Isaiah 10 and the fiscal cliff

When I read something in the Bible and I think I shouldn’t say anything about it because it might make people mad, God sometimes lets it go. But not this time. He’s been bugging me for two days. I wasn’t going out of my way to mine the Old Testament for social justice texts. I was just reading my Daily Office, trying to stay out of trouble. And then Isaiah 10:1-4 comes along: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees,to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain.” I’m afraid this prophetic word seems quite apropos in the context of our government’s fiscal cliff standoff right now.

One of the fundamental systemic injustices of any society is that people with power and wealth get the most input into the laws that are made. That’s why the Israelite prophets had to constantly speak up on behalf of the poor. Because there’s no practical political reason to pay any attention to the plight of the poor unless they’re rioting or you want to get a community service photo op. The economic forces that squeeze the poor are generally perfectly legal and there’s usually not much of a sense that they’re unfair, especially in a free market society. If the rent gets too high for somebody who works double-shifts every day at minimum wage, then that’s just an unfortunate circumstance of the market. The minimum wage can’t be raised because then all the jobs would have to go to China, and it’s too much interference in the market for the government to introduce tax policies to incentivize keeping jobs in America. Then when the poor people get desperate, like Jean Valjean, and steal a loaf of bread, they’re the ones who go to jail. Nobody goes to jail for making laws and zoning policies that destroy the lives of people who have no power.

It’s not just that people with power and wealth get to make the laws; they also get to define the boundaries of the popular discourse. For the past thirty years, the fiscal responsibility of the government has been judged exclusively on the side of spending and not on revenue. Nobody called out President Bush when he randomly pushed through a tax cut for the rich. There wasn’t any legitimate reason to do it at the time other than to squander the budget surplus that Clinton had left. In thinking about the issue of government spending, the Joe Six-Packs of our country make a false analogy with household spending. In household budgeting, you have no control over the revenue side, so fiscal responsibility is in fact exclusively a question of spending.

A more accurate analogy for government budgeting would be to say that the federal government is like a judge assessing alimony. What we’ve got right now is analogous to a situation where a dead-beat dad has been paying less than what his ex-wife needs to support herself and her kids, and because she’s struggling as a result, he’s telling the judge that she’s been fiscally irresponsible. It’s an amazingly cynical strategy. Cut taxes to create a deficit; then say that the government is being fiscally irresponsible to pay for Medicaid, food stamps, and so forth, so you cut spending on those programs, and then cut taxes some more to create another deficit that you can blame on irresponsible spending to continue to shrink the government until it’s small enough to drown in a bathtub, to use Grover Norquist’s language. This is the open strategy of people like Norquist who have at least half of Congress wrapped around their fingers.

We have about 40 homeless people sleeping at our church right now. Some of them are chronically homeless due to addiction and/or mental illness problems. But this year is  the first time I’ve seen retirees who couldn’t afford housing in our community with whatever pension and social security check they’re receiving despite having their wits completely about them and having put in long careers. We have a lady who seems like she’s in her seventies. She has a very positive attitude even though she was puking her guts out Tuesday night. She talked a little bit about her two grown sons. I wanted to ask where they lived (and how the hell they let their mother get thrown out on the streets), but I thought I should be sensitive to her dignity.

It fills me with God’s wrath to see a situation like that. We’ve got old ladies who are perfectly sane and not addicted to drugs losing their homes, and our Congress won’t raise taxes on people making more than $250,000 because it will harm the “middle class.” (it turns out the House won’t even raise taxes on people making over $1 million!).  I won’t ever make anywhere close to $250,000. Right now, 75% of our population makes less than $90,000 a year. The top 1% of our population has seen an income increase of 275% over the past 30 years compared to 40% for the middle class. I’m sorry but if you make money by selling products to people in a society that’s held together by laws and infrastructure paid for by the government, then you can’t act as if you “built it yourself” and don’t owe anything to your society. And it’s absurd to act as though raising taxes on the uber-rich is going to make them stop investing in companies. What are they going to do? Liquidate all their cash and put in a treasure chest to bury in their backyards?

