After the tea parties

11 May

With taxation on American minds this week – what with income taxes due and the so-called tea parties protesting government spending – I looked through some old notes and came across a column from Sept. 29, 2007.

I couldn’t help noticing how the voices in this column spoke mainly about fairness and justice for poor people, not about safeguarding their own pocketbooks.

If Tennessee were ever to inaugurate an income tax, Lee Davis, a tax attorney in Johnson City, knows he’d pay more to the state than he does now.

But that prospect doesn’t bother him.

“I don’t mind paying my fair share,” he said in a phone interview. “I think our system would be better with an income tax. Too many laws are written to benefit those of great wealth.”

This is more a matter of faith than finances for Davis, who describes himself as “a lifelong Republican who believes in capitalism and free enterprise.”

A member of Central Church of Christ, Davis points to an incident in the New Testament when two very different groups tried to corner Jesus with a tax question: the Herodians, who supported the local king, a puppet of the Roman Empire, and the Pharisees, Jewish purists who thought cooperating with secular authorities meant flirting with heresy.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they asked, figuring that any answer would land Jesus in trouble.

But he frustrated their trap – and confounded future commentators – with a deceptively simple reply: “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

People have tried to translate those words into good practice ever since.

But whatever Jesus meant, Tennessee’s tax system isn’t it.

“There’s a connection with all the social-justice aspects of the Old and New Testaments,” said Bill Howell, the Middle Tennessee organizer for Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, a statewide coalition for tax reform. “There’s a general preference for the poor expressed in the Bible.”

But the Tennessee tax system works exactly opposite, taking the proportionally biggest bites from its poorest citizens. At 11.7 percent, the total state tax burden on the poorest families, who earn less than $14,000 a year, is nearly four times the rate as for the wealthiest Tennesseans. This is according to a 2003 report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C.

The main culprit is the sales tax, among the highest in the nation overall and the highest for groceries (even after recent changes). A loaf of bread, for instance, costs the same whether someone earns $14,000 or $140,000, and so high-income households spend only about four percent of their budgets on groceries. Low-income households, by contrast, spend about 21 percent.

The stark bottom line: In proportion to their income, the poorest citizens get hit hardest by taxes while the richest get away easiest.

“It isn’t morally fair,” Davis said. “We have a regressive tax system.”

On many issues, Davis sits on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the Rev. Don Beisswenger of Nashville, a Presbyterian minister, retired Vanderbilt Divinity School theologian and left-leaning activist who once spent six months in federal prison for staging a nonviolent protest at an Army base.

But they agree about the inequities of the Tennessee tax system.

“The Bible strongly accents the importance of compassion and care for the poor,” Beisswenger said this week. “The Jewish law had harvesters not take all the grain from the fields, so poor people could get what was left. Jesus identified with the poor, spoke for them. I think he was killed (partly) because he advocated for the poor against the religious and economic powers.”

In his eyes, the tax debates reflect two competing “myths” in American society.

“One is the Horatio Alger myth – work hard and do your own thing,” he said, referring to the 19th-century author whose stories promoted self-reliance as the key to financial success.

The other storyline emphasizes “community connections (and) a responsibility to care for people who are unable to take care of themselves.” He believes that view is more consistent with biblical teaching.

 “Jesus said his mission was to bring good news to the poor,” Beisswenger said. “The gap between the wealthy and poor needs to be dealt with. That’s a necessary condition for the celebration of Jubilee, for the reign of God.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 18 April 2009.

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