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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wealth Redistribution

The scriptures have much to say about redistribution of wealth.  Indeed, at times, it seems the scriptures have little to say on anything else.  Passages like Leviticus 25 and 1 Samuel 8 take this issue head on from a systemic standpoint, and of course the prophets rail like madmen against the abuse of the poor by the richest members of society.

The biblical mind is highly aware of the natural tendency for wealth to accrue into the hands of a few, who then develop structures that reinforce their wealth at the expense of others.  The Bible makes clear that the gifts of creation are intended for all people to live in health and prosperity.  The Torah, God's law in the Bible attempts to codified this theological understanding by regulating a society where wealth is managed in a way that all people live good lives, rather than a few living life in extravagance and luxury while the many struggle to survive.  One of the oddities of the Hebrew scriptures is that other voices besides the wealthy few emerge with vibrancy and strength.  Usually it is the wealthy few who get to write history.  Thanks be to God the Holy Scriptures have passed to us so that we have the language to name what is unjust both in history and our world today.

It would be nice to think that upward wealth redistribution does not happen in our own nation, but we would be deceiving ourselves.  Mitt Romney reminded us this week that unearned income is taxed at a much lower level than earned income, as he explained how it is that his effective tax rate is so low compared to a typical middle class person whose primary income derives from the productivity of mind and body rather than the productivity of money.  Mitt Romney did not bring this situation about, at least not single handedly.  It took decades of bipartisan political efforts to reduce the capital gains tax to the 15 percent it is today, while taxes on the typical worker stood relatively firm.

We could debate the merits of such a tax policy on the whole of the economy, and it might prove to be a good thing.  Many of us, myself included, have benefited mightily, in a variety of ways, from low capital gains taxes.  But the situation smells a lot like the kind of circumstance that enrages the biblical mind.  Wealthy people controlling a political culture to ensure that their acquisitive aspirations bear fruit, while the access of others to the God given resources of creation decreases.

Those whose wealth is wrapped up in what they can do with their minds and hands, earning them wages or salaries, see that wealth either decline or get siphoned off to others.  The reasons for this are complex, of course.  But the reality of it is immoral.


Esther Kawira said...

Living as I have in Tanzania for many years, I see closer up how different societies have dealt with looking after the poor.

Africa still lives in "survival mode", which means that charity begins and ends at home or clan level. One can never count on the government for anything, certainly not for social security. It is important to have children, maybe especially sons, to hopefully care for one's old age. Institutions are chronically ill, because those running them come from a mentality that says, "now is the time" (get what you can for yourself/your family while you have this good job).

When I think of America and Europe in comparison, I think those living there can be thankful that there are at least some social safety nets for the poor, a system of social security for the elderly, and that in general people are praised for being altruistic rather than thought stupid. Anyone living in Europe and the west can be argued as being wealthy, if not on a personal level then because of public schools, public libraries, good roads, and an ethic that normally says that you will be seen in an emergency room even if you can't pay, if you have no other recourse. And corruption, though it of course exists, is not just the order of the day for middle class people. Also, when the poor are being taken care of, the corruption of the wealthy does not appear to be so serious.

On the other hand, nobody living in Tanzania, even if they have personal wealth, can be really wealthy like the wealthy in the US. Once one leaves the gate of one's personal compound, the roads are full of potholes that greatly reduce the lifespan of one's vehicle, as a small example. So the wealthy, since they can't personally improve the roads (or maybe they could, but don't, since they often populate parliament), buy tougher and more expensive vehicles instead, even further out of reach of the poor. Much of the wealth of individuals could be categorized as "ill gotten gain", gotten by defrauding donor agencies or stolen from the government. All of this is compatible with being, as I said, in survival mode, and is totally predictable.

In spite of this, I feel that in Tanzania, in the rural area where I live, there is a slowly growing middle class who will develop more ability to care for the poor among them instead of relying forever on donor input from the west.
Esther Kawira