by Ken Sehested
“Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”
§ § §
The US Congress, with cheerleading from President Trump and a boatload of corporate lobbyists, is poised to foist on the nation what might be the biggest con job in DC political history, under the cloak of tax reform.
Chances are good that whatever the final details, this bill will represent the largest transfer of wealth in modern US history. (Chance are also very, very good you and I will be among the transferors.)
If approved, the effect on the commonweal will be far more deforming than reforming. It represents the greedification of tax policy. Not to mention an indication of our spiritual poverty.
The rush to get it passed—without full legislative deliberation and public debate—comes from three sources: (1) The congressional majority has virtually nothing to show for their dominance of the executive and legislative branches of government in 2017; (2) they know the slightly different House and Senate plans are highly unpopular with the general public and need to be wrapped up before a popular revolt emerges; and (3) wealthy donors are already calling to say get-it-done-or-stop-calling.
I’ve learned seven key things researching this special edition of “Signs of the Times.” Here are the highlights. (For documentation and other information see the "Tax Deform" special issue of "Signs of the Times.")
1. For years in personal memory, every electoral season has had at least a measure of boasting about who can do a better job lowering taxes—the assumption being that our rates are too high.
Nonsense. Compared to other developed nations, both (effective) corporate and personal income tax rates in the US are at or below average.
2. Tax reform plans currently under consideration have been loudly heralded as middle class tax relief.
More nonsense. Numerous analyses reveal the overwhelming percentage of savings will be reaped by wealthy individuals and corporations.
3. Medicare, Medicaid, and other commonweal spending will almost certainly face significant cuts following approval of a revised tax plan and the eventual new federal budget.
Strangling these and other “New Deal” social welfare legislation championed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s has been a priority for laissez-faire corporatists for decades. Ayn Rand’s celebration of personal avarice as the basis of public policy has never had more champions. (House Speaker Paul Ryan is a devotee.)
4. Escalating economic inequality is a defining character of the 21st century both in the US and globally, and the current tax “reform” initiative will measurably exacerbate that trend.
As it is, the wealthiest three people in the US now own as much wealth as the lower half of our nation combined. And the richest eight people in the world control as much wealth as the lower 50% combined.
5. The evidence that lower tax rates for major corporations will increase employment and stimulate economic growth is skimpy at best. Substantial evidence point to other alternatives: That such corporations will buy back their own stock, thus increasing its value; pass the savings along to stockholders; or park the additional profit in offshore banks to shield it from US tax burden.
We should be asking “Why is this accounting chicanery legal in the first place?” Why aren’t corporate executives promoting “America First!” They profit from the US infrastructure and security systems but refuse to proportionately shoulder its costs.
6. The final form of a tax reform bill will likely include a rider abolishing the “Johnson Amendment” which prohibits non-profit organizations (including faith communities) from explicitly endorsing or opposing electoral candidates. The entirely foreseeable result is to further weaken the wall of separation between church and state and turn houses of worship into partisan money laundering enterprises.
7. In the latest attempted coup against health care, Senate Republicans have now inserted into its tax plan a provision repealing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate provision, which would effectively nullify that legislation.
(Documentation for these, along with other information, is available in the “Signs of the Times” special issue titled “Tax Deformation.” If you read only two short commentaries, I recommend the following: Paul Krugman, “Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies, Lies,” New York Times and Helaine Olen, “Why are Republicans rushing tax reform through? So voters don’t find out who loses,” Washington Post.)
§ § §
“The bread of the needy is the life of the poor.
Whoever deprives them of it is a man of blood.
To take away a neighbor’s living is to murder them.
To deprive an employee of his wages is to shed blood.”
§ § §
In short, the most likely result of current tax reform legislation represents an explicit assault on commonsensical notions of justice in general and on biblical faith in particular. Scripture is very nearly obsessed with the status of those excluded from the table of earth’s bounty.
It’s hard to imagine a more egregious insult to any vision of the beloved community than the one currently playing out in the halls of our nation’s capitol. From most appearances, those in control of major public policy decisions are driven by a stunted, short-term notion of profit and a desiccated understanding of national security; by a governing vision which subordinates human rights to property rights; by an enthronement of self-interest and personal greed as the arbiter of moral values and social ordering.
Among the results of this dismembering of the common good is the prevailing assumption that whole classes of people are considered surplus and expendable. The justification of a new form of slavery is implicit in the shape of proposed new tax policy.
Having once been abolished, the divine right of kings is being resurrected as the divine right of capital.
§ § §
“For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others.
Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings.
Like a cage of birds, their houses are full of treachery;
therefore they have become great and rich.
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness.”
§ § §
The fact that the strong take what they can, the weak endure what they must, has always been a marked tendency in human affairs. What we are now seeing is not new; but it has rarely been celebrated. It is as if we as a nation have wandered into a magnetic field—profitability as the orienting principle—which has distorted whatever remains of our nation’s moral compass.
There’s a new sheriff in town—one that, I dare say, is more defiantly opposed to our nation’s founding principles, however weakly implemented—not to mention the Reign of God, however imperfectly preached—than ever before.
I have honest, and earnest, doubts about whether the soul of our nation will survive; or whether communities of faith will retain even a vestige of their world-subverting beatific vision.
§ § §
“The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people:
It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by grinding the face of the poor?”
§ § §
What keeps me from collapsing in despair is certainly not the foreseeable horizon of political prospects. (Which are grim, grimmer, and grimmest.) What keeps me engaged is a subterranean Stream of Refreshment flowing deep beneath dried riverbeds of exhausted ideals, a certain Provision beyond the reach of human presumption, an inexplicable Confidence that an unmanageable One is at work whose Way will not finally be thwarted, whose promise is trustworthy, and whose provision is assured—though only to those with empty hands, a willingness to stand firm in the face of threat, while in the company of those considered disposable by prevailing arbiters of worth.
By and large, people of faith have failed to understand that the existence of islands of wealth in a sea of poverty is not simply a social, economic or political problem: it is fundamentally a sign of profound spiritual distress and dysfunction. Not to mention an indication of biblical illiteracy.
Worship, which is at the heart of our common life, is an exercise in assessing worthiness. As accounted in the Exodus story, it was the groans of a worthless slave people in ancient Egypt that stirred Heaven’s attention and advocacy. And it was the destiny of the beggarly (Matthew 25) with which Jesus identified himself, along with the fate of our own souls.
§ § §
“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. . . .
Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by
fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
—James 5:1, 4
§ § §
Our own spiritual poverty will only deepen until our own hearts and hands are disarmed, occupied, and animated by this vision, including the fostering of an economy of manna.
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