The First Amendment rights of religious groups are under assault in the public square. As Kevin Schmiesing reminds us in today’s Acton Commentary, “History’s tyrants recognized the progression that some of us have forgotten: Where people are free to act according their conscience, they will demand the right to determine their political destiny.”

Read the commentary at the Acton Website and comment on it here.

Blog author: eschansberg
posted by on Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Just in time for April 1st and April 15th, let’s talk about taxes.

On April 1st, the excise tax on cigarettes was increased dramatically—from $.39 to $1.01 per pack. It’s fitting that this occurred on April Fools’ Day, since it served to break President Obama’s campaign pledge not to increase “any form of” taxes on any family making less than $250,000 per year.

Independent of breaking a campaign promise, such a tax is attractive for non-smokers since the costs are imposed on other people and it reduces a harmful behavior.

But the tax is troubling on several levels. First, what are the limits to the government’s paternalism in the consumption of a legal product? Second, to the extent that people reduce their smoking, this will undermine state tax revenues based on tobacco (by an estimated $1 billion)—in a time of already strained budgets. Third, taxes reduce economic activity and jobs, by definition—not a good idea during a recession.

But I want to focus on one final aspect: since smokers are disproportionately low-income, is it fair to increase taxes in such a regressive manner on the poor? And if Democrats are seen as defenders of the poor, why are they increasing their taxes? These are great questions—and ones that should be asked more often, because the government imposes all sorts of taxes on the poor.

Many of these burdens are indirect. Corporate income taxes are borne by consumers as higher prices; property taxes are borne by tenants as higher rent. Environmental regulations and “card-check” legislation would increase costs for firms and thus, increase prices for consumers and drive away jobs overseas. A wide variety of trade restrictions on food and clothing serve to dramatically increase the basic costs of living.

But here’s the biggie: federal payroll taxes. Lower-income families rarely pay any significant federal “income tax”—the tax on income that we celebrate on April 15th. And they face modest state and county income taxes. Meanwhile, they’re hammered by the 15.3% federal payroll tax on income. Every dollar earned by the lower and middle classes is exposed to payroll taxes; there are no deductions or exemptions.

A family at the poverty line is nowhere near paying federal income taxes—and in many states, will not pay state income taxes either. (Unfortunately, a working poor family in Indiana pays hundreds of dollars per year.) Even an upper-middle income family like mine loses more than twice as much money to federal payroll taxes—compared to federal, state, and county income taxes combined!

It’s amazing that payroll taxes receive so little attention given the staggering burden they place on workers, especially those in the lower and middle classes. Why are they ignored? Two reasons. First, half of their burden is hidden as the employer’s share of the tax. (Don’t be fooled; we pay that half too—in the form of lower wages and compensation. Do you think gas stations pay the gas tax for you?) Second, because it is withheld from our paychecks and we never file a 1040, we tend to overlook it, despite its amazing bulk.

This April 15th, feel free to toss a few choice words at the Tax Man. But make sure to spend some time looking at your pay stub and thinking about payroll taxes.

An essay of mine appears today over at the First Things website as part of their “On the Square: Observations & Contentions” feature. In “Between Market and State,” I explore the dialectic logic of market and government “failure,” which functions in part to provide us with a false dilemma: our solution to social problems must lie with either “market” or “state.”

I work out this logic in the context of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and conclude that non-profits play a critical role as mediating institutions that are not driven in the first place by profit motives. A great deal of the economic woe of the last year or so has been the result of seeing the poor as objects of material gain rather than partners in charitable compassion. Read the piece over at the First Things site and discuss it here.

I should note that PowerBlog contributor Dr. William Luckey has provided a brief and challenging analysis of the role of non-profits. His survey of the treatment of non-profits in the literature includes the observation, “Many sources see the purposes of non-profits as taking up the slack from either market failure or government failure, thus revealing a pro-statist, anti-market bias.” The argument in my First Things essay takes the position that one purpose of non-profits is to “take up the slack,” so to speak. But I don’t see how this by definition reveals a “pro-statist, anti-market bias.”

As I say in the essay,

Advocates for government intervention abound nowadays. But apologists for the market economy do themselves and their cause no favors when they ignore the fact that there are limits to what the market can and ought to be asked to do. Indeed, much of what has been called “market failure” is actually the result of applying market-based solutions to problems for which profit considerations ought to be considered secondarily—if at all.

Within a market framework people tend to maximize efficiency and increase material well-being. But the market is not the answer for everything. It cannot tell us, for instance, how to arrange our familial or spiritual lives.

I was influenced in this line of thinking by a brief reflection from Arnold Kling, who writes about two propositions in the context of the sub-prime lending disaster: 1) Market failure is inevitable; and 2) Government failure is inevitable. He says, “In talking about the financial crisis, I believe that to speak the truth one has to accept both propositions. Most people prefer narrative, which either explicitly or implicitly denies one or the other.”

