by Jim Wallis, Editor-in-Chief, Sojourners Magazine
According to the biblical prophets, the greatest moral offense of poverty is the inequality that often lies behind it. When poverty abounds and the wealthy refuse to share their prosperity, God gets mad. If the congressional leadership has its way, American inequality is about to take a giant step forward with their efforts to destroy or gut the estate tax - an effective measure to combat inequality that has been working for 100 years.
Sometimes, there are public policy choices that simply make no moral sense. When a nation is at war, when deficits are rising at record rates, and when everyone knows that even more budget cuts are coming that will directly and negatively impact the nation's poorest families and children, you don't give more tax breaks to the super-rich. But that is exactly what the administration and the Republican leadership are strenuously trying to do. And with the latest Census Bureau income and poverty report showing that the poverty rate has gone up for the fourth straight year, the moral offense is compounded. There are 37 million Americans now living below the poverty line, 4 million more than in 2001. That includes 13 million children.
So why are George Bush, the Republican leadership, and some Democrats on Capitol Hill pushing so hard to completely repeal or substantially gut the estate tax? It's been in place for nearly 100 years, is a substantial source of government revenue, and has been a major catalyst to charitable giving (including to faith-based organizations, something the administration claims to support). A repeal of the estate tax will cost an estimated 1 trillion dollars in federal revenue over the next 10 years (that's right, 1 trillion), substantially increase the deficit, dramatically diminish the resources available to help low-income families escape poverty, and further increase the pressure on the budget from the high cost of war. The only thing the repeal of the estate tax will accomplish is to make sure the wealthiest of Americans will bear no sacrifices during war-time belt tightening and tough decision making but, rather, will reap a windfall of benefit and be the only Americans who do.
Repeal supporters have cleverly changed the language of the debate by calling the estate tax "the death tax" and claiming that it mostly affects family farmers and small businesses who are unable to pass their farms and businesses along to their children. That is simply not true. To put it less delicately, they are lying to cover up the fact that the estate tax mostly affects their richest friends. The tax affects only the wealthiest half of 1 percent of Americans - estates with a net value of more than $2 million ($4 million for couples). That is exactly what this tax was supposed to do when it was introduced in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican, remember) to counter the European practice of passing on enormous wealth from generation to generation, thereby encouraging aristocracy. The more American idea was to ask those who have benefited enormously by accident of birth to contribute back to the common good and expand opportunity for all. Many wealthy people, such as Bill Gates Sr. and Warren Buffett, agree and vigorously support the estate tax. But that American ideal is now under attack by a political leadership which seems anxious to restore an American aristocracy.
Those who want to retain the estate tax are willing to reform it to make sure that family farmers and small business people are not adversely affected and to ensure that the tax - let's call it a "common good tax" - is focused where it was intended, on those who have benefited so much from the opportunities of America. In a very real sense, the estate tax is a repayment for the public services and infrastructure that enable wealth creation - our transportation system of highways, bridges, and airports; our legal and educational systems; and many other investments we make in our society. It is only right that having benefited so much from the opportunities of America, the wealthiest should be obligated to return some of their good fortune to expand the opportunities of other Americans (maybe we should call the estate tax "the opportunity tax").
Is this the America that we want? One whose top policy priority is to make the rich richer while abandoning the most needed efforts to reduce poverty and protect the common good? That, in particular, was the original purpose of the estate tax, initiated by different kind of Republican president who was committed to the equality of opportunity for every American.
It is time for Democrats, moderate Republicans, and people of good social conscience across the county to draw a line in the sand against this administration's radical policies to redistribute wealth from the bottom and middle to the top of American society. It's time for a moral resistance to such unbalanced social policies and the place to begin is to defeat the dangerous and disingenuous effort to destroy the estate tax. In the name of social conscience, fiscal responsibility, equality of opportunity, protecting our communities, and the very idea of a "common good," it's time for the moral center of American public opinion to say "enough." The repeal of the estate tax would literally be an attack upon the common good and it must not succeed. Instead, we need policies that would create better and more balanced national priorities.
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