Wednesday, August 17, 2011 — Week of Proper 15, Year One

Samuel Johnson, Timothy Cutler, and Thomas Bradbury Chandler, Priests, 1772, 1765, 1790

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 980)

Psalms 119:145-176 (morning) 128, 129, 130 (evening)

2 Samuel 18:19-33

Acts 23:23-35

Mark 12:13-27

“Is it right to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

I have a confession to make. I like taxes. (As I type this, I note a slight rush — a slightly quickened heartbeat; a rise in blood pressure. I wonder… Who reads these things? Is is dangerous thing to say “I like taxes”? Liking taxes not as bad as being a Communist sympathizer in the 1950’s is it? Is there a black-list for people who like taxes?)

For years my wife and I have been in a pretty high tax bracket. We both work. We have good jobs. Our children are grown and no longer deductible. Paying high taxes has seemed like a privilege — a mark of financial success.

I like so much of what we do with our taxes. Our taxes unerwrite and improve our corporate life. Basic infrastructure. Education. Help to the vulnerable. I want us to have resources to solve problems that can only be solved at a corporate level. Solutions I can’t contribute to any other way.

Oh, I don’t always agree with the way my taxes are spent. I thought invading Iraq as a response to a terrorist act by a clandestine group of Saudi dissidents was the stupidest thing imaginable. Didn’t want to spend a dime to do that. But it’s part of being part of the whole. My dollars contributed to the death of more than 100,000 civilians in that country — collateral damage they are called. My tax dollars financed that bad decision. I don’t like that. But I like being in the whole system.

I like having water I can drink from the tap without any qualms. (When I’m traveling in places where you can’t do that, it’s so hard to remember to rinse my toothbrush with bottled water.) I like food that is inspected and safe to eat. Roads and sewers. Air traffic controllers. I could go on, but you get the idea.

I get a kick out of the things that government does so much better than the private sector. Like health insurance. Medicaid and Medicare as so much more efficient than for-profit health insurance.

Philosophically, I agree with the notion that “to those to whom much is given, much is expected.” (John F. Kennedy and Luke 12:48) I like a progressive tax policy that requires those of us who are most able to bear a proportionately greater tax obligation to do so.

I also believe we have a responsibility to our neighbors. I like what the Epistle of James says: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” Taxes underwrite our corporate responsibility to care for the needy.

Someone argued with me that the Bible tells the church to take care of the poor, voluntarily through the church’s charity. It’s the church’s job, not the government’s, they told me. I once compared the value of a single major welfare program (Food Stamps) to the entire income of the Christian church in the U. S. They were comparable numbers. If the church gave every penny it receives to the poor, it might cover Food Stamps. (Then I wouldn’t have a salary, and might need Food Stamps.) The point: Only taxes are a great enough resource to address some problems that are bigger than charity.

I’m no economist, but it seems to me that Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman is right. We should be investing to put unemployed people back to work to stimulate our current economy. Rebuild our infrastructure and build the job base. We need more resources to invest in the things that make for a healthier country. I want to see some tax increases. (The heart rate perked up again.)

Taxes are at historic lows. We’ve spent nearly 40 years tilting the tax code to benefit the wealthy. Why does our tax code favor income from wealth (capital gains) over earned income? Financial speculators threw our economy into the tank. Speculative trading accounts for up to 70% of the trades in some financial markets. How about a modest tax on every transaction? Exempt small investors. Might dampen speculation and raise our common revenues.

People like me can contribute more in hard times like this. I’ve got a lot more than I need to live on. And it seems silly that I’m in the same tax bracket as a billionaire.

Okay, that’s enough of a tax rant to tick off nearly everyone. But I can tell you my answer to the question, “Is it right to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” In our system, it is the government that is charged by the Constitution to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” That is a worthy cause. But we haven’t been paying the bill for that work for quite a long time. It’s time we acted like responsible adults and raised taxes to do the work we are charged to do. Those of us who are most able to pay for that good work should do so. Happily.

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