Bob Schwartz

Tag: taxes

Give to the Emperor

Render Unto Caesar

Resolutions to stay away from politics, when it’s pretty or ugly or pretty ugly, can be hard to keep. But politics, no matter how significant it may seem, can be like psychic, emotional, moral quicksand, which as it reaches your shoulders, leaves you wondering if this trip was really necessary.

So let’s see what Jesus said about all this.

The famous “Question about Paying Taxes” is one of the most discussed and interpreted passages in the Gospels. Here it is, from the Gospel of Luke in the NRSV translation:

So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They said, “The emperor’s.” He said to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent. (Luke 20:20-26)

Some view this as a story about the separation of state and church. Some view it as about obedience to civil or religious authority. Some view it very particularly as a directive on withholding tax payment from ungodly government. And so on.

I take this as a spiritual message, grounded in practical experience. Political speech and action can be very important, even essential, to the accomplishment of positive and beneficial goals. And very seductive. But those activities can also set you in the midst of circumstances and environments that can seriously put you at a distance from more enlightening aspirations and possibilities. Sometimes really far from them.

You can’t run away from politics and its consequences. Those coins and emperors are always going to be there. So if you get caught up in it, just remember that there are other higher callings that have nothing to do with policies and positions and politicians.

The Iraq War and the Ryan Budget: A Modest Proposal

Paul Ryan Budget
We have two budget crises. One is the budget itself, which is clearly in need of work to make concrete our priorities and the willingness of citizens to support those priorities in the form of taxes. The second crisis is political dysfunction, where real and constructive talk about those priorities and that support is transformed and devolved into useless politalk. One way that uselessness is hidden is by obfuscation and throwing around lots of numbers, details, and core American principles.

Simplify, simplify.

We just marked the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War. There is going to be disagreement about many aspects of that war for generations.

But there is consensus on two things.

The war was financially expensive. How expensive is another matter of contention. The Costs of War Project pegs it at a few trillion dollars, give or take. So how expensive? Very expensive.

The war was not paid for. More precisely, the war was paid for by debt, not by taxes. The United States had never done this before. There are two perfectly good reasons to ask Americans to pay for and sacrifice for wars. Wars are expensive. And taxing for war asks all citizens at all economic levels to make real sacrifice, even if they or their loved ones are not in harm’s way. As a political matter, when the sacrifice outweighs support for the war, there may be pressure to question or even end the war.

It is uncontested that George W. Bush and Congress did not ask for that sacrifice. Without arguing about how that happened, it is the fact. There is no argument about the result. In the midst of this massive borrowing to pay for the war, the economy fell down, and is still having trouble getting up.

With a sense of humility, and standing in the shadow of today’s esteemed Congress, here is a simple and modest proposal.

1. Agree on the financial cost of the Iraq War. For purposes of discussion, let’s say $3 trillion, though it is certainly more.

2. Agree to taxes that will generate that amount of revenue, not a cent more or less. That revenue would then be spent on all the important things that would otherwise be underfunded or unfunded, including every possible entitlement for veterans.

3. Once that money is raised and spent, taxes will revert to the earlier levels, and some members of Congress can go back to babbling, bickering and posturing.

Simple, maybe even naïve. Certainly too naive for the sophisticated politicians who are busy building a budgetary hall of mirrors that only they can navigate, where they think they can hide themselves and some simple, inconvenient truths.