Taxing matters

Tax laws and troublesome faith

by Ken Sehested

“Some people are so poor all they have is money.”
—Bob Marley

        The question of tax fairness has long been on my radar. But it wasn’t until the phrase “marginal tax rate” made headlines recently that I realized few people know what it means, and my own understanding was pretty vague.

        At about the same time I came across the following quote while reading Rebecca Solnit’s book, Call Them by Their True Names:

        “If you boil the strange soup of contemporary right-wing ideology down to a sort of bouillon cube, you find the idea that things are not connected to other things, that people are not connected to other people, and that they are better off unconnected. . . .

        “Taxes represent civic connection: what we each give to the collective good. This particular form of shared interest has been framed as a form of oppression at least since Ronald Reagan. . . .

        “‘Freedom’ is just another word for nothing left to limit your options. And this is how the ideology of isolation become nihilism.”

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Question: “What's wrong with the world?”

Response: “We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with
knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness.
Leona Helmsley's dog made $12 million last year… and Dean McLaine, a farmer in
Ohio, made $30,000. It's just a gigantic version of the madness that grows in
every one of our brains. We are monkeys with money and guns.”
—singer-songwriter Tom Waits in a 2008 self-interview

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        My mother was an accountant all her working days. I can remember when I was young, visiting the office where she worked, watching her stare at a ledger—left index finger tracing down a column of penciled numbers—while her right hand worked an old fashioned manual adding machine, punching the keys, hitting + or –, then pulling the level downward with amazing speed and precision, never taking her eyes off the ledger. Her right hand knew that machine more intimately than the most skilled thumbs of modern smart phone texters.

        I, too, have dexterity on a computer keyboard (though I still don’t text—I’m among the remaining 5% of US Americans who don’t use a cellphone). But I didn’t get Mom’s penchant for maneuvering through tax filing forms.

        The worst sort of groaning goes on at our house when, pressed by April's tax filing deadline, we wrangle the herd of numbers needed to calculate our liability. And we use an accountant to tally the result. In part because of technical provisions related to clergy filing and the fluid nature of retirement income reporting. But even the simplest of 1040 IRS reporting form feels, to me, like trying to make sense of hieroglyphics.

        You know the aphorism, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, about death and taxes being the only certainties. But there’s no ideological divide when it comes planning a funeral. On the other hand, we invest gargantuan amounts of energy into legislating tax policy. Few things are more contentious, as was made clear in the year-long fight in congress’ “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” approved by the slimmest of margins at the last possible moment in 2017—even though Republicans controlled both houses and the administration.

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“The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a
parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves.”
—novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, “The Fountainhead”

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        The title of one of Ayn Rand’s shorter essays—“The Virtue of Selfishness”—summarizes the ruthlessness of her social vision. She writes, “Altruism is incompatible with freedom, with capitalism, and with individual rights.” In her telling, the great commandment to love your neighbor is tantamount to “moral cannibalism.”

        Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who shepherded that 2017 tax legislation, openly declared himself a devotee of Rand’s political vision. “I give out Atlas Shrugged [another of Rand’s major works] as Christmas presents,” he told a reporter in 2003, “and I make all my interns read it."

        In a 2009 video, Ryan said “I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism, and that morality of capitalism is under assault.”

        Maybe the clearest recent example of such conviction was Nirmal Mulye, founder of Nostrum Pharmaceuticals, who in 2018 raised the price of an essential drug treating urinary tract infections from $500 to more than $2,300 per bottle.

        He told the Financial Times that his company had a “moral requirement to sell the product at the highest price. . . . I think it is a moral requirement to make money when you can.”

        I can’t think of any opinion more antagonistic to biblical values, where one of the most consistent characteristics of God’s attention to creaturely affairs regards the fate of the dispossessed. (See “A List of Some of the More Than #2000Verses in Scripture on Poverty and Justice,” Sojourners magazine.)

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“Last time I talked to her she didn’t sound like herself. She’s depressed. It’s awful what
happens when people run out of money. They start thinking they’re no good.”
—Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven

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        After newly-elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “60 Minutes” television interview, where she laid out arguments for a 70% marginal tax plan for the wealthiest individuals, many in the chattering class threw a fit.

        On a panel discussion at the recent World Economic Forum, Michael Dell, founder and head of Dell Technologies, said “Name a country where that’s worked—ever.”

        Well, as it turns out, the US had a higher rate for several decades in the 20th century.

        (Though the general public is confused on what this means: A 70% marginal tax rate doesn’t mean the same thing as a 70% tax rate. The special issue of “Signs of the Times,” 7 February 2019, #185, offers clarity on this and many other misconceptions—including the fact that even before the new tax laws took effect last year, Americans have paid lower taxes that those of most every other industrialized country. And there have been many years in the past when dozens of our largest corporations paid no federal income taxes—and, for a few, even got rebates from the government. It's a scam, if I've ever seen one. But also entirely legal.)

        While President Trump didn’t make an explicit connection to Ocasio-Cortez’s plan, in his recent State of the Union message he did trot out that scariest of political hobgoblins, socialism!

        Our sitting president is the veritable incarnation of Ayn Rand’s reasoning.

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“O, that we who declare war against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only,
may walk in the light, and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding onto money!
May we look upon our estates, our treasures, the furniture of our houses, and our garments,
and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these, our possessions.”
—“The Journal of John Woolman” (1774)

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        Tax law is taxing to most people's brains. It's labyrinthian, prompting the growth of ever-larger accounting and law firms to sort out the details. The law has countless exceptions to exceptions to exceptions that apply in narrow circumstances, especially for individuals and corporations with deep pockets.

        Though not specifically about tax law, one recent example of pay-to-play governing is the case of Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). Her 2018 third quarter campaign contribution tally was $140,000. Then, in the opening week of October, she voted to approve Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court at the end of a highly contested and contentious Senate hearing. Suddenly, abracadabra, her fourth quarter campaign intake soared to $1,800,000, most from out-of-state donors.

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“We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over
everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it.”
—Justin Martyr, second century church leader and theologian

§  §  §

        I dare say that the current levels of economic inequality—both domestic and global—constitutes the most dangerous and volatile threat to democratic governance. Twenty-six of the world’s richest individuals now own more wealth that the bottom half of the world’s population.

        "I love all people, rich or poor," President Trump told a crowd of supporters at an Iowa rally in late June 2017. "But in those particular positions [i.e., members of his cabinet], I just don't want a poor person." Collectively, his cabinet appointees are worth $4.3 billion. The median net worth of members of Congress is quintuple the median net worth of US households. It would take a really, really big adding machine to do the global numbers.

        We remember Karl Marx as the political economist (which he was good at) and philosopher (not so good at) who posited economics as the prime motivator of human behavior. But long before Marx was separated from his mama’s placenta, there was one who said in a single sentence what took Marx decades and thousands of pages to say:

        “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”

        Reimagine, then, what it means to give your heart to Jesus. Fair warning: It might make you troublesome.

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(For helpful information and graphics to make sense of tax matters, see the special issue of “Signs of the Times,” dated 7 February 2019, #185.)

©ken sehested @