Friday, October 28, 2011

A Creative Tax For A Better World

Money is power. And wherever large amounts of money collect, so also new centers of power form. The latest historical manifestation of this is the modern corporation. Make no mistake, these new power centers are not democracies. We don't vote for the CEO's or their policies (unless we are: rich enough to be significant shareholders, informed enough to know what's going on, and compassionate enough to care about more than just personal profit), yet our destinies are increasingly in their hands.
Dr. Ellis Jones, author of The Better World Shopping Guide

A good and just society is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of communism, but a socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism.
Martin Luther King

One of the arguments often made by "biblically based" churches in regards to the controversial issue of government "welfare spending" is that government programs are unChristian because churches should not be relying on the government to do the work of caring for the poor and vulnerable. Although we vehemently disagree with both the logic and practicality of such conventional wisdom, last Sunday, our church made a consensus decision to enact a corporate tax on our consumer spending. This "holy excise tax" is designed to both (1) disincentivize our demand for unneeded cheap consumer goods & services (mostly bought from companies that grow profit for investors by hiding the costs to God's precious Creation: stripping dignity from workers, animals, communities and the earth herself); and (2) raise revenue to give to organizations that care for our most vulnerable neighbors. After all, shouldn't the Christian community be the alternative political body that both models and sparks an alternative vision (The Kingdom of God) to adamantly care for the widow, orphan and immigrant (as well as the debt-strapped college grad, homeless vet and the former bread winner reduced to the ranks of the long-term unemployed)?

Our house church has committed to saving all our receipts so that we can accurately take inventory of our spending habits during each week. We've decided we want a spirituality that explores all the ways are we seeking a counterfeit form of salvation (or as we put it: "binding our anxiety") through consumerism and materialism. When we are caught in an addictive cycle of spending, our lives are shaped more by the Invisible Hand of Adam Smith ("the profit motive" and "self interest") than the Image of the Invisible God who rejected the acquistive lifestyle of Solomon by calling his disciples to live simply like the birds of the air and flowers of the field.

In the process of taking inventory, it has become clear to us that measures can be creatively taken to reduce our collective storing up of earthly treasures while, at the same time, making space for heavenly treasures, prioritizing financial gifts to "the least of these."

Our Open Hearts Christian community has decided on a voluntary corporate tax on goods and services purchased during the week. We are using the Better World Shopping Guide ("more than 5 years of intensive research, this work is based on a comprehensive database of over 1000 companies and utilizes 25+ reliable sources of data") which gives companies from a large variety of categories a grade from A to F, depending on the social consciousness of their business practices, considering human rights, the environment, animal protection, community involvement and social justice. Companies rated B have a 10-cent tax on each receipt, while companies rated C, D & F get a 25-cent tax. In addition, the BWS Guide has a list of the top 20 corporate villians, including Exxon Mobil, Walmart, Verizon, Kraft, Nestle and Bank of America--we pay 50 cents each time we support these Socio-Economic Goliaths.

Over the next few weeks, as we gather on Sundays and share our shopping struggles, we will make a consensus decision about where to donate our tax revenue. Perhaps we will set up an account at Kiva and give zero-interest loans to entrepreneurs in the Third World or perhaps we will purchase a llama ($150) or water buffalo ($250) for a Third World village through Heifer International or perhaps we will fund a college scholarship for an undocumented student here in Southern California who is denied the opportunity to legally work.

Perhaps the one clear success of the Occupy Wall Street Movement thus far has been her witness to the three-decade widening of income inequality in the United States. What has led to skyrocketing income for the top 1% (and especially the top .1%)? Just 2 days ago, "coming out" with their own nonpartisan study, the Congressional Budget Office cited soaring salaries of superstar actors, athletes and musicians, more liberal executive compensation, and the growth of the financial sector, but also noted that "the equalizing effect of federal taxes was smaller." In addition, there are plenty of ways that the federal government continues to prop up the wealthy through subsidies, tax favors and overall deregulation, not to mention the Supreme Court's befuddling decision last year to allow unlimited corporate campaign contributions in Citizen's United v. FEC.

It is becoming clearer and clearer that the very structure of our American economic system inherently creates winners and losers. Corporations offer cheap, sexy products that entice all of us through slick advertising, and, in a coalition with both media and government elites, have locked the other 99% into a game of stagnant wages, increasingly harried work environments, delayed retirement, long-term joblessness and rising prices for higher education, energy and medical care.

More than four decades ago, in the last year of his life, Martin Luther King proclaimed that "an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." Like King, we believe that this will ultimately come through a redirected change of fiscal policy and regulation, but perhaps sparked by a movement of families and faith communities tangibly modeling Another Way.


  1. If I understand this right, it sounds like you are imposing the tax on each receipt and not on the total dollars spent (as shown on each receipt), is that right?

    So receipts for $x spent at Walmart and $y spent at Walmart, where x and y are not the same, are both taxed at 50 cents?

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