This will be my last post dealing with election politics. I just wanted to make one last retrospective argument concerning wealth and class envy.
It seems that Barack Obama has been hit hard by the McCain camp's charges of socialism. His latest rebuttal (after unsuccessfully attempting to denigrate "Joe The Plumber" Werzelbacher as a loser who could never possibly earn $250,000 a year) is that anyone complaining about tax rate increases is selfish.
There is anger and frustration among ordinary Americans over tax increases, but it is not because of selfishness. It is because of reality -- only an idiot would believe that the minority of taxpayers taking home $250,000 (or is it $200,000 or $150,000 or $120,000?) or more will be the only group of people to bear the cost of Obama's colossal government expansion. And it is because of resentment. We don't resent those with wealth per se, but we certainly resent an erudite cadre of wealthy, elitist lawyers, tenured professors, political consultants, and politicians telling us what to do with our money. The Anchoress summed it up perfectly some years ago:
Every weekend I meander through the New York Times [...] And every weekend I finally close the paper and think, this is a publication which editorializes on the evils of capitalism while it praises European-style socialism, and foments class resentment between the rich and the poor…and it disdains middle-class Republicans like me…and yet it is chock-full of people so rich I have never heard of them, people who breathe such rarified air and move in such insulated little conclaves that I would only be likely to encounter them face to face if I rammed into them on the Long Island Expressway as they moved back and forth between Town and Country, between Sotheby’s Manhattan and Sotheby’s Southhampton, so to speak. The paper prostrates itself before the public-education devotees who send their children to private schools and the illegal immigrant sympathizers who have bought up the last private beachfronts in Montauk, inviting those brown-skinned Catholics onto their property only long-enough to erect the high walls of their fortresses or to stain their decks.
I, in my middle class world, with my callused-handed husband and my Eagle Scout son, and the friends with whom we volunteer at church and in the community, do not begrudge the hyper-rich their riches.
What we do begrudge them is their “superior” disdain for our values, and their hectoring that we are somehow less compassionate, less well-meaning, gosh darn it just LESSER people because we believe in giving a hand, rather than a hand-out.
I mind gazillionaires like Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, Jon Corzine and Hillary “we’re going to have to take some things away from you for the common good” Clinton pretending that our yearly income, our solidly middle-class income (and very modest emergency fund) is too, too much for us, unfair to others, undertaxed, greedy, ignoble and selfish. I mind people who are bouncing on fluffy pillows of honest-to-goodness wealth shaking a rhetorical finger at us for daring to try to get comfortable on our foam rubber mats of hard-earned wages. (emphasis added)
And do you know what really gets under our skin? I'll let Peggy Noonan handle that one:
I suspect that history, including great historical novelists of the future, will look back and see that many of our elites simply decided to enjoy their lives while they waited for the next chapter of trouble. And that they consciously, or unconsciously, took grim comfort in this thought: I got mine. Which is what the separate peace comes down to, "I got mine, you get yours."
I think that many of us know, deep down inside, that people like Michelle and Barack Obama, who earn a combined annual income comfortably in the 7-figure range, are more or less insulated from the financial affects of the public policies that they support. We know that any "solutions" proposed by Ted Kennedy to our current health care problems ultimately matter little to Kennedy himself, because his family connections, political connections, and personal wealth ensure that his personal medical care will always be the finest available, regardless of location or procedure or cost. We know that the opinions of billionaires like George Soros or Warren Buffett or Bill Gates on tax policies are essentially meaningless because they will still be billionaires, regardless of what the tax code says. Likewise with Hollywood celebrities.
We also know this because this select group of people, with rare exception and seemingly in inverse proportion to both their physical health and their publicly-expressed concern for the poor, are themselves embarrassingly weak benefactors of charity. They are also notorious for exploiting every possible tax loophole, all the while complaining that the rich don't "pay their fair share" in taxes. What did John Edwards, champion of the poor, do during the 1990s when his lawsuit windfalls began to roll in? He formed an S-corporation in order to avoid paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes. Why did Ted Kennedy probate his mother's estate in Florida, even though she had been a lifelong resident of Massachusetts? Florida has no state inheritance tax. And neither John Kerry nor Ted Kennedy pay the optional higher 5.85% Massachusetts state income tax rate. And so on and so on.
We know that the super-rich will not really be affected by income and payroll tax increases, simply because such increases do not affect their principal wealth. Even if the very rich were income taxed at a rate of 100%, they would still be able to live very, very comfortably off the value of their enormous reserves of stocks, bonds, precious metals, cash, real estate, fine art, and other investments.
Perhaps they'll owe a little more under Obama's plans, but they've got theirs, and the enormity of their fortunes means that most of their money will be securely tucked away in tax shelters. And what happens to the rest of us really doesn't matter to them as long as they've paid just enough to assuage their slightly-guilty consciences.
The people who really get nailed under the high marginal taxes and estate taxes of "spread the wealth" schemes are the professionals and successful business owners who have just barely crossed over the $150,000 to $200,000 per year earnings threshold. These people will find themselves working harder to earn substantially less, permanently stuck with enough money to live comfortably, but never really earning enough to fund a retirement account that will allow them to continue to live that way after they retire, or able to accumulate enough to afford their children a comfortable inheritance. And they are the ones whose children will never have enough cash reserves to pay both extended/elderly care costs (such as nursing homes) for their parents, and estate taxes on real property or a business. This is the scenario that hits farmers and ranchers particularly hard. If a son or daughter inherits a farm valued at $2 million, where are they going to come up with the $500,000 or $750,000 in estate taxes for the government?
