The Common Good
June 2012

Fairness for Whom?

by Jim Rice | June 2012

Fairness matters, especially for people on society’s margins—and that conviction goes far beyond tax equity to every aspect of public policy. For people of the Book, it’s much more important ...

It’s a good sign we’ve entered the election silly season when pundits are arguing against “fairness.” What’s next, apple pie? (Motherhood, of course, is already a battleground of the “mommy wars”—Lord help us!)

The Democrats are trying to take the pro-fairness side of the debate, in particular around the issue of tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. The so-called Buffett Rule—named after billionaire Warren Buffet, who pointed out the injustice of his paying a lower tax rate than his secretary—became a key talking point the week before April 15.

Here’s how President Obama put it: “Right now, the share of our national income flowing to the top 1 percent has climbed to levels we haven’t seen since the 1920s. And yet those same people are also paying taxes at one of the lowest rates in 50 years. That’s not fair.” (The Occupy movement arguably deserves most of the credit for that framing of the issue.)

The president’s political opponents were quick to dismiss the focus on tax fairness as campaign rhetoric aimed more at the fall elections than any meaningful policy goals. It’s a safe assumption that pretty much anything between now and November has that partisan goal in mind, and—perhaps not surprising—fairness polls well.

But the critics didn’t stop there. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, for instance, called the Buffett Rule “nothing but a form of redistributionism,” and said that focus on the tax fairness issue “is an exercise in misdirection.” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that having the rich pay a higher tax rate “won’t take a single person off the unemployment line.” (It also won’t end the war in Afghanistan, he didn’t add.) Others brought out the tired accusation of “class warfare.”

While increased tax rates for millionaires and billionaires aren’t likely to easily slide through Congress (44 percent of whose members are millionaires themselves), some high-income people are the measure’s strongest backers. A group called “Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength,” comprised of people with annual incomes of $1 million or more, wrote, “Given the challenges we must face, it is mind-boggling that one-quarter of all millionaires pay a lower tax rate than millions of middle-class families. Implementing the ‘Buffett Rule’ is not the only thing we need to do to ensure the success of our country; but it is certainly one of the most obvious.”

Beyond the rhetoric and political posturing by both parties, differences in approach to tax policy sometimes actually do represent real political and philosophical disagreements. But over the past generation, we’ve seen a tectonic shift in wealth in this country—you could call it trickle-up economics, but it’s been a roaring river instead of a trickle—alongside a steady decline in the rates that the wealthiest pay. The top marginal tax rate for millionaires in 1963 was 91 percent; now it’s down to 35 percent, and some want to decrease it even further—at a time when incomes for the wealthiest 1 percent have risen by 281 percent in the last three decades.

There used to be a bipartisan consensus that the wealthy should pay their fair share. Even Ronald Reagan, patron saint of the Far Right, decried tax policies that “sometimes made it possible for millionaires to pay nothing, while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary—and that’s crazy!”

FAIRNESS, OF COURSE, is a central theme in scripture. While fairness and justice for everyone is a laudable goal, the emphasis of biblical justice is consistently on people who are poor, marginalized, and oppressed. (The biblical writers seem to understand that the rich manage to take care of themselves all too well.) The way to judge if a society is “fair”—that is, the biblical yardstick for justice—is to look at the treatment of the poor and outcast—the least of these, as Jesus put it.

Political discourse in this country, especially around election time, tends to pay little attention to people who are poor (at least since Robert Kennedy’s “poverty tour” of southeastern Kentucky in 1968). Candidates from both parties work to position themselves on the side of the middle class—the crass political analysis is that “poor people don’t vote,” and middle-class people are more inclined to “aspire upward” than to see themselves as one paycheck removed from poverty themselves. It’s a safe bet that this election will be no different.

But Christians ought to remind politicians, at every opportunity and at the polling place, that we do care about how our society treats poor people—that our vote isn’t just focused on self-interest. Fairness matters, especially for people on society’s margins—and that conviction goes far beyond tax equity to every aspect of public policy. For people of the Book, it’s much more important than politics; it’s a matter of faith.

Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners.

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