Last February when the U.S. Catholic bishops wanted to underscore the morality involved in budget priorities, they asked Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire to write members of Congress.
“On behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,” he wrote as chairman of their Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, “we call on Congress to place the needs of the poor, the unemployed, the hungry, and other vulnerable people first in setting priorities in the Fiscal Year 2011 Continuing Appropriations Resolution.”
His comments drew strident criticism from numerous Catholics admonishing him and other bishops to steer clear of political involvement and to see their job as saving souls, promoting subsidiarity and avoiding socialism. Eventually, the budget axe did chop fingers and toes, sometimes arms and legs, off the programs championed by the bishops.
Church-going people easily get wrapped in discussions about deficits and debt framed around individualism and entitlements. Many ask: hasn’t individual freedom created the wealth in America? Don’t billionaires and mega-millionaires need tax cuts to create new jobs? Won’t entitlements bankrupt the U.S. in the future? Admitting no simple answers, these types of questions distract from the deeper questions and fuel the wrangle that is polarizing the country.
For people of faith the bishops are right to flag the morality of budget priorities. A budget actually reflects society’s values. It quantifies the importance of what to cut and what to cultivate. But, the bishops’ perspective rests on the common good and the enhancement of community, not simply the enrichment of the individual. In essence, the budget process asks what kind of community we want to promote.
For three decades the U.S. has experienced a redistribution of wealth–upward. Between 1979 and 2008 the top 1 percent saw their income increase by 224 percent, while the bottom 20 percent experienced a 7 percent loss in theirs. Currently, the top 1 percent get nearly a quarter of the nation’s income and control 40 percent of the wealth. Just 25 years ago that top group held 33 percent of the wealth and took 12 percent of the nation’s income. The result: society today mirrors the inequality just prior to the Great Depression.
Observe: with wealth comes power. Translated into politics, the super-rich can inordinately influence legislation and special interest tax breaks. Lower tax rates on capital gains, largely benefitting the super-rich, shift the tax burden to other sectors of the economy, or beg for budget cuts. These cuts, together with free trade agreements sucking manufacturing jobs overseas, force “the poor, the unemployed, the hungry, and other vulnerable people” whom the bishops want to protect, to face their own financial tsunami.
The mantra “Smaller Government, Less Taxes” fits easily on a bumper sticker, but the average total U.S. income tax rate (combining federal, state and local) ranks lower than 24 other industrialized nations. Bank of America paid no U.S. income taxes in 2009 & 2010. Boeing, recording profits of $9.7 billion over the years 2008-2010, actually received a tax rebate of $75 million during those years.
A vibrant democracy requires healthy educated citizens who can participate in the political process. A tax system based on the ability to pay–favored by popes and bishops for over a century–will raise the revenue so everyone can have a place at the table.
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