To be sure, I do think Luckey is right to call for “a completely new study of non-profit organizations,” an early attempt at which was made in the context of Acton’s own Samaritan Guide program. (With Marvin Olasky’s comment that the finalists tended to be either “rescue missions for the homeless or rehab centers for alcoholics and addicts” in view as well, see the conclusions of the promising paper, “Faith Makes a Difference: A Study of the Influence of Faith in Human Service Programs,” by Beryl Hugen, Fred De Jong, and Karen Woods.)

One non-profit ministry that I highlight in the First Things essay that is neither a homeless shelter nor a rehab center is the Inner City Christian Federation. This is a worthy organization that merits a great deal of attention in the debate about home ownership, the mortgage industry, and Christian charity.

As I also note in the First Things essay, this discussion about the credit crisis must go to our core assumptions about home ownership. A fascinating interview with Edmund Phelps, director of Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society, picks up on some of these issues. Phelps has a lot of great things to say, and here’s one of them:

I’m hoping that the administration and other thought leaders will succeed eventually in bringing the country back to the older idea that the American dream is having a career, getting a job, and getting involved in it, and doing well. That was the core of the good life. That’s what we have to get back to, and get away from this mystique that the most important thing in your life that could ever happen to you is to be a home owner.

A handy chart showing the movement in trust in social institutions over the last thirty years according to the General Social Survey is available here.

Non-profits are increasingly being squeezed out between market and state, and the solutions they offer are either marginalized or subsumed under the logic of profit or coercion. As many others have noted, some recent policy initiatives, most notably lowering the limit on qualifying charitable donations, will only serve to exacerbate this problem.

I recently received a request from a reporter to respond to the recent spate of studies and stories positing a decline in American Christianity. Here’s how I answered:

Broadly speaking, it is silly to think of secularization as a linear process. The prominence of the Christian faith waxes and wanes during different historical periods. As Rodney Stark has pointed out, the old golden age of faith picture of antiquity is not nearly as strong as many believe. There is, however, always a solid and motivated core.

What differs over time is the overall number of people who want to associate themselves with the basic project of the church. Sometimes, that seems advantageous and people do it for reasons of social respectability or advancement. At other times there is little to be gained from it and many turn to spending Sundays on the golf course or with the New York Times.

We happen to be in one of the periods when there is not a lot of social prestige or other benefit to being in the church and thus nominal members are dropping out. They have no desire to meet even modest demands of the church when they see no compensatory benefit.

The drop off in the number of nominal Christians also results from the ascendancy of conservative Christianity in the United States. The more intensely the church stands for something, the less likely it is that people with low commitment will associate themselves with the church. This has always been the church’s dilemma. Should it be a comprehensive church that baptizes babies and includes everyone in a Christendom model? Or should it concentrate on voluntary, adult decisions for a strict faith that actively excludes those not with the program. While mega-churches are often criticized for trying to be all things to all people, doctrinally speaking they are actually pretty orthodox and tilt more in the direction of believers with some commitment.

What has happened in the last fifty years is that the mainline churches which had seemed to prevail during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy actually lost by becoming increasingly liberal. They became so liberal that their membership had nothing to attach themselves too other than being against conservative Christianity. They can do that just as easily on their own as they can in a liberal church. They end up in the “other” or “none” category when religionists are counted.

In summary, the disappearance of the middle option of a semi-orthodox mainline Protestantism and the corresponding rise of conservative Protestantism is the best explanation for the results we see in the ARIS survey and other observances which claim a future of religious decline.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Monday, April 13, 2009

Zenit reports a new initiative by Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe of Naples, Italy: “he is donating a year’s stipend and part of his personal savings to initiate a diocesan bank that will offer micro-credits to the poor.”

I like two things about this project. First, the cardinal is putting his own money to work, furnishing a good example of personal commitment to assist those in need. Second, he is doing so in a thoughtful and creative way, not “throwing money” at a problem. One of his comments: “[F]ar from being a practice of pure welfare, the micro-credit will be the way to make the creativity and ingenuity of our people emerge again.” Bravo, Your Eminence.

A sour note in his remarks is this: “We thought that the globalization of markets would bring us further well-being, wealth for all, and instead we globalized poverty.” This seems to imply that, on balance, globalization has led to impoverishment rather than economic progress—a dubious proposition.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Monday, April 13, 2009

1934_trib_cartoon

A 1934 cartoon by Pulitzer Prize winner Carey Orr published in the Chicago Tribune. Snopes is still checking.

Starting this year, the Acton Institute is planning to give out the Samaritan Award every other year. This will allows us to better streamline the award process as well as to more smoothly integrate the results of the award into our Samaritan Guide database.

In recent years the Samaritan Award finalists have been profiled in a special issue of WORLD Magazine (here’s the link to the 2008 issue). But this year the folks at WORLD are taking the opportunity to highlight some other ministries. To that end they’ve announced a contest, and here’s what Acton senior fellow and WORLD editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky has to say about it:

During the past three years WORLD, working with the Acton Institute, has reported on and helped to evaluate finalists in Acton’s Samaritan Award competition.

