They say that nothing is certain in life except for death and taxes. “They” are pretty much correct in that assessment, and they have been correct for a long, long time. Even in Jesus’ day, the Jews were upset about paying taxes to Rome, so much so that they would soon form their own little “Occupy Jerusalem” protest, only they would not be so peaceful about it. In the midst of this unrest against the tyranny of Rome, Jesus was confronted about whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. The Pharisees, being the clever politicians that they were, thought that they had trapped Jesus in an inescapable dilemma. If Jesus said, “No, you should not pay the tax,” then he would be arrested for sedition. If he said, “Yes, pay the tax,” then they hoped that he would lose the favor of the people who despised the Roman authority. Jesus simply replied to his interlocutors, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:15-22). Taxes are a fact of life, they are a necessity, and Jesus taught that they ought to be paid.
Here in the modern world we are in the thick of the Republican primaries, and despite 2,000 years having passed, we still are not happy about taxes and government. Why are folks Occupying Wall Street and other cities in the USA? The protesters have many complaints, but it seems that the core of their frustration cannot be summed up any better than how James Carville summed it up in President Clinton’s ’92 campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid.” One of the major factors in an economy is the tax system, as the Republican contenders well know. Herman Cain, one of the current front-runners, has gained traction with the idea of eliminating the current tax code and re-writing it with a sort of flat tax. His is the 9-9-9 Plan: 9% for corporations, 9% for individual income, and a 9% federal sales tax.
I’d like to explore why his plan has gotten the attention that it has gotten. Particularly interesting to me is how many people are willing to support it despite the fact that almost no research has been done to see whether or not this plan is viable. People ought to be asking questions like, “How much revenue will this plan generate?” and “How will we implement a 9% federal sales tax on a national level?” and “What is an ‘empowerment zone’ and how do we decide where those should be located?” My point is this: If people are already jumping on this bandwagon, it is because Cain’s plan is currently striking an emotional chord with voters. It cannot be that they are voting on the facts of the plan because the necessary numbers are not being presented by anyone. (If anyone finds those numbers, I will be glad to amend this post to give those stats.)
What is it about the plan that is resonating with Republican voters? My opinion is that it comes from a misguided idea of “fairness.” Many Republicans make a big deal of saying that the current tax code is unfair because the wealthy bear a larger burden than the lower income folks. They point to the fact that almost 50% of Americans pay no income tax at all. Further, the Republican mantra is that if you tax the wealthy, then you essentially shoot yourself in the foot. That is, if you tax the “job creators,” then they will have less money to invest in companies that create jobs. Therefore, placing an extra burden on the wealthy has the effect of stifling the economy.
If there is anything that I would like my conservative friends to consider, it is this idea that it is somehow “unfair” to tax the wealthy more than the poor. Jesus himself said, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48). Is Jesus directly speaking to a responsibility to pay taxes in this passage? No, but I believe it applies for a couple of reasons. First, it is a general wisdom principle that I think can be applied to anything in life. This parable is about a governor who gives out money and demands an account. Notice that Jesus says, “whom they entrusted much” and “they will demand the more.” Who is the “they” if not the governing authorities? This principle indicates that as one grows more wealthy, so grows the burden of responsibility.
Second, I would like to take a very brief look at the economics of the Old Testament. I am not going to argue to implement the tax code of the Old Testament, as if such a thing might be found. Rather, I am going to pick out a few evident principles from the Old Testament. First, we should note that the Old Testament, especially the Prophets, have a consistent theme of advocating for the poor. In Exodus 22:25, Israel is forbidden from charging interest on loans to poor people. In Deuteronomy 15, the debts of the poor were to be released every seventh year. If the lender refused to do this, then God would hold the lender guilty of sin. God warns Israel that if they “oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty” (Proverbs 22:16), and God continually stressed throughout the book of Proverbs that generosity to the poor will lead to increased wealth, not loss (Proverbs 14:21, 31; 19:17; 28:27). I cannot find a single reference in the Bible supporting the idea that a country needs to take care to guard the rights of the wealthy, though there is warning against partiality in judgment (Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17). It is also worth considering that God sometimes commanded an offering for atonement that could not be altered, regardless of financial well-being (Exodus 30:15). That particular offering was a half-day wage for a laborer. However, God also allowed poor people to “pay” less in certain circumstances with regard to their offerings (Leviticus 12:8; 14:21-32). Was it fair of God to charge the poor less than He charged the wealthy?
If Christian conservatives would arm themselves with these two principles—1) The one who is given much has a greater responsibility, and 2) If we are going to play favorites, it is going to be toward the poor because they are more vulnerable—then we might be able to compromise on the tax code stalemate.
Is the flat tax ethical? I believe that the individual income tax certainly is. Nine percent is nine percent. That means the poor pay less and the wealthy pay more, but it is a function of percent of income. What about 9% federal sales tax? Here, we have to be very cautious. A flat sales tax means that those of lower income pay a higher percentage of taxes. The higher the sales tax, the larger the percentage that is gobbled up for the poor. This isn’t to say that a federal sales tax is automatically unjust: It simply means that we, as a country, need to be very careful not to place a larger burden on the poor. One remedy might be to limit sales tax on necessities: food, clothing, and shelter. Regardless of the solution, politicians ought to make it clear that their plan has taken special consideration of lower wage earners and that they are protecting their interests in their proposals.
A progressive tax system is also a good system, but as with any system, it can get out of balance. Is it currently placing a disproportionate burden on the middle class? Perhaps. Is the current system generating the necessary revenue? Not right now. Something needs to be done, but every politician and every citizen must keep this principle in mind: Nobody likes to pay taxes. Because of this, no solution will make everyone happy, but at least we can begin to talk about whether or not it is equitable.