Friday, January 27, 2012

Demanding Economic Justice vs. Justifying Economic Demands


...do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.
Deuteronomy 15:7b-8

Poor people have shitty lobbyists.
Jon Stewart

Mitt Romney dragged his feet too long. This week he finally "released" his tax returns for the past couple of years. Isn't it interesting that the Greek word that we English speakers translate as "forgiveness" (aphesis) means "release?" And, indeed, we would forgive him for making $21 million a year if he didn't spend so much time attempting to normalize and humanize his uber-low 14% tax rate.

First, Romney "justified" (from the Greek root word dikaios, referring to "innocence" or "justice") the low rate (at the expense of others earning far less) by reasoning that he actually pays a higher rate:

Well, actually, I released two years of taxes and I think the average is almost 15 percent. And then also, on top of that, I gave another more 15 percent to charity. When you add it together with all of the taxes and the charity, particularly in the last year, I think it reaches almost 40 percent that I gave back to the community. One of the reasons why we have a lower tax rate on capital gains is because capital gains are also being taxed at the corporate level. So as businesses earn profits, that’s taxed at 35 percent, then as they distribute those profits as dividends, that’s taxed at 15 percent more. So, all total, the tax rate is really closer to 45 or 50 percent.

According to Romney, he pays only 14% on his income (categorized as "capital gains"), but he is really contributing to the common good by investing in corporations (which, overall, have cut jobs recently in order to increase profits) and tithing to the Mormon Church.

Second, Romney justified his low rate by appealing to what is legal. He's just obeying the law of the land. But as Jon Stewart exposed earlier this week, Romney's part of a larger force of hedge fund managers and venture capitalists who successfully shape the law through lobbying activity and campaign contributions.

Jack Blum, the former top congressional investigator of financial crimes, lawyer and chair of Tax Justice Network USA, appeared on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman in the aftermath of the Romney Release. Here's how he put it:

There’s a recent study done by Citizens for Tax Justice, who put together numbers that show the companies that have taken advantage of these tax schemes are spending upwards of $2 billion a year in lobbying. That’s how they get the breaks. And it’s this congressional campaign money, it’s the ability to get access to the members, the ability to control and dictate what the tax laws will look like, that gives them the opportunity to engineer those laws, to take full advantage and save huge amounts.

Romney's Release is really significant because it clearly illuminates the desperate need for structural economic change. This is precisely what Martin Luther King called for more than 4 decades ago:

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

The specific tax code and (de)regulatory policies of the US economy produces millionaires like Mitt Romney and millions of (ex)homeowners who have been foreclosed upon. This is bad enough, but what makes this system truly scandalous is that Romney directly profits off the foreclosures of others (he's invested millions in Goldman Sachs funds featured mortgage-backed obligations).

Instead of justifying his wealth ("this is just the way things are"), the electorate (especially those from faith communities) should demand a President committed to economic justice. After all, real leaders are those who courageously transform "the way things are" because they are compelled that "the way thing are" is just not how things should be.

Romney's Release goes far towards illuminating just how bogus it is when "biblical" Christians talk about why it's not important to focus our efforts on what is "political" (changing unfair government policies) while boasting about the brand of "social justice" that too many households and faith communities equate only with paternalistic handouts to the poor and homeless. Nobody in this country should be rewarded (with lower tax rates) for making millions off the backs of the foreclosed upon.
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For more on the Romney Release:

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