Monday, September 22, 2008

just an observation

Last week Joe Biden, on ABC's Good Morning America said, "It's time to be patriotic," in response to Kate Snow's question that anybody making over $250K a year will pay more taxes in an Obama administration.

Of course the reaction to this comment has been fierce, among both conservatives and McCain supporters (who are not necessarily the same people). Biden defended his remarks in Akron, Ohio, as reported on ABC's blog Political Radar:
"Catholic social doctrine as I was taught it is, you take care of people who need the help the most," Biden said in Akron. "Now it'd be different if you could make the case to me that by giving this tax cut to the very wealthy, everybody else was going to be better off. We saw what happened the last eight years when we gave that tax cut. Tell me how everybody is better off. And the point I want to make to you is, and I mean this sincerely — wealthy people are just as patriotic, patriotic as poor people. We just have not asked anything of them.”

The problem, I think, with Biden's comments isn't the notion that paying taxes is somehow "patriotic," which is actually a very silly idea given that paying taxes is neither voluntary nor connected in any way to one's feelings for or against one's country. (Does anyone really think Biden could have said anything like this outside the current discursive efforts to claim "patriotism" as a value of the left or of the right?!) Rather, the problem is the effort by both sides (especially by pro-government partisans of either party) to socialize philanthropy.

When I first entered vocational ministry I had to make a decision regarding whether or not I would opt out of Social Security. The minister under whom I worked explained that the only way I could opt out of SS was to sign a paper saying, essentially, that I didn't think we should help people in need. As a Christian minister, of course, I didn't think that, and I wondered how any Christian minister could sign that honestly. Since then, however, I have come to question the assumption underlying that assertion; I think the point, rather, is (or at least ought to be) whether or not you think the government is the best avenue for helping others.

For Joe Biden, apparently, the best and most direct avenue for social responsibility runs straight through the executive and legislative centers of America's federal and state governements. I say this honestly, in part because, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the Bidens have averaged $369 per year in charitable giving for the past ten years. [I couldn't find similar info for McCain; though the same website reports that John McCain gave 26% of his income in charitable giving in 2007, it would be unfair to Biden to suggest these are comparable statistics.] I assume the Bidens's contributions to the IRS have been significantly more substantial, though I also assume that the Bidens also take advantage of the tax deductions for which they are eligible in order to keep as much of their money as they can. For the Bidens, then, paying taxes does indeed appear to be their way of being philanthopic and humanitarian (n.b. not patriotic).

But for many of us, including people like me who are neither liberally minded nor necessarily conservative, the government has proven itself inept and inefficient as a means for helping people whose lives are in desperate need of improvement. One needs only consider the response to Katrina, the current malaise of Galvestonians and Houstonians in Ike's wake, the state of those who depend upon Social Security, and any other governmental effort to improve the quality of life for the hard-pressed to see that suspicion of government programs is at the very least reasonable.

In the light of the acrimonious state of the American political scene, which seems to have become even more partisan since at least November 2000, I would plead with the American public, the media, and the Democratic and Republican political machines to reframe the debate. The question isn't about patriotism; it isn't even about whether or not those of us who "have" should identify with and assist those of us who "have not." The question, rather, is: What is the best, most effective, and most efficient avenue for us to help "the least of these."


Jake said...

Interesting post. I've of course run across the argument (quite frequently, actually) from many religious political conservatives that it is not the government's job to help people - for example, the poor - it is the church's job to do so. I'm not quite sure that the government has no place in providing such assistance - the state surely has an interest in keeping its people out of abject poverty - but I certainly agree with your observation that the government often does not do it very well.

But here's the problem - the church just is not, by and large, stepping up to the plate and really taking care of the poor (again, just one example of helping people). There are certainly great things being done by the church, and I don't in any way want to downplay this important work - but for the most part the western church has (sadly) abdicated this responsibility to the government. And while I am all for the conversation that you are suggesting, I'm left with the question of what happens right now. If the church steps up and does its job in this area in the future, great. But right now, the reality is that many people are helped by government programs (despite their many problems, it would be disingenuous to argue that these programs have no positive effect). So I don't think (at least at this point) it should be an "either/or" (either the government or the church works to help people, alleviate suffering, and work for justice), but a "both/and".

Rafael said...


Of course you have a point about the church. But I wasn't actually talking about the church; rather, I have in mind non-governmental humanitarian organizations, including churches but also United Way, Red Cross, IDES, Habitat for Humanity, Peace Corps, and on and on.

Even if we have the church in mind, however, it seems to me (and it only seems to me; I don't have any evidence for this) that the current state of government distributed aid actually exacerbates the problem of churches not stepping up to the plate rather than solves it. Of course government can't (and shouldn't) make its decisions on the basis of how those decisions affect the church. But from the church's perspective, I can't help but suspect that the current tax code has either reduced the ability of private citizens to give to humanitarian causes or has provided an excuse for not doing so. Actually, I suspect both of these factors, among others, are at work.

But the point isn't about the church; the point is that the government has proven itself inept at helping the poor. It takes tax money from private citizens in the name of providing a "hand up" to those in need, but it only succeeds in creating a bureaucracy that provides for its own and leaves the poor in the lurch. I don't suspect the church or other private agencies would automatically be more successful, but certainly if we saw (and when we see) churches and charities getting rich from funds that were intended to help the down-and-out, we get outraged and stop sending money to those organizations. But (and here's my problem), we don't get outraged in the same way at the government, and even if we do we don't have the option to stop sending them our taxes in order to support more efficient and effective agencies.

I could support your suggestion for a "both/and" conversation if we could interject some means of accountability and oversight over tax-funded humanitarian programs. But even that would turn into another bureaucratic layer, and we would still have the poor among us. If only I knew the answer as clearly as I (think I) know the problem!

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