Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Tax cuts for well-heeled fair?
Vail, CO, Colorado
When visiting hometown Grand Rapids, Mich., last spring, I read in this city’s newspaper how tea party activists defend tax breaks for the rich. Theirs is a liberty agenda from which the wealthy prosper.
The Grand Rapids Press (Friday, April 16, 2010, pp. A3-4) reported, “Judith Doctor, a speaker in Grand Rapids who runs a ministry, had harsh words for Obama and liberals — as well as those who attacked Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential candidate. She said the government only wants to take away choices.”
Her verdict: “They have been working to rob and kill and destroy something very precious to us: Freedom.”
With ample tax breaks making the wealthy free to invest, claim tea partiers like 70-year-old Judith Doctor, the rich will make our economy boom.
How? The wealthy save more money in accounts because they don’t have to pay higher taxes. Banks lend this money. Firms who borrow it expand. These businesses hire more workers. This cycle repeats itself until there’s a chicken in every household pot and a Lexus in every garage. The poor move up into the middle class. The middle class overflows into the upper class. It all starts with sizeable tax cuts to the well heeled.
This bogus economic cycle doesn’t work, though. Early on in George W. Bush’s presidency, he got Congress to approve tax cuts across the board. What happened? Toward the end of his second term, the Great Recession hit. Giving the wealthy lucrative tax benefits didn’t pan out.
Jeffrey Zaslow wrote an article, “Can You, Too, Join the Royal Ranks?” (The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2010, p. D1). With tax cuts, tea partiers revise the title to read,” You, Too, Can Join the Royal Ranks.”
Not so, confesses Zaslow. The so-called financial freedom agenda for the wealthy creates a huge gap between them and the middle class. It bankrolls an elite group of citizens who wield a disproportionate amount of power in Washington, relative to their size.
What the freedom agenda’s downsizing of taxes for the well-heeled has done since the Reagan presidency makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Zaslow reports: “The net worth of the richest Americans on the Forbes 400 list rose 8 percent this year, to $1.37 trillion. The top 20 percent of Americans now own more than 85 percent of the wealth in the U.S., according to estimates by New York University economist Edward Wolff. Meanwhile, given their debt, the bottom 40 percent own almost nothing, making this the widest gap since the Depression.”
A pattern sets in to pad purses of the rich. Princeton University economist Alan Blinder describes it: “Those of us who live near the top of the income pyramid are doing very nicely, thank you. Yet our government keeps showering us with Christmas presents. Meanwhile, economic life is pretty miserable for those near the bottom and is getting worse for those in the middle. Does this strike you as fair?” (The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 17, 2010, p. A19).
Thomas Jefferson feared a lean middle class with a fat upper class hoarding enormous amounts of cash and land. He desired a freedom agenda defined by brains, not wealth. Jefferson favored a “natural aristocracy” leading our republic. These people believed in education and nurtured virtuous, dependable character. Jefferson rejected European aristocracy based on inherited wealth.
What caused Jefferson to worry about the republic’s future? When a favored few possessed most of the wealth, the middle class shrinks. This wasn’t a prescription for liberty, argued Jefferson. It produced anarchy in the nation’s financial system because not enough people had sizeable ownership in it.
Advocates of big tax breaks for the rich wink at Jefferson’s anxiety caused by the wealthy wielding too much power. Moreover, they avoid one of the Bible’s most radical remedies for distributing wealth.
According to Saint Luke, Jesus began his ministry preaching in a synagogue. He used as his text Isaiah’s prophecy, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).
Jesus, a Jew, was schooled economically in an experiment Jews recorded in their Torah. What plan did they practice to redistribute assets? Jews observed a Year of Jubilee every half century.
During this season, the soil was rested, slaves were freed and all land returned to its original owners (Leviticus 25). This kept the wealthy from seizing control of too much property and controlling a large portion of monetary assets.
Today, the gap widens between the super-rich and middle class strivers who fall further behind trying to catch up with them. Does freedom thrive when the rich become richer and the poor become poorer? Where’s fairness in this tea party scheme?
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.