Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What is Good for the Common Good?

Imagine that we lived in a medieval kingdom where most of us were serf farmers, growing grain with the labor of our backs. Imagine that the king declared that one-fifth of our harvest would be taken for the kingdom. Now imagine if this choice were given: “The fifth of your harvest can be sold and invested in seed and fields and the animals needed so that our land will always produce food and your children and your children’s children will never go hungry. Or your harvest can be sold and the money handed to the rich lords and ladies of the kingdom so that they may rest in leisure and surround themselves with jewels and fine horses.” Given those options, which would you choose?

This doesn’t seem to be too difficult a decision. Yet when I see Republican leaders shake their fists at the President’s stimulus plan crying out in protest over “the deficit!” and labeling the Democrats as “tax and spend liberals!” it makes me laugh, only because the only alternative is to cry.

I want to ask those leaders if they were asleep for the past eight years when our “kingdom” was led by “borrow and spend” conservatives who borrowed huge debt against our children’s future to pay for tax cuts for the wealthiest in our land. Did that “investment” lead us to prosperity?

My friend James and I were talking about economics and about Joseph, the son of Jacob who’s remembered by many as the man with the “amazing Technicolor dreamcoat.” After interpreting Pharaoh’s dream that warned of seven years of abundance being followed by seven years of famine, Joseph is put in charge, taking one-fifth of all the produce of the land during the good years and storing it. Later, it’s that stored grain that feeds not only Egypt, but most of its surrounding neighbors during the lean years.

James pointed out that “If Joseph were running for office today, he'd be criticized for ‘raising taxes’” and explained that the concept behind things like unemployment insurance is that one willingly gives up a portion of one’s wages when working so that, should the job be lost, there is income available in the lean years. But rather than putting our tax money aside in our good years after 2000 when we had a surplus, we gave that money to those who were already rich. Our failure to take a bit off the top of these recent peak years to smooth out the valleys means we are left without any “stored grain” in the lean years we are now experiencing. In James’ opinion, “this is like voters cutting unemployment insurance tax to $0 in good times and suddenly demanding huge benefits in bad times—that is effectively what the Republican policy has been over the past 28 years.”

So can we afford to spend more money that we don’t have? We must in order to ensure that future years are more abundant than lean. According to James, “We can't keep living on the generosity of the previous generations who were willing to pay taxes to build the highways and bridges we now take for granted. It's not only selfish, it's really rather foolish to assume the country we love somehow came out of nowhere without sacrifice. Every park we visit, highway we travel, all the electricity we get in a rural area (subsidized by the government), every GPS signal we get for free from a government satellite, and every bit of our internet surfing came about because some taxpayer in the past was willing to contribute a small part of their personal spending to help the common good.”

We spent eight years living under a tax policy that increased prosperity for a small portion of our population. It’s time to invest again in the common good that will help us all prosper.

No comments: