I got a letter from my friend Fr. John Rausch in Kentucky. Fr. John’s mission in life is working to end Appalachian poverty and I admire him for that. He has a way of bringing up topics from the left that make me think, in fact I hardly ever learn from folks who agree with me. Take a look at this letter, form your own thoughts, and then I’ll tell you what I think …
I’m still dealing with the Tea Party phenomenon. This time let’s look at taxes and keeping our money. Thought it might be helpful to think about how much I earn on my own versus how much I inherit from society. Might be a fun meditation. Take an afternoon walk through the park or woods—besides being more productive, you’ll be more whole.
“It’s Your Money”
by Fr. John S. Rausch
On February 18, 2010, Joe Stack crashed his single-engine airplane into the IRS offices in Austin, Texas. He had struggled for years through several businesses as an independent software engineer, but after 9/11 his anger grew sulphuric as tax dollars went to government bailouts.
From his last web posting, regarded as his suicide note, he raised issues over debt, taxes and his long-running feud with the IRS. His note read: “…as usual they (the government) left me to rot and die while they bailed out their rich, incompetent cronies with my money (emphasis added)!” The crash of his Piper Dakota killed Stack and an IRS manager while injuring 13 others.
Joe Stack appeared frustrated because he could not control money. He was angry with the government, because it could take his money through taxes, but he was infuriated with corporations and the Catholic Church because they could keep their money through tax breaks. Beyond anger, however, Stack demonstrated a narrow understanding of earning money and a limited appreciation for the common good.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan first posed the campaign question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” The question shifted the emphasis from the common good with concerns over better schools, less crime and public services to individuals’ buying power. Today on the campaign trail many politicians frequently rail against increasing taxes with, “It’s your money, not the government’s.” Ideas like this matter profoundly because they set up a dichotomy between individuals and the government rather than promoting a community of “We the people.”
Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest men in America, reflects an honest humility about his wealth when he says, “Society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned.” He stresses that his ability to earn money directly benefits from the vast depth of knowledge and technology accumulated in the US compared to other people in the world or previous generations of Americans.
A child born in American, for example, receives a gratuitous head start compared to a child born in Haiti. Educational opportunities, health care, even sanitation represent gifts to the newborn, unearned by the child, but accumulated over generations for the common good. With these elementary gifts society pays an unearned “social wage” to every citizen in the country.
Productivity gains over the years within a society also contribute considerably to a person’s earnings. Knowledge and technology built over the decades enhance the production capacity of each worker. A person today working the same number of hours as a person in 1870 will produce about 15 times as much economic output because of this “productivity bonus.”
“It’s your money” makes a pithy bumper sticker, but economist William Baumol calculates “nearly 90 percent…of current GDP was contributed by innovation carried out since 1870.”
Buffett believes that we in the U.S. overtax the poor and under tax the rich. He himself pays a lower percentage of income in payroll taxes than his receptionist. Yet, currently the top 1 percent of U.S. households earn more than the bottom 120 million Americans combined!
The question remains: since so much of our earnings are attributable to what we inherit from our collective history, doesn’t solidarity and the common good demand a fairer distribution of wealth?
The Gospel contrasts the ease of a camel passing through the eye of a needle with someone rich trying to enter the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:24, and parallels). Perhaps the rich believe they earned it, it’s their money and they have only slight responsibility for the common good.
Fr. John raises some valid points including the preoccupation with money that evidently drove Joe Stack mad, the catchy, but untrue bumper sticker, “It’s your money” , and the quotation from Matthew 19:24 about the rich man. But, he also glosses over some economic truths and Church teaching, and creates an impression, intended or unintended, that paying taxes is the only way we can repay society for all we have been given by those who have gone before. Let’s take his examples item by item.
Reagan’s quote. President Reagan merely asked a question. He did not provide an answer. One can either interpret the question to be about the quality of life which includes all that society has to offer, or it can be interpreted as merely addressing income and wealth. I think any intelligent person would consider quality of life, because good schools, good health care, access to the arts, etc. are often more important than wealth, especially when raising a family.
