Monday, July 10, 2006

Confiscating Wealth from the Dearly Departed

What follows is an open letter to Carolynn Race, the Associate for Domestic Poverty Issues in the PCUSA Washington Office. My response comes first, followed by her article that sparked the response.

July 10, 2006

Carolynn Race
Washington Office
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Dear Ms. Race,

In your story below about the Estate Tax, you quote John Calvin. I like the idea, but I believe you miss his point entirely. You wrote: "John Calvin insisted that those in authority 'themselves ought to remember that their finances (the taxes) are not so much private incomes as the revenues of the whole people' (IV.xx.13)."

So what does Calvin mean by this? Isn't it that the money that comes in as tax revenue doesn't belong to those in authority as their personal income (as it was for monarchs and even the bishops and cardinals, the princes of the church)? It means that tax revenue is in the coffers to be spent on government projects. There is NO ONE on any side of the issue claiming tax revenue as personal wealth of officials, as if the head of the IRS is now fabulously wealthy because his agency brought in money FOR HIM!

No, you misuse Calvin. And, it's interesting how you quote Calvin not only inappropriately, but also selectively. In the same section from which you quote, Calvin speaks to private individuals, "that they may not rashly and petulantly stigmatise the expenditure of princes, though it should exceed the ordinary limits." Calvin was even ready to accord "princes" a personal part of "the legitimate revenues of princes," even for "the maintenance of their domestic state, which is in a manner combined with the dignity and the authority which they exercise." We're not even talking about giving our rulers princely estates (although Calvin would do so), so we should take care lest we "rashly and petulantly stigmatise" even the public expenditures of the government.

Calvin's very true warning does not speak to the dispute now before Congress. What is under dispute now is HOW MUCH MONEY should be taxed from the people and what public use (of many) to which to put the tax revenue. Good people of very different minds will have far-ranging opinions on how best to help the common welfare of the American people. If you are going to oppose making the Estate Tax less onerous, at least use arguments that fit the case.

Quoting Calvin (for effect?) loses its effect entirely when you apparently misunderstand and misappropriate what he was talking about. We make no one wealthy by confiscating less of their already-earned-and-already-taxed income. They made themselves wealthy through the creation of wealth possible in this upwardly mobile society. They also brought a lot of people with them in that creation of wealth, lifting the livelihood of many others. The government shoots itself in the foot if it eyes greedily the properly gotten wealth of dead people and confiscates an inordinate portion of that wealth, over which it really has no claim.

You would think that for fairness and justice's sake, you would be advocating on the opposite side of the matter. That is where you would find the majority of the Presbyterians whose GIFTS to the church of their wealth you spend against their desires and (fortunately for you) largely outside their knowledge.

There is no clear biblical, confessional, or theological mandate for you to promote one political solution on the Estate Tax over another, EITHER of which MIGHT promote social justice or improve the lot of the poor--or could hinder the same. You've made a political judgment that one method is preferred, and then you try to wrap it in theology or policy. It doesn't work. I'd highly recommend taking a second look at what you are doing.

We'd all be much better served if you would provide Congress and Presbyterian voters with VERY FAIR, nonpartisan, broad-based materials that help people think through the complicated ramifications of taxing the estates of dead people, noting the ethics of confiscating hard-earned wealth just because the government can, the effect on family-owned farms and businesses, the dampening effect on the businesses' prosperity and ability to provide employment to that many more of the poor, and so on.

You truncate the thinking by saying, in effect, "If we can't take as much of these dead people's money, then we won't have as much money as we want to give to poor people." And what you don't append is this " give to poor people in social-welfare programs that have failed to truly help the poor and have promoted dependency and a perpetual underclass, which actually could be improved by the jobs that robust business can and will provide if the government doesn't give it enormous disincentives to do so."

Why is it we NEVER hear of such thinking from the Washington Office, but it is ALWAYS of another slant? Where's the DIVERSITY in our Washington Office that would match the diversity in the church on such matters? Has there been discriminatory hiring, so that someone who is politically and/or theologically conservative wouldn't have a ghost of a chance of being employed? Should that be rectified? How?

