Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I wanted to surface a comment really fast

In the wake of the election, I've been talking a little about how progressive priorities might be just. I want to get deeper into this in response to a comment my friend Aaron left on a previous post (also Tina's comment on third parties a month ago; I think they actually make a lot of sense together). I don't have enough time this second, but let me show you that comment thread in case you missed it:

tori said...

Robin Hood has one fatal error. Stealing from the rich to give to the poor sounds great... but in the end, it is still stealing. Clear as that. Whenever you choose to vote to take something away from someone and not yourself, once again...it is stealing. I'm trying out this new idea...I've only thought about it for two days. But I think an equal percentage tax on all Americans would be most just.
Glad that you won't get mad at me for saying this, Dan. We can just debate and not let it get personal.
:)


Dan Lewis said...

I won't get mad, Tori. Be welcome!

I don't know how far we want to take the Robin Hood analogy. By this reasoning, if I don't like the tax structure I call it stealing.

For instance, in the status quo, I say the Bush tax cuts are stealing from poor people and giving to rich people. Someone might argue to the contrary that rolling back the tax cuts would be stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Both sides can make an equal-and-opposite argument, and they basically cancel each other out. Maybe it's not the best label.

We will have a tax structure one way or another. The question is whether it should favor the poor at the expense of the rich, favor the rich at the expense of the poor, or somewhere in between.

When I quoted Warren Buffett, the richest man in the world, he said he pays less total taxes as a percentage of his total income than his janitor. That is, we have a deeply regressive tax structure in this country, even though on paper rich people may be paying more.

There are lots of reasons why this is so. One obvious one is that if you become rich enough, it becomes cheaper as a percentage of your income to pay a lawyer to lawfully evade taxes than it is to just pay them straight down the line. That leads into another reason, which is that it's cheaper to lobby Congress to pass laws to create tax loopholes than it is to just pay them straight down the line. It is big business for rich people to game the system to keep more of their money. The working stiffs do not have the time or the money to play in this game.

The point of all this is that our tax structure is unfair, but it is unfairly skewed to benefit the rich. If you want a fair system, it probably needs to swing back the other way even harder.

We have a lot of policies that aid the disadvantaged in society. For instance, we have homeless shelters. The homeless do not pay for them, but we do it anyway. We all pay for health insurance for poor families (Medicaid) and the elderly (Medicare). It goes on. We do unemployment for people between jobs, welfare for people who are poor, food stamps for people who would go hungry. And so on.

These are "unfair" taxes on people who have food, shelter, enough money, jobs, their health. "Why should I have to pay for that? I don't get anything back for it. I'm doing just fine on my own." People who have money are giving to those who don't have it. It is not equal or even fair.

There is a secular argument to be made that these policies really do pay for themselves. When we invest in crime prevention or preventive health care, these pay large dividends down the road. And there are similar arguments to be made for the societal costs of not caring for the elderly, the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and so on.

But I think there's a more telling argument for people who follow the way of grace. I think it is natural that we who are rich should give out of our abundance to those who are poor without expecting anything in return.

As Christians, the principle that the greatest among us will be the servant of all, that we will lift up the humble and cast down the proud, that the poor will always be with us, is even more strongly pronounced. We have special duties to care for the poor and defenseless, the widows and orphans, the outsiders.

One way we can do this is by voting for the engines of government to reflect our values. That's not stealing, it's empowering our representatives to work toward the balance we think is just.


Aaron said...

Hey Dan,
Thanks for your response...and for taking the time to explain so much on your blog. I can see where you are coming from...and even why you are for the pendulum swinging in favor for the poor rather than the rich.
It sure would be nice if taxes could be and would remain just. And it would be nice if the church would do the job of the church and care for the "orphans and widows in their distress." I'm just not sure that the main way the church should do this is through the government. Did the church fail in this? Is this why the government has to take over this role?
Unfortunately, because of the fall, the poor are no more righteous than the rich. You are in the minority... in voting on economical issues not for your own gain, but out of concern for those who are barely making ends meet. Many are openly voting for whatever will help their own bank accounts. Many of the "poor" think that they have the right to have their needs met by the government. This takes away the whole idea of grace and generosity. Instead it becomes something that is forced.
The whole point, I guess...is that people are totally depraved and will all look out for their own best interests as far as they understand them. The rich, in not paying even an equal percentage to the poor who have so much less- are (if we are to compare sin here) the worse sinners. They should not be able to get out of their equal percent for any amount of money. This is turning into a great conversational illustration of the doctrine of total depravity! So long as we are sinful and living in a Genesis 3 world... our economic policy will never be just. And then the question comes... are we as fervent in our giving to the poor outside of our own taxes (what we are obligated to pay the government) as we are to see legislation pass that may or may not help the poor?
Guess this leaves me at this point wondering what the real solution is? Do we implement unjust means to achieve justice? Perhaps the ends do justify the means in such murky waters? I'm not sure that the real heart issues will ever be discussed in politics....
and perhaps it is the church's job to call the government into account for "stealing widow's houses" as the Leaders did in the day of Jesus. But I'm not sure what that looks like. I'm not convinced that it takes place through a vote. The government will answer to God on the day of judgment. God has ordained the leaders and those in power... in His sovereignty (whether the person has what we consider to be "Christian values" or not) and on the day of judgment they will answer to Him (as the rest of us).
Oh... and what are your thoughts about proposition 8 in CA? If it gets overturned again... just what does our vote mean anyway? Government for the people by the courts?
OK... please explain where I obviously don't understand. :)

1 comment:

tori said...

Hey Dan,
Sorry... I thought that might be confusing. When I wrote the last comment I was signed in as Aaron. He actually read my comment and noticed that it said his name... but we figured that hey...we are "one" any way. So I guess I wrote it, but it represents both of us anyway. :)