As an independent who leans left on social issues and right down the middle on economic ones, the “Buffett Rule” as proposed by President Barack Obama is both fascinating and problematic.
On the one hand, imposing a minimum tax rate on those making the most money would seem to make sense, as it does not seem fair that a multimillionaire can pay a lower tax rate than his or her employees (who, you can bet, make significantly less money) simply because of the type of income he or she makes. On the other hand, I have an inherent lack of trust in the government when it comes to spending taxpayer money. In addition, it is not even clear how many millionaires the rule would effect, which gives the idea the sheen of empty politics (note Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's lack of an explanation towards the end of this article).
Those looking for Biblical answers on the issue of fair taxation are also in for a struggle, as Scripture offers seemingly contradictory guidance. We see this in Matthew 25, as the parable of the sheep and the goats is directly preceded by the parable of the talents. In the former, Jesus advises his followers that helping others is akin to serving God. Many interpret this story as justification for progressive social policies that target the poor with publicly funded aid. The latter parable, though, teaches that it is our responsibility to take what God has given us and increase it to the best of our abilities. While we can substitute spiritual gifts for the bags of gold in the text, the teaching would seem to apply to monetary gifts as well. Consequently, a story that we can interpret as endorsing the creation and accumulation of wealth stands alongside one that would direct us to spread that same wealth around.
What, then, are we to think of the Buffett Rule?
My initial reaction is that the Buffett Rule, taken by itself, is in the spirit of Matthew 25: 31-46 as long as the proceeds of the increased taxes go to help the poor. Additionally, an increased tax burden on higher earners could clear the way for more targeted aid to lower income earners, which would also fall in line with the teaching in Matthew. The rule as proposed, however, is a problem, as the president's push to close tax loopholes is part of a larger deficit reduction package that includes cuts to Medicare and Medicaid of $320 billion. In addition to these cuts, the package also trims mandatory spending (i.e. Social Security, food stamps, unemployment compensation, student loans, etc.) by approximately $260 billion. How, I wonder, can we count increased taxes on the rich as help for the needy when that help is coupled with cuts to the very programs that the poor rely on so much?
In this case, the political reality of a divided Washington renders higher tax rates impotent, regardless of how many it would affect. According to the president, the plan cuts $2 for every $1 it adds - in some cases from programs that desperately need funding - in an attempt to gain bipartisan support in the House. Consequently, I do not support the Buffett Rule in its current form; that is, attached to cuts that work against any additional money to aide those who most need it. If it were proposed independently, however, and as a way to set off new spending, then I think the Buffett Rule would be consistent with Biblical exhortations to help those in need.
(Illustration by Schuyler Roozeboom.)