And don’t pull out the “Well, I’m all for supporting the poor but it should be done privately” card. When I serve in a church where tithing 10% is the norm and not the rare exception, I might entertain that argument. If everyone in my church actually tithed, we would be able to purchase several apartment buildings where we could house our community’s homeless retirees. If our church mirrors the median income for our area, then our median giving is about 1-2%. Our Methodist founder John Wesley would be amazed. He told his people to pay for their necessities each month and give the rest of their money to the poor and God. He said to “save all you can,” but that didn’t mean horde your money and put it in the stock market. It meant to use and repair every tool or piece of clothing you owned until it was absolutely worn out. I recognize Wesley lived in a different time, but in our day, even tithing 10% isn’t a default expectation.

So what does it mean “to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed”? In our free market logic, we think that justice has been done as long as grocery stores aren’t charging a different price for the same banana to two different customers. What if someone is genuinely seeking work and can’t find anything? What if a single mom is working as many hours as she can at minimum wage and there’s not enough money for her kids to eat after the rent and electricity is paid for? Well, that’s just too bad, but it’s not unjust according to the libertarian logic of the Reagan era of the last thirty years. Neither of these people have a right to anything as long as they can’t prove that they’ve been discriminated against or treated inequitably in anything.

But God doesn’t have any respect for our individualist libertarian logic. God expects us to take care of our neighbors. People who are struggling have a right to be taken care of in God’s world. Now it is fair to ask what taking care of someone really means and to seek to avoid creating unhealthy dependencies, but this is a reason to make sure that we’re not making budget cuts that undermine having an adequate pool of social workers to manage poor clients so that decisions aren’t being made frantically by people who are overextended with enormous caseloads. Somebody has to stand up for the poor and make sure their legitimate needs aren’t sacrificed as part of a fiscal deal. The Democrats don’t have to care about the poor because they’ve got them in their pockets electorally, just like the Republicans have the evangelicals in their pockets. This is why evangelicals who care about the poor need to speak up.

  • Junly

    “It’s an amazingly cynical strategy. Cut taxes to create a deficit; then say that the government is being fiscally irresponsible to pay for Medicaid, food stamps, and so forth, so you cut spending on those programs, and then cut taxes some more to create another deficit that you can blame “

    You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re probably one of those people who isn’t even aware of the debate last year where the Repubs tried to pass a law banning welfare recipients from using their Welfare system debit card INSIDE STRIP CLUBS and the Dems threw a fit arguing that some people are so poor the only ATM they have access to is the one inside a strip club. Palease!

    Cutting taxes doesn’t create a deficit. Overspending creates the deficit. Cutting taxes means companies have more money to hire more people, who in turn pay taxes. Raising taxes means more people lose their jobs, hence less people pay taxes and more people receive unemployment.

    The “amazingly strategy” is what Obama is engaging in right now, where no matter what happens he blames the tax increase on the Repubs. If they cave and give him the increase in taxes on the rich that he wants, he says “Oh, look, the Repubs raised taxes!” If they don’t cave and give him the increase he wants, the fiscal cliff automatically kicks in tax increases(!) and he says “Oh, the Repubs let the fiscal cliff happen and its their fault taxes raised.” Either way taxes get raised; and either way Obama blames it in on the Repubs. And the Repubs are so stupid they don’t even understand this.

    • Michael Frost

      “Cutting taxes doesn’t create a deficit. Overspending creates the deficit. Cutting taxes means companies have more money to hire more people, who in turn pay taxes. Raising taxes means more people lose their jobs, hence less people pay taxes and more people receive unemployment.”

      You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about. It is no secret and readily verifiable that:
      1) corporate taxes are at their lowest point in over a half-century
      2) corporate profits are at an all-time HIGH.
      3) unemployment is correspondingly HIGH, and wages are continually stagnating and low.

      Release yourself from this right-wing mantra and face reality.

      • Morgan Guyton

        Are you the Australian Michael Frost or a different one?

