The Idolatry of Tax Cuts

Michigan and Grand Rapids are in bad shape. With thousands of jobs leaving the state, and decreasing tax revenues, every level of government has been hit in the state–and often the worst effects seem to trickle down to municipalities (though the trickle is more like a downpour, gaining steam from Washington on down!). The City of Grand Rapids faces a $35 million dollar shortfall and has to contemplate closing parks and pools to scrimp and save (though such drastic attacks on quality of life will barely make a dent on the deficit). And the Grand Rapids Public School board faces an $18 million dollar shortfall. Desperate times.

Of course, there is a solution to all of this, but it can never be uttered in our current, still-post-Reagan climate (a climate that Clinton only fostered, by the way, and which W. has run with): we could increase taxes, and specifically, we could increase taxes for the wealthiest elite in our state (there’s no shortage of them). The problem, of course, is that it’s generally that same group/class who make it to Lansing. Uttering the words “tax increase” in West Michigan is tantamount to treason (it might actually be worse than treason for Besty DeVos).

So I was quite intrigued this morning by a story on NPR about Indiana’s Republican governor (and former Bush budget advisor), Mitch Daniels. While elected on the now universal promise of tax cuts (geez, not even the fricking Democrats will talk about raising taxes!), Daniels’ experience of revenue shortfalls has got him singing a different tune, asking for–if you can believe–a TAX INCREASE. And not only that, he’s asking for a specific tax increase ON THE RICH (rather than the ridiculous schemes promoted in Michigan to increase the sales tax, which is really just a way of disproportionately taxing the poor). Daniels has requested what to any charitable Martian must sound eminently reasonable: a 1-year, 1% tax increase on the income of those who make OVER $100,000. As you can imagine, the idea landed like a lead balloon.

Interestingly, Daniels tried to make the case for this by invoking the analogy of an old-fashioned barn-raising where a community, together, out of a concern for the common good, each plays a part and does that they can to help achieve a stated goal (raising a barn). This is often seen as a snapshot of communal affirmation of a commmon good. The problem is, the metaphor–and the very idea itself–assumes something that has been consistently eroded in this country since Reagan: a spirit of altruistic, disinterested concern for my neighbor and a commitment to a good that is greater than my own self-interest. In short, the barn-raising project requires a community of people who have been formed to not put their own interest first, to care about the whole more than the part. In short, it assumes a social system of “cooperation” as sketched by John Ruskin, F.D. Maurice and others–an understanding of cooperative social arrangements that runs counter to the competitive arrangements needed by and produced by capitalism. But even since Bush the Senior uttered “It’s YOUR money,” any hope of such a cooperative framework has been steadily eroded. Hell, not even the CHURCH forms people to care about others any more! Indeed, the most vociferous opponents of tax increases in Michigan are all of the Vandersomething Republicans who dutifully attend their so-called “Reformed” churches every Sunday.

But could it be that the Gospel of incessant tax cuts (especially for the rich) is, in fact, another Gospel? This diabolical message has nothing to do with the vision of Jesus who came preaching liberation for captives, healing for the sick, justice for the poor–and yes, tax increases for the rich.