The Birth of the Book - Jesus for the Non-Religious

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 21 February 2007 0 Comments
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What do you think about estate taxes? I know you want to spread it around

but how can you tax it twice?


Your question on estate taxes rose out of comments I made in a series of

lectures I gave recently at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. In

those lectures I supported the development of an economic system that played

to the universal human desire to receive reward for both labor and

ingenuity. I commented that Communism was, in my opinion, dead from the

beginning because it did not understand this basic fact of human nature.

Communism would be the ideal economic system for angels who would be

willing, in the words of Karl Marx, to give what they have and to receive

only what they need. Human beings are not selfless and capitalism rewards

that selfishness by a system of rewards in exchange for hard work or

developing new and helpful ideas.

Capitalism, I continued, has within it the seeds of its own destruction

if it allows more and more of the available wealth to be confined into the

hands of fewer and fewer of the people. This was the capitalism that Karl

Marx felt would finally destroy itself.

Capitalism, however, as lived out in the western world has been tempered by

social legislation that taxes the wealthy to provide benefits for the poor

and middle classes. Capitalism courts revolution when it allows the wealthy

to get too wealthy and the poor to get too poor.

Unfortunately, I noted, the recent history of the United States has

moved in exactly that direction. During the eight years of the Bill Clinton

presidency, which was a major portion of the decade of the 90's, more wealth

was produced for Americans than in any other decade in our national history.

Indeed, it expanded the wealth of America to twice what had been produced in

the entire history of an independent America. It also widened the gap

between the rich and the poor to levels never before seen. That gap has

widened even more under the presidency of George Bush and today rests at

what I regard as dangerous levels. Every economic program of the Bush

administration has been designed to enhance the wealth of the wealthy and,

in fact, has exacerbated the poverty of the poor. So we have an economic

policy that allows CEOs to be paid hundreds of millions of dollars, made up

of salary and stock options, while refusing to provide health care for more

than 40 million citizens and allowing our public schools to be significantly

under funded.

I do not think we need to remove the estate taxes as President Bush has

proposed. There are ample ways under the present law for the wealthy to

provide for their children and grandchildren without tax penalties. A

spouse can leave $2,000,000 tax-exempt dollars to his or her spouse under

the law now. This is not a Robin Hood confiscation!

Politicians use the image of the family farm to protect a multitude of other

vested interests. They suggest that a family farm cannot be divided among a

number of heirs and still function profitably as a family farm. It is a

smokescreen argument. First, the present law has ample protection for that

contingency. Second it is based on the assumption that all the heirs want

to be farmers, an assumption that might be true one out of 100,000 times.

Third, those who receive an interest in the farm can either retain it and

share in the profits over and above the operating costs including salaries,

or if that is not deemed to be a good investment, they are free to sell

their interests to the other heirs. Fourth, there are very few family farms

left, since small farms are not generally profitable. Perhaps those who

advance this argument have not noticed that the vast number of farms in

America are mega-farms that can afford to buy the equipment to farm

profitably huge acreages. To use this argument to protect the heirs of the

Bill Gates or the Warren Buffets of the world is strange political rhetoric.

It might be of interest to note that Bill Gates' father and Warren Buffet

both are publicly on record as opposing the repeal of the estate tax.

Finally, this is not twice-taxed money. As long as the person who made

it, keeps it, he or she pays tax on it only once. When it is given to their

heirs, it is being given to those who did not earn it. A windfall gift tax

seems to me to be fair, equitable and necessary for the well being of the

whole body politic.

A socially-sensitive, community-oriented capitalism that refuses to

allow too much wealth to accumulate in the hands of the super rich and too

little opportunity provided to break the bondage of the chronically poor is,

I believe, the best economic system for stability. At this moment in

America, the gap between the rich and the poor is dangerously wide.

John Shelby Spong




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