Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Ethics, Religion, and Taxes

Or even more simply, how do we define the word 'fair'? Thoughtful, 10 minute PBS segment.

I was thinking about Susan Hamil's assertions on Judeo-Christian views towards reducing oppression. I heartily agree with that sentiment, and would not support taking anything from a 'have-not' (which is a difficult category to define; let me simply define it for this paragraph as a person who is in the bottom 10-20% of consumption). The real question is what should the government (or The People, theoretically) GIVE to the 'have not'.

Digging a little deeper into the Bible--which is what Hamil claims she is doing--I do see social justice advocacy for orphans and widows (well, SOME widows, basically over 60 years old who have no surviving blood relatives, as 1 Timothy 5 is specifies) mentioned throughout the Gospels and Epistles. And the socialist in me--I am a very good one when it comes to my immediate family--would support providing vouchers not only for food, but also education, housing, and healthcare for these same people in our society today. (And if the government can do this better than the church can, I don't think church folks have a leg left to stand on, at least a biblical one).

But then again, the Old Testament does seem to present a hybrid of entitlement (allowing the poor to glean behind harvesters, note that it is work-based), flat-tax (the tithe, or 10% of income, to go to the priests and Levites who had no property of their own and were somewhat appointed agents of the theocracy), as well as progressive campaigns--quite voluntary--for large 'common good' capital projects (e.g. the Tabernacle, the Temple, the Jerusalem wall rebuilding project). I wonder if Hamil has ever studied her chosen scriptures with any serious economic critical thinking, a challenge she levels at her fellow believers.

Michael Sandel spoke about wealth and income not being necessarily tied to effort, and claimed that a kindegarten teacher works as hard as a hedge fund manager, yet the manager makes "hundreds, or even thousands" times more than the teacher. While I'm not sure this holds true when comparing average or median incomes (nor the typical hours and stresses of these respective professions), sure, I'll concede that Jim Simons (who is trying to lift teacher pay, and using his own money to do it) is thousands of times richer than a kindergarten teacher.

The problem is that the government has a hard time discriminating. Of course, that's a good thing, too (e.g. one citizen, one vote), but the Have-Nots are a tossed salad of hard work and laziness, of responsibility and incompetence.

One size does not fit all. The markets are better (although not perfectly) able to handle this reality.  I suspect that Hamil and I would disagree on whether the church would be better or worse than the government (and I might be wrong).

Via Greg Mankiw. Greg is also featured extensively in the piece, and he is the only one to point to his own biases (in the last minute) as much as anyone else's. How's that for fair?

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