Many questions to answer. I have asked this as an open letter on the Berkley Blog, so that others can participate in the conversation.


Jim Berkley

James D. Berkley
Director of Presbyterian Action


From: Presbyterian Washington Office []Sent: Mon 7/10/2006 1:19 PMTo: Jim BerkleySubject: Presbyterian Witness in Washington Weekly Update
The Washington Office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
July 10, 2006
Estate Tax “Reform” Vote possible in Senate
By Carolynn Race, Associate Domestic Poverty and Matt Lewis, Emerson Hunger Fellow
On June 22, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 5638, a bill that would repeal most but not all of the estate tax, by a vote of 269-156. The U.S. Senate may vote on H.R. 5638 or another estate tax reform bill in July. Many anti-poverty advocates are concerned that, if passed by the U.S. Senate and signed into law, the federal revenues lost because of the bill would have a devastating impact on the federal government’s ability to fund programs – particularly those for the most vulnerable in society.
Under current law, estates below $2 million ($4 million per couple) are exempt from the estate tax and in 2009; the exemption level will rise to $3.5 million ($7 million per couple). The House proposal would exempt the first $10 million of a couple’s estate ($5 million for an individual) from taxation entirely. Amounts above these exemption levels but below $25 million would be taxed at the capital gains rate (which is now 15%), and amounts above $25 million would be taxed at twice the capital gains rate. Analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that, under the House proposal, revenues from the tax would drop by 75 percent, and the federal government would lose three quarters of a trillion dollars over the first ten years the changes are fully implemented.
This revenue loss could result in further cuts for human needs programs. This year’s Deficit Reduction Act already resulted in nearly $40 billion over five years in spending reductions to programs, including cuts to Medicaid, child support enforcement, student loans, and SSI.
Having fallen short of 60 votes on a bill that would have fully repealed the estate tax in early June, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) is seeking to pass the House’s partial repeal legislation in the Senate. A Senate vote could happen in July. Contact your Senators and raise concerns about the impact estate tax reform legislation could have on funding human needs programs.
Presbyterian Taxation Policies:In supporting the imposition of taxes, John Calvin insisted that those in authority "themselves ought to remember that their finances (the taxes) are not so much private incomes as the revenues of the whole people" (IV.xx.13).In 1979, the 191st General Assembly of the UPCUSA- Reaffirmed the United Presbyterian Church's acceptance of responsibility to work for every form of human well-being in the understanding that the God whom we worship and serve is a God of justice and the liberator of the oppressed,- Urged United Presbyterians to deal with taxation and budget priorities on the basis of the commitments and criteria established by previous General Assemblies; and noted that this means the subordination of narrow, short-sighted, self-serving considerations to an insistence upon society's responsibility for conditions whereby such basic needs of all citizens as jobs, housing, education, and health care can be satisfactorily met, and- Reaffirmed the actions of previous General Assemblies pertaining to the elimination of poverty and unemployment, to equitable taxation, and to the continuing shift of national priorities from an excessive preoccupation with military superiority to bold and imaginative initiatives for peace, health and welfare. (Minutes, UPCUSA, p. 292)


Blogger Rob said...

You've just put your finger on the key problem with most of the political pronouncements from this denomination (and, to be fair, from many Christian figures on both sides of our political divide): the confusion of prudential judgments with biblical mandates. Yes, we have a biblical mandate to care for the poor; how we do so is a matter of prudential judgment, and there is room for Christians to disagree. To say, "We have a biblical mandate to care for the poor, therefore we *must do THIS*" is not only bad theology, it's bad logic--it's a *non sequitur*, really. Unfortunately, it's also depressingly common.

9:56 AM, July 11, 2006  
Blogger Al Sandalow said...

People think this only effects rich people who are passing down mansions and yacths. Read this to see just how this can effect others:

2:36 PM, July 11, 2006  

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