Buffet philosophy. I really admire Warren Buffet, and have come to admire his friend Bill Gates even more. Both of these guys did not let their wealth corrupt them (OK, OK, Gates house was a bit much, but he was younger then), and both set about using that wealth to improve the lives of those around them. They make the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller look simplistic, like a PR gesture, compared to the thought and hard work they have put into helping the greatest number of people who need help the most on a worldwide basis. I have to admit that Gates support for abortion is a negative, but i didn’t say he was perfect, and none of us are, but few would have used their wealth for others to the extent that he has.
Benefits from Society. Only a fool believes that he is a "self-made man". We all owe debts to parents, teachers, clergy, aunts & uncles, and friends who have helped shape our lives for the better. So, anyone who does not feel the need to give back to society is lacking a basic human quality, gratitude, and is destined to live a life where more is never enough. Joe Stack exhibited this flaw and it drove him to a terrible end. But, how does one "give back". Some do it by writing a check or paying taxes, but many who take the admonition of Christ to "love one another" at face value give others their time and service as well.
Productivity. Fr. John’s points about where productivity increases (that result in high wages) come from, and what should our attitude about those wages be. Well, my comments on benefits from society cover that subject. Certainly one’s marketable skills, represent a debt to society for an education and the legal framework that allows the development of technology, but it also involves the individual’s willingness to apply himself or herself to acquire skills, and the investment of capital in a business that allows those skills to be used. So far, our free enterprise system has the best track record in history for bringing those elements together and providing incentives for people to work hard and take risks. When those elements result in an economic reward, the best way to repay society, after paying fair taxes for government services, is to show gratitude by giving our time, talent, and treasure to others. Christ asks no more of us.
The Common Good. The words "solidarity" and "the common good" are troubling to me because I can’t find them in Scripture. They seem to have become common with the advent of "social justice", which is the use of the political system to redistribute wealth. I have already said that any thinking person knows he or she owes a debt to society, and that giving back in gratitude for those gifts is demanded by Scripture, so the only moral question is how to repay that debt. The idea that we can repay the debt by giving more money to a secular government than it needs to operate seems strange to me. Christ said, "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s." So why would we give Caesar money to show others our love. The U.S Catholic bishops are particularly irksome because they are constantly backing this or that government program to "help the poor" or "help immigrants" while initiating few programs of their own to harness the power and love of the Catholic laity. This concept of using the secular government as a middle man to show people God’s love does not appear in Scripture and counter-intuitive. I believe it is more a function of the clergy’s progressive political beliefs than of Christian theology.
Summary. Fr. John makes us think about the role of the Christian layperson in an age of plenty. There is no mistaking that he has first-hand experience with the subject of poverty and the need to find workers for the vineyard. And there is no denying that the workers are few and the Christian community has been slow to initiate programs that harness the power of the Christian laity to meet the needs of the less fortunate. We are called to do better. But the inference that the Christian community should let government handle the task of caring for the poor seems sort of un-Christian to me. It has no basis in the words of Christ in Scripture, and certainly does not afford Christians the opportunity to show others the love of Christ as taught by the Gospels. The idea that we should trust some leftist elected officials to show the love of Christ to the poor just doesn’t pass my reality test. Perhaps that is not the message that Fr. John intended to convey, but that is the message that I received, and the message that the U.S. Catholic bishops are sending to the Catholic laity.
Christ calls us to be all that we can be so that we can use our time, talents, and treasure to help others on this Earth. That is not a suggestion, it is the purpose of life for a Christian. Do all Christians heed Christ’s words? Of course not. Free will is the freedom to make mistakes, and all of us have failed to live up to the Gospels at one time or another. But, Christ never even hinted that subcontracting the care of the less fortunate to Caesar was an option.