That competition has revealed grassroots compassionate conservatism (not the Washington-centric kind) from sea to shining sea. It’s been great to see and report such ministries, but almost all of the finalists profiled have been rescue missions for the homeless or rehab centers for alcoholics and addicts.

Those organizations do great work and deserve attention, but as journalists we don’t want to be repetitive. Acton is not having a competition this year, so we have the opportunity for stories about some unconventional ministries.

Olasky goes on to point out that “Our approach will be journalistic rather than scientific: We’re looking for good stories of God’s grace to feature in WORLD.”

You can read more details about the WORLD competition on their site, but we’re also taking this opportunity to highlight ministries and nonprofits that hold a special place in our hearts.

This week’s PBR question is: “Which ministries do you make a special point to personally support?”

Share your answers in the comments section and look for answers from PowerBlog contributors throughout the week.

lazarus1Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” – John 11: 25, 26

The text comes from the account of Lazarus being raised to life by Christ after already being dead for four days. The question “Do you believe this?” was posed to the sister of Lazarus, Martha. There have been people who have shunned their faith, and shunned Christ because of a great tragic event in their life. Perhaps somebody intimately close to them has died. Maybe we even know somebody who has left the Church because they suffered a great loss.

While reading God’s Word it is important to take note of the point being made. Do we ourselves believe? In this passage Jesus is quick to be clear that our own resurrection and eternal fellowship with Him is related to our own confession and faith.

Concerning the account of Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb in John 11, it is assuring that the dead listen to Christ. They hear his words and they are raised to life. In the passage Martha says that she knows that Lazarus “will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” But Jesus counters “I am the resurrection and the life.” Christ is the author of the resurrection power. As the writer of the Gospel has already testified, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). For Christ, isn’t it as easy to raise Lazarus now as it would be at a later resurrection?

Earlier in this passage Martha says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha has great faith even though she did not have a full understanding yet. A full comprehension notes that Jesus, the very one speaking to Martha at that moment, is the resurrection and author of all through eternity. Jesus shows his power and authority over death with his raising of Lazarus.

Easter Sunday celebrates the power of Christ over death, and how that power is the joy and the fulfillment of the life of the believer. Our suffering, imperfections, tears, and grief are wiped away by the promises and power of Christ. It brings meaning and assurances to everything we know about the Christian faith. “The Gospels do not explain the resurrection. The resurrection alone is what can explain the Gospels,” says Thomas C. Oden.

The witness of faith for those who gather to celebrate Easter will testify mightily against a world and lifestyle that suffers to find meaning, redemption, joy, immortality, and love outside of God. All too often we see the consequences of the kind of lifestyles that are absent from faith, and the haunting despair that follows. But the Christian lives with the assurance and promise of eternal life because of the intercession and power of Christ over sin and death.

Dr. David W. Miller, who was interviewed in Religion & Liberty for the Winter 2008 issue, was recently on a PBS program discussing corporate morality.

Here is a portion of the PBS interview which relates to the theme in Acton’s R&L interview titled “Theology at Work: Faithful Living in the Marketplace:”

(anchor) ABERNETHY: You, as I said, you used to work in the financial business. What do your friends there, the friends that you have who’ve worked there — what do they tell you about what went wrong; how they feel about it; what they might have done wrong?

Dr. MILLER: Yeah, I work with a group up in Greenwich, Connecticut—we were known as the hedge-fund capital of the world—a group called Greenwich Leadership for people trying to connect their faith and their work and their morals and their values. Some people feel a bit beleaguered by the current situation, because they love their job and they’re good at it, and they are trying to do it in a moral, ethical way and create liquidity and creative instruments for companies. Others, however, realize they’ve bought into something. They’ve almost become addicted to the power and the money. One friend who recently was laid off by AIG, is part of their troubles, privately said he felt that he had made his company his false idol, if you will—that work had become, in his company that he is very proud of actually, had become a false idol, and he was now trying to reorient his life to have balance where faith, family, and other priorities, including his work, would have the right balance, the right perspective.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I argue for simplifying the tax code. It should also be evident that any sort of tax reform should coincide with reforming the way Washington currently operates when it comes to spending.

April 15th is of course tax day, and national protests will also be occurring across this nation under the historically significant title of “tea parties.” One of the points I made in my piece is that it is important that these protests are not just a partisan vessel for bomb throwing and another opportunity to just recite talking points. I think people of most political and ideological persuasions can agree that government spending is out of control. It’s hard for numbers to lie. Repackaging partisan characters who have a large hand in the spending crisis won’t be very effective. Fortunately I think some of the organizers understand this.

Back to the tax code, much of my thinking on this issue can be summed up by noting the tax code is only a very visible problem or symbol of the larger crisis, which is government spending and a never ending need for more revenue. In regards to the lobbyist and special interests, there is a great quote I didn’t include in my commentary that is worth mentioning. In an article written by Bill Theobald titled “Budget 101: easy to spend, tough to tax,” University of Cincinnati professor of Law Paul L. Caron says of tax reform:

Major tax reform is possible in our system, but only if it is truly so fundamental that it creates a constituency greater (in the politicians’ eyes) than the special interests that would be hurt.