Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The sin behind the current supposed tax reform

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below.

This past weekend, at 2 a.m., the U.S. Senate passed a nearly 500-page bill to reform our nation’s tax system.

The process to pass this bill was one of the most rushed in decades, with no substantive hearings. The version that was voted on in the early morning hours had handwritten notes that are almost entirely illegible.

The Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office note that by 2027 those making $40,000 to $50,000 a year will pay a combined $5.3 billion more in taxes. At the same time, those earning more than $1 million will wind up with a $5.8 billion tax cut. By that time, most households which earn less than $75,000 a year will wind up with a tax increase.

Several independent analyses have found that the bill will add more than $1 trillion to the deficit — even after accounting for increased economic growth. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, nearly half of all Americans who are aware of the bill are opposed to it, up from 41 percent in October. Only 29 percent of those surveyed said they actually support the legislation.

I truly do believe that this bill will come back to haunt Republicans who are up for re-election in 2018. Don’t get me wrong, the fundamental concept that is supposedly behind the law (a lowering of the corporate tax rate to 20 percent) is a concept I actually support. The problem is that this bill accomplishes a lowered corporate tax rate on the backs of the poor and middle class while also providing significant tax cuts to the wealthy. I believe the more people feel the implications of this bill in their own lives, the even more unpopular it will become.

So, I am opposed to this bill as a fiscal conservative. I’m opposed to this bill from an economic standpoint because, though it may help some parts of the economy, many economists agree that there are much more effective ways $1.5 trillion could be used to encourage economic growth.

But, as a Christian priest, I want to talk about the moral implications of this tax bill.

In the eighth century, the prophet Amos wrote to a people who believed they were doing fine. The tensions between the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah had lessened. Trade relations were favorable with the Phoenician merchants bringing luxurious goods to the land and many in Israel became very wealthy. Even religion seemed to be going well, with people participating actively in worship.

But the shepherd and farmer Amos knew that the supposed peace and prosperity were a thin veneer over a profound societal evil. The wealthy moved the economy in ways that would increase the overall wealth of the country, but this came on the backs of the poor. So, for example, they worked to grow more lucrative wine and olive oil, leading to less diversification in agriculture. This made it harder for peasant farmers to feed themselves and their flocks.

In times past, when people entered economic calamity, those in their community would assist them with interest-free survival loans. Now, however, the wealthy were issuing those loans with increasing rates of interest that made it impossible for the poor to get out of debt and reclaim their lives. The lands of the poor would be used as collateral — and then, when the poor couldn’t pay, the wealthy would take the lands, leading to the concentration of wealth and lands in a very few hands.

The free market was at work, and it decimated the poor and brought even more wealth to the rich.

So Amos writes to the wealthy and religious, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them. … But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” He calls out their sinful treatment of the poor, arguing that they are “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.”

With this current legislation, the poorest of the poor — those who make less than $10,000 a year — will see assistance from the government decrease by $530, while those whose households with multimillion dollar incomes will get $21,700 back through decreased taxation. As the individual mandate is gutted — with no concrete reform to our health care industry — premiums will go up by an estimated 10 percent, and now there will be less health care subsidies for those who need them. The money saved by eliminating health care subsidies for those earning less than $40,000 is about $94.4 billion. That number is unsettling close to the $91.7 billion in tax cuts to those making more than $1 million a year.

The wealthy, who have consistently seen income growth over the past several decades, are getting a windfall while the poor and struggling middle class are receiving less assistance from the government and, in many cases, actually paying more in taxes. All of this is happening while the deficit is also increased by more than $1 trillion.

This bill is a sinful attack upon the poor. It is built upon the greed of a culture that wants to believe “my money” is for me. It entirely lacks a sense of cooperation for the good of society. If the Republican leadership truly believes that a lowered corporate tax cut will grow the economy, let them pay for it through returning income tax rates for the wealthy to previous levels. Not only can the wealthy afford to pay increased rates, if the economy does grow they will be the ones seeing the impact most quickly and clearly.

The bill is not yet final because the House and Senate versions must be reconciled. And so it is all the more essential that people of faith — people who know how often in Scripture God condemns societies that help the wealthy at the expense of the poor — to speak up and urge its defeat.

Republicans will feel the effects of this legislation in the 2018 election. But we, as a society, will bear the moral burden for this legislation unless we do something to stop it.