You may ask, what's so wrong with that? There are tens of millions of people in this country who spend their lives mired in poverty. Why should anyone support the idea that some people should be free to grow rich while others struggle from day to day?
I think the answer is two-fold. First, our nation has never enforced the principle of redistribution of wealth by the Federal government. Our Constitution was written in order to specifically define how our government would function, and to enumerate specific rights of citizens that could not be infringed by that government. The Constitution creates a Federal government that, for the most part, is limited in its ability to interfere in people's lives. It also implies that what is yours is yours, not the government's (or euphemistically, "the people's"). Under such a system, some will prosper and some will fail, but their failure cannot be attributed to persecution or limits on their individual freedoms imposed by the Federal government. In fact, under our system, state governments have more direct control over the rights of their citizens -- it was the state governments in the South that enacted "Jim Crow" laws; yet it took action at the Federal level to ultimately overrule state's rights on that issue.
Barack Obama was exactly right when he said that our Constitution "doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf." He wants to see that changed, of course, but such a major Constitutional overhaul would give the Federal government an unprecedented and ultimately dangerous amount of power over our individual lives. I believe that the potential for the abuse of that power far outweighs any benefits to be gained from it.
Second, as a Christian I strongly object to other Christians attempting to use the government as a strong arm in order to enact their vision of social justice. Many Christians read about the equal partition of the Promised Land among the Israelites, and the communal nature of the early Jerusalem church as described in Acts, and conclude that God's plan for mankind is the equal distribution of wealth among all people. They then propose to task a benevolent centralized government with the administration of such a distribution plan. Unfortunately, the Bible contains no passages that support such a scheme. The New Testament teaches that Christians should peaceably co-exist within the framework of secular governments, and give generously to those in need, but it never teaches that Christians should co-opt those governments as a means of achieving their own ends. (Admittedly, the Church and much of Christendom has repeatedly failed in this regard.)
And in the Old Testament, God does indeed partition the land equally among the tribes of Israel, but He also clearly establishes that the land belongs to Him; the Israelites are merely tenants. They are forbidden from selling land in perpetuity, and whatever land is sold or mortgaged is to be returned to its original owners every 50 years. Therefore, whenever land is sold or mortgaged, its value is to be prorated according to the proximity of the 50 year Jubilee. The Israelites are also required to pay the Temple (i.e. God) an annual tithe of 10% of everything they own. (The Old Testament narratives indicate that the Israelites also failed to honor these commandments, just like the Christian church throughout the ages.) And God specifically requires His people to be generous with the poor and to refrain from profiting from their misfortune. Yet outside of these requirements, the children of Israel are allowed to honestly earn whatever they can, and -- with the previously noted exception of possessions that have been borrowed or purchased from others -- God never commands His people to redistribute their own personal wealth.
There is also one other thing. Redistribution of wealth schemes will do little to solve the primary affliction suffered by the poor in this country -- civic poverty -- which is the belief that they are irrelevant to the course of events in their communities. Civic poverty is most prominently displayed among African-Americans, who suffered persecution and loss of basic civil rights in this country for over a century after they had been freed from slavery. Even though civil rights laws have been amended, and even though academia and the professional workforce has striven to provide affirmative action and equal opportunities for Blacks during the last 40 years, there is still (particularly at the lowest economic levels) a basic distrust of America, its government and its financial systems among Blacks.
So far, all of our attempts to fight poverty have involved material solutions. And honestly, our poor enjoy a much better standard of living that average working-class citizens in many nations. But no one has been able to explain to me how a massive, materially-oriented redistribution of wealth scheme will somehow make the lives of the civically impoverished any better. Theirs is an emotional and spiritual deficit, and money will not make the hurt and distrust disappear, nor will it mend broken families or dysfunctional communities of any kind. In fact, I believe that such a scheme would make the lives of the civically impoverished even more miserable, because receiving free money with no required interaction could very well create an even greater temptation to stay disconnected from society at large.
So how do we fight civic poverty? The same way that Jesus taught us to spread his Gospel -- through relationships. By listening. By lending a hand whenever people are truly in need. By teaching others self-worth and self-respect. By helping people overcome addictions and hangups. In short, by getting our hands dirty, making ourselves vulnerable, and doing it all voluntarily, without coercion or intimidation from the government.
Such a solution is difficult, frustrating, painfully slow and seemingly hopeless. You can't accomplish it simply by writing a check or creating a government bureaucracy and then hoping everything works out OK. Is America capable of such a task, right now? Probably not. Certainly not without a spiritual awakening and revival, which is what I pray for daily for my own life and for our nation. Shouldn't we do something in the mean time, then? Yes, but only if our stop-gap measure is not worse than the problem at hand. I believe that socialism -- even non-violent, "democratic" socialism approved by voters -- is not the answer, because it only alters behavior by force of law; it does not fundamentally improve the character or spirit of its subjects. And it takes our allegiance away from God and lessens our responsibility for each other, since socialism recasts government as the ultimate owner of all wealth, and, subsequently, the sole source of our livelihood and well-being. When we turn the state into a God, we are not doing His will.
That's what I believe, and that's why I cannot support redistribution of wealth as a solution to America's current financial and spiritual problems. Please join me in praying for a better way.