A Tithing Cut for the Rich
The odious "tax cuts for the rich" meme is a favorite battle cry of the class warriors. The Bush tax cuts, we are repetitively told, favored the wealthy. And Republicans, because they passed "tax cuts for the rich," are for the 1%, while Democrats, who opposed those cuts, are for the 99%.
Now come the Romney-Ryan team and their proposal for tax cuts. Mitt Romney characterizes his tax plan as follows: make a permanent, across-the-board 20-percent cut in marginal rates. In other words, he proposes a 20% tax cut for everyone who pays federal income taxes.
Everyone. Across the board.
President Obama and his fellow Democrats, sure as the sun came up this morning, call Romney's proposal "a tax cut for the rich." The president says that "the bulk of this tax cut would go to the very top ... a lot of it going to the wealthiest 1% of all households." The way the president puts it, it sounds really unfair. But is it? That depends on your point of reference, and your point of reference depends on the moral compass that guides you.
The federal tax code is complicated. To keep the math simple, I will make my point by using the easily understood principle of the tithe. The Lord's tithe is a very simple 10% of an earner's income. The tithe is like a flat tax with no deductions. It is the same percentage for everyone, no matter how much or how little he earns.
We will compare two tithe-payers: Steve, who earned $3,000,000 last year, and Bill, who earned $30,000. Steve paid $300,000 in tithes, while Bill paid $3,000. Of course, Steve earned 100 times more than Bill and, consequently, paid 100 times more in tithes.
Now, let's imagine what would happen if the Lord called for an across-the-board reduction of 20% in the tithe. In other words, he is reducing the tithe from 10% to 8% for all tithe-payers. That would reduce Steve's tithe from $300,000 to $240,000, a tithing cut of $60,000. Bill would see his tithe reduced from $3,000 to $2,400, a tithing cut of $600.
There are two ways you can look at this tithing cut. You can say, "This is fair and equitable to both Steve and Bill. Because the tithing percentage was reduced by an equal amount for each of them, they were treated equally." Or you can say, "This is a tithing cut which favors the rich because Steve saw a $60,000 cut while Bill saw only a $600 cut."
This is the essence of the charge that the Romney tax cut proposal, like the Bush tax cuts, is a tax cut for the rich. The Romney proposal is to cut marginal federal income tax rates by 20% across the board for everyone who pays federal incomes taxes. This proposal would treat everyone equally. But the dollar amounts would differ depending on a person's taxable income.
The moral linchpin upon which this debate turns is this: which should we institutionalize in our laws in America? Equality of treatment for all under the law? Or equality of outcomes for all enforced by the law? These choices yield polar opposite societies.
Equality of treatment under the law for all people is the American ideal. It is one of the root principles of American exceptionalism and is morally right. Equality of outcomes, imposed by force of law rather than by voluntary efforts, is tyranny and is morally repugnant.
"Tax cuts for the rich" has an unseemly appeal for some Americans. It is the invidious tactic of cultural flame-throwers who are determined to bury the traditional American ideal of equality under the law by imposing equality of outcomes enforced by the law. Hence, when conservatives propose a tax cut that would treat everyone equally (i.e., Romney's across-the-board income tax cut), liberals use the intentionally inflammatory tactic of ignoring the equality of the proposal and pointing to the difference in outcomes.
If a wealthy person benefits more in dollars saved from an across-the-board income tax cut than a lower-income person does, then it can only be because the wealthy person was paying more in income taxes in the first place. But liberals never admit that because "tax cuts for the rich" is intended to appeal not to reason, but to base emotions like envy, resentment, and covetousness.
Whether or not America continues to be the shining city on a hill will depend on how many of us recognize this demagoguery and reject it at the polls.
John C. Greene is the author of Walking in Darkness at Noonday.