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By Vincent Miller
As midterm elections approach, millions of unemployed Americans struggle to find work and new Census data show the number of people living in poverty and the gap between the rich and the poor have both reached the highest levels ever recorded by the Bureau. In the midst of polarized debates over how to jumpstart our sputtering economy, members of Congress remain locked in stalemate over whether to extend tax breaks for the wealthy.
While tax cuts for the rich somehow make political sense – they are featured in the Republicans’ “Pledge to America” – the morality of budget decisions is one of the places where our great religious traditions chafe at the secularization of public life. My own Catholic tradition insists that economic decisions are moral decisions judged by their service to all, especially the poor and vulnerable. The late Pope John Paul II, that resolute opponent of communism, nonetheless repeatedly insisted that private wealth was subject to a “social mortgage” to be used for the common good.
Catholic teaching on taxation is equally clear. It calls for “a reasonable and fair application of taxes” in which burdens are “proportioned to the capacity of the people contributing.” The Bush-era tax cuts were unsustainable from the start. To date, they have burned a $9 trillion hole in our budgets, taking us from an era of surplus to record deficits. As our nation scrambles to respond to the deficits deepened by the economic crisis, we cannot afford them any longer. Indeed, “we” have never paid for them; instead we have left the deficits on our children’s tab.
Preserving tax cuts temporarily for working families and the middle class is a practical compromise during a time when the economy is struggling out of recession. It is even more crucial to preserve the refundable Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit that are currently keeping millions of hard-working, low-income Americans above the poverty line. Stating that “too often the weak and vulnerable are not heard in the tax debate,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently sent a letter to members of Congress urging representatives to support these two common-sense policies.
In contrast, extending Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthiest two percent of Americans, as Republican and some Democratic lawmakers propose, will do little to stimulate the economy and add an estimated $700 billion to our national debt. Burdening future generations with deficits and squandering resources that could be used today to rebuild our nation’s aging infrastructure, invest in education and repair our fraying social safety net is both fiscally irresponsible and morally wrong.
What is most morally destructive about the endless demand for tax cuts is that it undercuts our sense of common responsibility as a nation. Through our taxes, we provide for public safety, educate our children and maintain the infrastructure – roads, bridges and water systems – that are the bedrock of our shared standard of living and our economic competitiveness.
The current debate over tax cuts is part of a well-financed, decades-long battle to “starve the beast” and discredit government. From the Reagan administration onward, despite their rhetoric, Republicans have never concerned themselves with the exploding deficits that resulted from their tax cuts. If the goal has always been a budgetary crisis that could justify massive cuts in popular government programs, we are now nearing the endgame.
As we approach this crisis of our own making, it’s worth remembering an ancient piece of wisdom. A prospering society requires a functioning government that attends to the common good, where individual rights are balanced by everyone taking their fair share of responsibility. This insight in Catholic social teaching was alive in the prosperity brought about by the “Greatest Generation” in the post-war era. Tax rates were much higher, especially on the wealthy. Government was active and creative – investing in public education, building the interstate highway system, investing in scientific research – and our nation experienced one of most sustained periods of economic growth in history.
The countries outcompeting us for manufacturing jobs have learned this lesson. Why have we forgotten it?
Vincent J. Miller is the Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton.