Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tax Equity Talk Taxes What's Good

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. - Micah 6:8

If God is a Republican, which many Republicans still secretly insist He is, how does this verse fit into Republican efforts to revise America's tax code?

You don't have to wade very far into this season's presidential race to learn virtually all of the Republican candidates are livid that nearly half of America's taxpayers pay, well, no federal income tax.

After all of the earned income credits and other deductions are taken, many wage-earners actually get some sort of refund. At least if they're earning approximately $40,000 per year or less.

Since the top 10% of American wage-earners pay roughly 70% of the income taxes collected by the Treasury, and since the Republican Party long ago ceded its allegiance to those affluent folks, it's now become de rigueur for conservatives to harp on less fortunate Americans for being too poor to pay federal income taxes.

Some Republicans like to insinuate that it's the slovenly, minority, inner-city Democrats who comprise the bulk of non-tax-payers, but at a rate of nearly 50%, there aren't enough poor Democrats to fill the category. There's gotta be some poor Republicans in there, too. And yes, there are poor Republicans.

They just don't want their cover blown. Few poor Republicans have stood up to their field of candidates as they've waded through Iowa cornfields and admitted they're too poor to pay federal taxes.

After all, poor people have pride, too.

Tax Equity

For the record, since I'm considered a freelance journalist, I do pay federal income taxes. Not much, I'll admit, but then, I'm not earning much, either. Still, I'm paying more than nothing. So, at least to Republicans, I'm a good American. I've got "skin in the game," as Indiana Senator Dan Coats likes to call taxation.

Actually, having everybody pay something isn't the worst idea in the world, is it? It could even fit with the "act justly" part of Micah 6:8, where the burden for paying for common civic needs gets shared by the entire citizenry.

However, I'm skeptical of whether getting low-income wage earners to chip in more than they do now will put much of a dent in the national debt. It's basic math: $40,000 salaries don't leave much left over for anybody in this day and age, so do you want to push people into poverty by taxing them more? And if our vaunted economy so desperately relies on voracious consumer spending, how will making half of the country spend even less than they do now help anything?

At least in terms of presenting a unified front to the Treasury, some sort of minimal token won't break the backs of most wage-earners. I don't know what that would amount to in dollars, but at least something in the $100 range for singles and maybe $50 per family member would be a good starting point. Remember, there's more to the economic plight of low-income families than whether they're paying what people richer than them consider to be "fair taxes."

After all, most people still pay sales taxes, state income taxes, license fees, gasoline taxes, and other revenue mandates. And many of these taxes may actually be even more punitive than federal taxes, because both the rich and the poor, for example, pay the same tax rate at the pump. Plus there's the issue of wild discrepancies in corporate taxes, with Uncle Sam ending up owing some corporations even after they earn heady profits. Liberals are correct in pointing out that conservatives don't like talking about inequities on the corporate side of the tax ledger.

But then again, we don't always like thinking of justice working two ways.

What Does the Lord Require of Us?

With all the talk of "shared pain," "skin in the game," "fair taxes," and other politically-charged rhetoric over taxation, it's easy to see how people of faith could ignore that while equity is one thing, mercy is another. Don't forget that if any of us got what we deserved, we wouldn't be on our way to Heaven. So as Republicans ramp up the vitriol against poor Americans, believers have little Biblical justification for joining them.

Remember, even Christ said that the poor would always be with us. He didn't mean to imply that since they'll be around until He returns, we should learn to ignore them; actually, in context, Christ was admonishing His disciples for feigning charity when they should have praised Mary for lavishing Him with expensive perfume. But just as the disciples had no intention of lavishing luxuries on Christ, how many of us plan on doing so with the money we keep from the IRS? Are we as interested in giving our tax savings to our church's benevolence fund as much as we are investing it or purchasing new stuff for ourselves?

We love mercy when we're the beneficiaries. But most of us get miserly when it comes to lovingly showing mercy to others. Especially people we think are lazier, less efficient, and less educated than us.

Which means we're not walking humbly with our Lord, either. After all, God knows why we want to either pay less taxes or want others to pay more. It's not so much about tax equity as it is wanting others to share the pain we feel every April 15. And it's not like any taxpayer willingly ignores the tax loopholes available in every income bracket. Why fault low-wage-earners for taking advantage of tax breaks when you're not willing to forgo credits, either?

No, it's not unreasonable to want all wage-earners to put something in the pot every year. But don't pretend that what low-income workers can put in will be enough to solve our budget woes. At best, this argument is a petty distraction from the major issue of needing to restructure our national budget. Which makes it a curiously unfortunate debate for Republicans - of all people - to foment. It also risks appearing as a crass elitist snub which fails to acknowledge that our economy won't benefit from having low-wage-earners try to raise their families on even less money then what they're managing with now.

Either way, though, God has shown us what is good, and what He requires of us. Plus, if we're walking humbly with our God, we know that He will supply our needs. Even above what we deserve.

We can't expect the same from Uncle Sam.

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