Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Taxing Churches to Pay National Debt

Our country is facing a looming financial crisis in the form of a mountainous load of debt. Only a decade ago, Clinton left us a budget surplus and was trimming our national debt. Then Bush garnered enough hanging chads to get elected, and burned up most of that surplus on tax cuts. Politically popular, but guaranteeing our nation would flirt with debt again. Then, after 9/11, having presided over the start of two wars, he felt that a national crisis was best served by reducing national income yet again at the benefit of the wealthy. Add a sweeping sellout to the drug companies for Medicare and Medicaid and yet more tax breaks for the fattest of felines, and you understand how we could have dug such a deep hole in such a short amount of time. Bush never vetoed a single spending bill. Now, at ten trillion and counting, the Bush Debt is projected to reach 17 trillion by 2017, and it is not entirely implausible that the interest owed will exceed our entire national product! And then, frankly, we're fucked!

Way to go, Dubya.

For brevity, I'll ignore the insanity of Republicans using the Bush Debt as a means of unhorsing Obama, who had nothing to do with it. Instead, I'll simply point out how the Bush Debt was partly predicated on a dangerous philosophy, known as "starve the beast." The idea is, limit the amount of money the nation takes in through taxes, and this motivates the government to cut spending. Sounds good, right? But we've seen time and again that cutting spending is easier said than done, and while Republicans often cut taxes, they seldom cut spending. For that matter, neither do Democrats. It's simply easier for a legislator to eat shards of broken glass than it is for him to vote for a spending cut in his district. So, without a significant number of politicians willing to fall on their swords, the debt goes out of control.

This is something I try desperately to explain to my more conservative friends: The beast doesn't starve. The beast borrows from China, Saudi Arabia, and India. And then the beast destroys the dollar.

So what do we do? Admit defeat when it comes to getting politicians to cut spending? I think not. There are some simple things we can do as citizens to get the debt under control. But we have to be smart enough to make sure it happens. Here's our assignment list:

1. Institute term limits. The only way to get a significant number of politicians to vote for spending cuts is to make sure that a significant number of politicians are not concerned with re-election. Term limits are the only way to accomplish this. We need to insist that this gets done. If we do nothing else, we must do this!

2. Re-institute Pay-As-You-Go. George Bush, Sr. enacted pay-as-you-go during his presidency as a means of curtailing government debt, and it worked well. What it means is, you can't propose some new spending increase unless you either propose a spending cut of equal amount elsewhere, or propose a tax increase which will pay for it entirely. Unfortunately, this measure expired in 2002, just in time for his brat kid to give away the farm! We need this rule in place again, badly. And permanently, this time.

3. Let the Bush, Jr. Tax Cuts Expire. This one's a no-brainer. In time of dire national crisis, we simply must call upon those who are financially strongest to help bear the heaviest of the burden. America's been good to the rich. It's time for them to be good back! Because if we lose the dollar, their fortunes are at risk, too, even if they've moved their investments entirely to the Euro or the Yen.

4. Line Item Veto. We gave a line item veto to President Clinton in 1996, but the Supreme Court struck it down two years later. We need to explore a way to give our president the ability to slash spending at the stroke of a pen in a way which will hold up under judicial review.

5. Legalize and Tax Cannabis. Again, a no-brainer. Our economy needs new industry, and new tax revenue at the same time. During the Great Depression, the repeal of prohibition helped to rebuild the economy. We need to end prohibition against marijuana.

6. Consider Rescinding Tax-Exempt Status On Certain Non-Charity Organizations.

It's that last item I'll consider more in depth. Specifically, should we consider taxing churches at this time?

In a way, it makes sense. Corporations, families, soldiers, stores, property owners, highway travellers, and nearly every other walk of life has to pay taxes. When it comes right down to it, even the dead pay taxes! But not a church. What makes them so damned special?

Certainly, our economy could do without greedy televangelists using their ministries as a means to sequester huge swaths of the public's money supply out of circulation! But most churches out there typically struggle just to keep the lights on. One likely consequence of church taxation might be that little churches would instantly go belly-up, leaving only big-box mega-churches in many urban areas.

Another problem is Constitutional. Congress cannot pass any law favoring any religion or denying it's free practice. Certainly, taxing a particular behavior acts as a strong disincentive. Thus, by taxing churches, Congress effectively denies the free practice of religion. Put another way, there's no tax for not going to church. Hence, people are encouraged to be atheist or agnostic. Or at least, discouraged from starting their own independent ministry.

What about the new Islamic Center near Ground Zero? I'll bet lots of people would like to see that taxed! But then, we'd be playing favorites again. If we can tax a Mosque, we have to be able to tax a chapel.

I suppose some people are resentful that churches sometimes get politically active having paid no taxes. It's anything but fair for those who don't put money into the hat to try and have a say in how it gets spent! But there would be an unintended consequence in forcing the issue. As it is, churches try to walk a fine line between being politically active, and politically neutral. This is because there is a law on the books, known as the Johnson Amendment (1954), which states that any non-profit organization cannot be politically active, or else it loses it's tax-exempt status. So churches try to remain politically neutral in theory, while being subtly active in practice, particularly on issues such as abortion or homosexuality. So long as they don't endorse political candidates, they are reasonably safe. However, if we taxed those churches, they might see this as a green light to become community-based political action groups, and preachers would begin endorsing candidates openly from the pulpit. This would be a consequence I would not want to live with!

So, no, I don't think Churches should be taxed. There are too many negative consequences, including one I missed earlier, which is that if Churches get taxed, so likely do humanist and atheist groups, who barely have a budget as it is. However, I do think that the Johnson Amendment needs to be strengthened. Churches should not even think of being subtle in political activism. In this time of national monetary crisis, we can't have ministries who pay no taxes campaigning, even quietly, for any "faith-based initiative" tax dollars. True, this is only a cosmetic solution to the problem of our national debt, but for important reasons concerning the "culture war," the message needs to be sent that non-profit means non-political. If you want to be in the game, you pay your admission fee just like everybody else. And if you are a tax-exempt church, it needs to be understood that such exemption comes at an all-important price:

You fundies stay the fuck out of politics!

Eric

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