Scrooges on Capitol Hill: Republicans hold middle-class tax cuts hostage

AP James Dresch of MND Partners Inc. works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York. … Continued


James Dresch of MND Partners Inc. works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York. Stocks declined for a third day on Wall Street on Nov. 28, 2012, as investors waited for signs of progress on the “fiscal cliff.”

Poor Bob Cratchit. No tax cut for him at Christmas and for millions of middle-class Americans who are struggling in this sluggish economy unless Congress acts.

President Obama accused Republicans of holding middle class tax cuts “hostage” in the so-called “fiscal cliff” negotiations.

The Republicans are refusing to secure tax cuts for the struggling middle class, apparently in order to have a bargaining chip to protect tax cuts for the wealthiest. Their recent “counter-offer” actually “raises taxes on the middle class…to preserve tax breaks for the rich.”

That’s behavior worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens beloved 1843 classic, “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge is a wealthy businessman who pays his clerk, Bob Cratchit, barely enough to afford food or heat for his family. Tiny Tim, Cratchit’s youngest child, needs health care they can’t afford.

Sound familiar?

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Middle-class Americans are barely keeping body and soul together these days. Their real income has remained nearly stagnant or grown slightly over the last thirty years, while the income of the top 1 percent has skyrocketed.

This is the “real” fiscal cliff, writes Steve Fraser: “[F]or the first time since the Great Depression, the social mobility of Americans is moving in reverse.”

The 21st century in this country is rapidly becoming a mirror of the 19th century when Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” which tells the story of a greedy businessman, Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited by the shade of his dead business partner, and then three ghosts who force him to face all the harm he has done through his exploitation of the poor, and his desire only for riches.

Dickens’s life taught him about what can happen to families in a society without a social safety net, and one that exploits labor. When his father was arrested, 12-year-old Charles had to go to work in a factory. His own experience of child labor and his first-hand witness of the terrible injustices suffered by the working class and the poor framed this complex story.

There is a cautionary tale in “A Christmas Carol”not just for those who would use tax cuts for struggling families as a bargaining chip, while retaining tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. It is a cautionary tale for all of us: what kind of people and what kind of society do we want to be?

We, the American people, can get “Scrooged” by a political climate where it is becoming standard practice to hold the well-being of struggling families hostage in favor of the mega-rich. This coarsens our political life, and makes it more and more difficult to focus on the real issue, the decline in good jobs, that has occurred when taxes on the wealthiest have declined.

Tax-cuts for the wealthiest among us have not produced the promised jobs, but instead have accelerated the transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest. Tax cuts for the wealthiest accelerate income inequality, not the reverse according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service .This is producing the kind of extremes of wealth and poverty as characterized the catastrophic period of 19th century England’s rapid industrialization in the time of Dickens.

The 19th century in the United States was also a time when America bred only “tramps and millionaires,” as reformists of that period pointed out. Nineteenth-century America was a period when voter intimidation was rampant, business interests owned newspapers, homes were “covered with mortgages, labor impoverished…workmen are denied the right of organization…and the fruits of toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.”

This may sound familiar as well.

Scrooge was visited by three ghosts that made him take a hard look at the suffering his greed was causing.

What will confront today’s Scrooges with the economic suffering of millions? President Obama has recommended we tweet our congressional representatives using the twitter hashtag #my2k” and tell our stories.

Will in 140 characters be enough to tell a 21st century “Christmas Carol?” I guess we’ll find out.

Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
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