prophet spoke against the ‘kings’ of his day for not practicing sabbath. Why? Because Jeremiah was religious and thought that everyone should go to church on sunday? No. Because Jeremiah’s view of Sabbath entailed the renunciation of gaining excessive wealth at the hands of the slaves. Jeremiah was very biblical, very aware of the real meaning of ‘sabbath’.
    How many business owners today would help a valuable employee leave and start their own business after working for them for 7 years? This was the vision of Deut 15.
    Terrence I am wondering if you could provide a definition or a statistical category for ‘freeloader’. I assume it means a lazy person who doesn’t work, and takes advantage of the ‘system’. However, when applying it to 47% of Americans, it seems derogatory and almost inhuman for this class of McDonalds workers, lawn maintenance crews, bank tellers, certified nurses aids, dishwashers, missionaries, christian school teachers, people working for non-profits (all people often making less than 30,000 per year) to be labeled as ‘freeloaders’. Is that not the kind of language used by the bourgeoisie of oppressive governments and kings throughout history? Since I myself fall into this sub-30k dollar category as well, I will make sure to pay obeisance and kiss donald trumps feet next time I see him walking down the street. 😉

  39. Like I said before, I didn’t intend the name “freeloader” to carry the negative connotations it did. I probably should have used a different word or phrase. I’ve already provided a definition for what I meant – and no it doesn’t inherently include lazy people (I think that’s a silly assumption and proof that my main point is being missed). So, now a question for you: what would you prefer me to call the 47%? I simply cannot call them income taxpayers or financiers of public services – because they’re not.

    Just like I’d thank the wealthy person for providing a whole host of public services through paying taxes, I’d thank the McDonald’s workers, lawn maintenance crews, bank tellers, certified nurses, aids, dishwashers, missionaries, christian school teachers, people working for non-profits for doing a good job. I’d also thank their wealthy employers again for making their jobs possible. I really dislike and don’t understand the automatic demonizing and jealousy of the wealthy. Kiss Donald Trumps’ feet, or don’t kiss his feet – I don’t care. I do care that people are thankful for public services that they don’t pay for that wealthy people do. Or, should the 47% be above that?

  40. Paulo

    call us peasants, serfs, the proletariat, the working poor, slaves… I don’t know. I am sorry, I am just not feeling the tingly feelings of heartfelt gratitude towards the top %1. Everyone pays sales tax every year (almost 10% here in TN for everything including food, clothing, etc.) If you look, taxes are everywhere, even for the poor.

    If a man makes 10 million and is only allowed to keep 4 million (60% tax rate), or 8 million (20% flat tax), either way, do they not have enough to live? Either way we’re talking about a difference of one man keeping 4 million instead of 8 million. Is 4 million not enough to live on? Isn’t 2 million, 1 million, or 1/4 of a million? You might then proclaim the gospel of ‘trickle down economics’. However, your statistics show, it is the wealth of the ultra rich has grown, indeed the trickle seems more like a very, very, slow drip.
    T3rrence3, I wish I could say that money and power makes men better, but history, and the bible shows that to not be the case. We are all responsible for our own actions. As we (and I do mean we) grow wealthier, more established in this life, it is good to re-evaluate what are we holding on to? Building wealth is for those who belong to this world. Jesus challenges us to be different. Jesus challenges us to give from our need, and to care for our brothers and sisters. If the %1 feel a sense of entitlement, then they should be corrected. If the poor are not thankful to God, then they need to learn contentment. It is my experience however, that it is the poor have learned contentment, love, grace, it is they who teach us what the kingdom of God is like. This was also Jesus’ outlook. (Luke 6:20-26) There is much more to write on this.

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