      • Junly

        See, you don’t understand. I’m not talking about CORPORATE rates, I’m talking about SMALL BUSINESSES where the individual and the LLC are combined. Its not a corporate rate like some big publicly traded corporation would pay. Small businesses account for more of the new employment in the US…corporations don’t create that many new jobs, not full-time ones, because they tend to hire mostly contractors. And small businesses treat their people better, more like family, whereas large publicly traded corporations treat people literally as “resources.” If you raise taxes on everyone who makes around 250k, you are penalizing the SMALL BUSINESSES more than the LARGE CORPORATIONS. That’s why I said you should only raise taxes on those making over a million. DUH. And if you are Australian you probably have no clue because over there the tax structure may not work to where a small business gets merged with individual income like it does over here in the US.

  • Junly

    The first thing that should be done to fix the debt is no more foreign aide, just like Ron Paul kept saying. Let the Palestinians find a way to pay for their missles to shoot at Israel without US funding; and let Israel wage its tiddlywink war with the Palestinians without US funding. Let’s stop borrowing money from China and putting this country into debt and having to pay INTEREST on that debt, and then turning around and GIVING that money — borrowed money we’re paying interest on — to other countries, especially Mooslim countries. Its stupid. And their should be a drug test implemented not just state by state but on the Federal level for everyone on Welfare, and they should be given 6 months to get clean, and if they fail a second drug test the second time, given another 6 months, and if they fail the 3rd time they should be banned FOR LIFE from ever receiving welfare again. The same goes for unwed mothers: 3 babies and Uncle Sam stops paying, and begins taking your kids and putting them in foster care and charging you fines.

  • Junly

    “It fills me with God’s wrath to see a situation like that. We’ve got old ladies who are perfectly sane and not addicted to drugs losing their homes, and our Congress won’t raise taxes on people making more than $250,000 because it will harm the ‘middle class.’”

    They shouldn’t raise taxes on people making more than 250k. That’s not really even that much. I barely make 50 myself, so I’m not in that class, but I would love to be. They should raise taxes on those making over a million, not 250k. And really they ought to do it by occupation: if all your income comes from the stock market not a real job, and you make over a million, it should be a bigger increase than the guy who has a real job. Sports stars should see a big increase, especially if they are thugish or found to be on drugs. Hollywood executives who put out VIOLENT MOVIES of the sort that CAUSE shootings like the one at that school recently should see an even bigger tax increase than everyone else. And politicians should see a 50% to 60% tax increase; because since they make money off of insider government information hand over fist, they should be required to give back way more than private citizens. And loudmouth jerks like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates Sr. who are constantly claiming that they want to pay more taxes should be forced to put their money where their mouth is. There should be a law that any millionare or billionaire who has stated publicly in the last 10 years that taxes should be raised on the rich, should have his taxes raised 80%.

  • Junly

    Lobbyist should all have 100% of their assets seized by the government, and then they should be deported to a Mooslim country.

  • Junly

    Politicians shouldn’t have to “release” their tax records. There is always a big hubaloo over when the candidates in the primaries will release their records, or even if they will. And its always a big mess. It shouldn’t be like that. Once you are elected to national office, all your tax returns should be PUBLIC information posted on a unified website so we can see which politicians don’t pay their taxes and how much each one pays.

  • Junly

    The teacher’s unions should have to pay out 50% of the dues they collect to a new school security fund to pay for cops in every school. All other unions, like the auto workers unions, should have to pay a 20% fee to the government to build up a bailout fund for the next time they need to be bailed out so taxpayers in general won’t have to pay for what doesn’t strictly concern us, since we generally buy Asian cars anyway.

  • Junly

    General Electric should finally be forced to pay taxes. Since Obama’s election the first time round, they’ve payed ZERO taxes. Why? GE owns ABC, and its obviously a deal with Obama that as long as their coverage of him is favorable they pay no taxes. This must STOP!

  • Junly

    “What if someone is genuinely seeking work and can’t find anything? What if a single mom is working as many hours as she can at minimum wage and there’s not enough money for her kids to eat after the rent and electricity is paid for?”

