Tag Archives: Tennessee

Maybe it’s not just the economy

19 Mar

Tennessee does not have a state income tax. In fact, it’s the figurative third rail of state politics, the surest route to electoral oblivion for any politician. For example: a once-popular Republican governor, Don Sundquist, left the governor’s mansion all but ostracized from the party for even mentioning it.

I’ve puzzled over that attitude for a long time because it’s been established that a state income tax would have a net benefit to the state (which near the nation’s bottom rung for education spending), it would be almost a wash on middle class tax burdens, and it would actually ease the tax burden on poor people. (I’ve lived in four states, two with and two without state income tax. Being severely middle class, our total tax bill in each place was roughly the same.)

Yet voters reject it time and again. The state legislature is even on the brink of passing a “no income tax, ever” amendment in the state constitution.

Why do Tennesseans vote against their own best interests, I’ve wondered.

One hunch I’ve had — no proof, no hard evidence, no studies to back me up, just a hunch from talking to people and listening to the no-income-tax rhetoric — is that Tennessee’s political history is steeped a screw-you attitude when it comes to governments.

Exhibit A: The Watauga Association, possibly the first attempt at an independent (read: rogue) government on American soil, illegal under British law at the time, was formed in what is now Elizabethton, Tenn., in 1772.

Exhibit B: What is now northeast Tennessee was almost the nation’s 14th state, the state of Franklin, an attempted breakaway from North Carolina, which in the 1700s stretched–in theory, anyway–over the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. A bunch of settlers didn’t like an attempted “land grab” by North Carolina legislators, not to mention the idea of their hard-earned dollars going back east over the mountains to Raleigh. So they petitioned and even shed blood to form a new state.

Underneath these stories is an idea: We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, even if it costs us. We’re independent. (Never mind that Tennesseans receive $1.27 in federal benefits for every $1.00 of federal taxes they pay.)

But Jonathan Haidt puts all this much more neatly and convincingly in an essay last week in the New York Times, “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness” (March 17). He wasn’t talking about Tennessee and taxes; he has in mind a larger stage. But if the shoe fits, as the saying goes. The author’s name might ring a bell from a previous post.

I encourage you to read Haidt’s entire essay. Here’s an excerpt:

Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes.

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

This analysis may also explain why GOP voters generally aren’t thrilled with Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate, especially when compared with the followers of Rick Santorum—as well as Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann before him. Romney’s rivals have stirred up more enthusiasm, if not more votes, because they seem to tap into big themes (even at the risk of getting their facts wrong), while Romney tends to sound more like the very capable office executive he has been: steady but not exciting. (Remember the old cliche about “the one you date and the one you marry”?)

Just this week, Santorum said the election isn’t really about the economy, which seems like a crazy statement at first glance. But he’s trying to tap into a deeper well—something more “fundamental,” to use his word. Or maybe something “sacred,” to use Haidt’s.

Top photo: Jaime Dowell (Manifestation Nation)

Advertisements

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.

Prayer, politics and those pesky hot-button issues

21 Mar
Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN1)

Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN1)

Phil Roe enjoys his new job. The U.S. Representative from Tennessee’s First District, a retired physician, wanted to join the debates in Washington over health care, and here he is. And if politics were baseball, he just moved to the major leagues.

But Thursdays are good days because that’s when he gets out of the Capitol Hill routine. In the evenings he usually flies home to Johnson City for the weekend. Before that, in the mornings, he joins other House members for an hour-long nonpartisan prayer breakfast.

“We all check our politics at the door,” Roe said during a phone conversation this week. “I really try to guard that time. We meet and get our week straightened out.”

Roe came away inspired from last month’s National Prayer Breakfast. President Obama spoke, but Roe was most impressed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who converted to Roman Catholicism soon after leaving office in 2007.

“I had never heard him share his faith,” Roe said. “That was the best event I’ve attended (in Washington) so far. I left with my jaw hanging down.”

While his own faith is important — he and his wife, Pam, are members of Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church — Roe favors the language of “values” and “morals” when discussing his work in Congress, perhaps sensing that too much religious vocabulary is easily misunderstood or potentially divisive.

In political office, “you rely on the values you grew up with, (such as) just telling the truth,” he said. “You look at that in the totality of your lifetime.”

But it seems inevitable that such conversations will turn to hot-button topics such as abortion, which Roe adamantly opposes. That issue marked one of his first big Beltway moments.

He delivered a brief anti-abortion speech in the House on Jan. 21, the day between the presidential inauguration and the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Afterwards, he was asked to “say a few words to a group of people” the following day. Expecting a relatively small gathering, he found himself addressing more than 200,000 people in the National Mall for the annual pro-life rally.

As an ob-gyn specialist Dr. Roe delivered thousands of babies, and he would like to see abortion debated and put to an up-or-down vote in Congress, but doubts that will happen in the wake of Supreme Court decisions.

He was troubled by last week’s order by President Obama to lift former President Bush’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Roe considers the research unnecessary and the surrounding political drama a distraction. He chooses his words carefully.

“A human embryo is how life begins, and that comes back to one of those core basic values: Do you consider this a human life or not?” he said. “That’s an argument that personally took it off the table for me. Where do you stop on the slippery slope?”

Obama set limits when he signed the federal funding order – prohibiting cloning embryos, for example – but Roe still thinks the president needlessly re-opened a door.

“To show you how creative people are, all the great breakthroughs have occurred with adult or umbilical-cord stem cells,” he said. “Science came right along and made breakthroughs. People feel strongly about the issue, and we didn’t need this.”

Given the current economic crisis and his own conservative politics, it’s no surprise that Roe talks about taxes and government spending in moral terms. He calls his belief in “smaller, leaner, more accountable government” one of his core values. (“My head is spinning with all the spending that goes on here.”)

A member of the House Veteran Affairs Committee, he considers it “a moral obligation to take care of the people who make us free.” Low taxes, he said, attract businesses to the state, which ultimately provide new jobs that can help people get out of poverty. And “the worst thing you can do” to people living on a fixed incomes – including the growing numbers of retirees in Northeast Tennessee – is to raise their taxes.

“I can’t do that to them,” he said. “When I was practicing medicine, I knew people who watched their spouses die and struggle to make payments. I would get afghans and apple butter. I have to look these people in the eye.”

Johnson City Press, 14 March 2009.

%d bloggers like this: