A Moral Case for Tax Fairness in America

Why do the richest one percent of Americans often pay less taxes than their employees struggling to make ends meet? For most Americans, our recent tax day was about as welcomed as a trip to the dentist. But a cab driver working the double shift probably had more reason for discomfort than a hedge-fund manager on Wall Street because of an immoral tax system that lets many millionaires and billionaires get away with paying a lower rate than working families. It's time for a broader values debate that includes an honest discussion about economic justice and tax fairness.

Pastors don't preach many sermons about the tax code, and Jesus did not have a specific tax plan that he touted on the dusty roads of Nazareth. But our political debate over the economy and taxes could use more talk about core Biblical principles of justice and the common good and less deceptive rhetoric about "class warfare." Some political leaders and their champions on the religious right often invoke Christian faith in battles over issues like abortion, but they conveniently ignore the sin of greed and the moral scandals of rising poverty and economic inequality that now darken the bright promise of the American dream.

America's tax policy reveals our values and priorities. The top 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of our nation's income over the last three decades, but their tax burden has plummeted in comparison to middle and working class Americans. Those who care for our grandparents in nursing homes, educate our children and police our streets are paying more of their income in taxes than oil companies who lobby Congress to rig the tax system in their favor. This is morally wrong, and should stir our conscience in the same way Biblical prophets took up the call to challenge injustice in ancient times.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffet, whose secretary has a higher tax rate than he does, called for common-sense tax reforms and polls show that the vast majority of Americans agree. However, 24-hours before "Tax Day" the U.S. Senate voted against the "Buffet Rule" that would help level the playing field by requiring millionaires to pay at least a 30 percent tax rate.

The Senate's lack of compassion for the middle class and the poor begs one to ask -- "Do members of the U.S Congress have a moral compass?" It's difficult to make a practical case against the Buffet Rule when tax rates on millionaires have dropped sharply over the years as a result of the Bush tax cuts, which are a major contributor to our nation's growing debt. By some estimates there are more than 60 millionaires in the Senate and more than 150 millionaires in Congress.

The GOP budget proposal, drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, would make draconian cuts to food assistance for low-income families even as it makes the Bush tax cuts permanent and cuts the top individual tax rate to 25 percent, the lowest level since the Hoover Administration more than 80 years ago. Americans don't envy the rich. Success and ambition are part of our nation's entrepreneurial spirit. But the American creed also holds sacred the bedrock values of equal opportunity and shared responsibility for the common good. It's not "class warfare" to ask the wealthiest among us to contribute their fair share. Crumbling bridges, underfunded public schools and fraying safety-nets for the most vulnerable at a time of soaring wealth for the top 1% are a shameful testament to skewed tax policies and backwards budget priorities.

If politicians want to impress voters with appeals to moral values, they should start by vowing to end these injustices.