    The Dems want to raise minimum wage all the time; and the Repubs want to lower taxes all the time. The Repubs opposes minimum wage raises because they say companies will just lay people off as a result. The Dems oppose lowering taxes because they say this rewards companies and that’s bad, we’ve got to stick it to evil capitalist companies!

    Well, if you do both at the same time they pay for each other! Raise minimum wage by 5 dollars; lower corporate taxes in such a way that they save 5 dollars per minimum wage employee, only so they can pay the 5 dollar increase. The companies make ZERO profit off the tax lowering; and nobody is laid off because of the minimum wage increase!

    Its so simple!

  • Junly

    If you always just raise taxes to try and solve the deficit rater than implementing the solutions I outlines above, all you do is make more of the middle class poor and end up with more poor people on welfare! When the gobment takes in more revenue it always increases spending. New revenue is NEVER used to bring down the deficit. That’s why spending cuts is the only way to solve the deficit.

  • Junly

    They should also get rid of tax exempt statuses for ministers who drive fancy cars or fly in private jets. Or who wear so many gold rings like the Catholic bishops. Joel Osteen should be one of the first in line. There is a way to raise revenue!

    People who support abortion should get a 20% tax increase to cover all the abortion spending so those who oppose it will not have their taxes used for it. The same goes for any govment spending funding anything related to homosexuality; everyone who is in favor of homosexuality should have their taxes increased to pay for it.

    Only taxes gathered from the sexually active should be applied towards paying for the contraceptives in Obama care. The gobment should spy on us all and know who is having sex and who is not so they can appropriately raise the taxes of the sexually active to cover contraceptives.

    Smokers should have their income tax raised, not just the ciggarette tax, because they are giving other people cancer. Those who drink alchohol should have a 30% tax increase on their income tax to cover all the highway cleanup necessary to clear the roads of dead bodies and acccidents caused by drunk drivers, as well as govment funding funerals for poor victims of drunk driving.

    Everyone should be tested for drug use once a years, and those who fail the test have a 30% increase in their taxes to pay for rehab of other druggies, and for reparations to victims of drug-induced violence, such as shootings done by people on bath salts.

  • Junly

    So-called “non-profit” organizations that only lobby for once race, like Lulac and the NAACP, should begin to be taxed and only organizations that benefit ALL races should be allowed to be tax free.

  • Junly

    Anyone caught on drug offences should be given a 1% tax increase on each offence rather than being sent to jail.

  • Junly

    Everyone in the news media should have a 30% tax increase since they are always in favor of tax increases.

  • Junly

    Tax exempt status for churches should be capped to a certain level of revenue. Churches don’t need the fanciest building in the world, and the biggesy GYM. Go to the YMCA! You’re supposed to be worshipping God not constantly playing basketball to the glory of the flesh! If a church — I mean one congregation — takes in more than 250k a year, they should pay at least 1% income tax. If they take in over a million they should pay at least 10%.

  • Junly

    Religious organizations headquartered on foreign soil (like the Vatican) should have to pay a 5% tax on all revenue they collect in the US just to operate here.

  • Junly

    For every dollar given to a foreign based charity, there should be a 10% tax.

    • Junly

      because of the possibility of them in turn funding groups like the Mooslim brotherhood

  • Junly

    There should be a really high tax on viagra, and it should not be covered by gobment funded healthcare plans like Medicare (which currently covers it) because its not medically necessary but it a recreational drug. A luxury tax should be placed on it.

  • Junly

    Ginormous tucks like the F150, F250, Tundra, etc. should have a luxury tax placed on them. They are too big to even fit in most parking spaces, their drivers think they own the whole road and constantly drive on everyone’s bumper, and they waste so much gas. (I’m not an environmentaltist; my real problem is how they drive on everyone’s bumper, but i’ll use the “carbon footprint” excuse to get a huge tax put on these bully vehicles).

  • Junly

    Now, the fiscal cliffe is solved. Just send my suggestions to your local congresmaan or woman, and viola! Country saved.

  • Junly

    Wait, as for the homeless. Use some of the national parks, and give them tepees.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Please try to organize your thoughts and put them into one comment in the future. Thanks.

  • Pierre Keys

    Arguably your best post. Thank you.