We Need Fewer Billionaires

My friend Fr. John Rausch is a good guy who truly wants to help those unable or unwilling to help themselves.  The problem arises, as it does with many of the clergy of all denominations, when he tries to define “help”. 

He gives a good example of this problem in the enclosed article when he says that, “People of faith recognize all wealth has a social mortgage, a lien that is payable to the common good.  Only appropriate tax laws, and not simply voluntary actions, will promote justice for the least in society.”  He is actually preaching against the gospels when he advocates government confiscation of wealth (taxation) from the people who make our economy work to “help” the least in society by welfare programs.  His approach would actually lower the level of prosperity for everyone in our country by increasing taxation (a job killer) and by removing the incentive for entrepreneurs to take the risk involved in starting or expanding enterprises that provide jobs.

Christ never advocated a role for government in helping the poor, in fact he told us “to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. Christ’s beatitudes  challenged each of us to help the poor and to show them God’s love, not to subcontract caring for the poor to government.  He never said that having our earnings confiscated by Caesar was an act of charity, nor did he say that government welfare would show the poor the love of God.

That said, I believe that government is actually reducing the help for the poor two ways.  First, the number of government social programs, which the clergy of many churches lobby for, send a message to individuals that their personal charity is not needed.  Food for the poor – there is “Food Stamps”.  Shelter for the poor – there is government housing. Help for the disabled – there is Social Security disability.  Who needs individual charity that shows others love and the love of God when godless government programs are there to help.  And the role of the clergy in advocating for government programs sends a silent message that charity by churches and individuals is not the way to go.

I never saw the love of God in a government program, and I am pretty sure I won’t see any love in the 2,000 plus pages of legislation for Obamacare and the 4,000 pages of regulations in six months that will grow to tens of thousands that will result.

I am proud of our little church.  We give over 10% of the annual budget to the poor in cash assistance and more in in-kind assistance of food, clothing, and other aid that is not accounted for.  And, we let people know we love them and so does God.  When the government has a program that does that, I’ll reconsider my position.


We Need Fewer Billionaires

by Fr. John S. Rausch

            Last August 40 U.S. billionaires pledged to give at least half of their wealth to charity during their lifetime or after death.  The campaign called “The Giving Pledge,” was launched by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to inspire more and smarter philanthropy for the future.  Many non-profits hurt by the current recession would gladly receive these private stimulus funds to continue their work with education, the environment, health and the arts.  However, what seems like an unruffled gesture of giving, actually hides a few wrinkles: some of this money could be forthcoming, but much could take years to distribute.

            The whole plan depends on convincing individual billionaires to join the campaign.  Buffett and Gates together phoned  70 to 80 of America’s wealthiest individuals to recruit their total of 40.  Some who declined to sign the pledge preferred to keep their philanthropy anonymous, though a stronger popular witness might have encouraged more reluctant folks to join the pledgers.  Some were unavailable to talk and some were just plain uninterested.  While 40 pledges appear newsworthy, Forbes magazine lists 403 U.S. billionaires in its March, 2010 issue.

            In reviewing the list of pledgers, Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, noted that many of the names are people who are already known for their giving.  She hopes the witness of the 40 billionaires will influence millionaires and people of even lesser means to share a portion of their wealth.

            Finally, with the voluntary nature of the campaign, Pablo Eisenberg of Georgetown University asks whether the money will benefit those most in need in our society.  Eisenberg notes that the wealthy tend to donate to the larger institutions, such as universities, hospitals and the arts, rather than to small non-profits that house the homeless, counsel the addicted and socialize released prisoners.  Accountability for the common good, not promoting a pet project, should be the moral consideration when evaluating the plan. 

            With a total of only 1,011 billionaires in the world, society stands in awe of them.  Yet, not everyone invented a better mousetrap.  Most billionaires attained their status through finance, insurance or real estate, through building an expansive conglomerate or exploiting new technology.  They knew how to work the system, manipulate finances and cut deals to the disadvantage of their competitors–many times legally–but still as an exercise of power in the marketplace.  By creating billionaires, neo-liberal policies concentrated wealth in the hands of fewer people contributing to the deepening of inequality in society.

            Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, attributes much of the structural reason for the current “Great Recession” less to debt than to inequality.  In 1928 the richest 1 percent of Americans received 23.9 percent of the nation’s total income.  During the era of prosperity following WW II–with the G.I. Bill, rising wages and union power–the top 1 percent received only 8 to 9 percent of the national income by the late 1970s.  However, in the past 30 years stagnant wages caused by dismantling workers’ bargaining power, globalization, deregulation and privatization together with tax breaks for the wealthy moved the richest 1 percent back to 23.5 percent of the national income.  Too much concentration for the wealthy means too little purchasing power for the rest to buy what the economy is capable of producing, i.e. less demand means fewer new jobs.

            People of faith recognize all wealth has a social mortgage, a lien that is payable to the common good.  Only appropriate tax laws, and not simply voluntary actions, will promote justice for the least in society. 

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