Wednesday, July 20, 2011

An Interesting Dilemma In Morality

I will warn you up front. This post will probably twist your brain. You may want to grab a beer before you read this one. In fact, this post is more out there to try to see if I can better express it in writing than I can in thinking. I'd really like your feedback. I'd really like you to think about it. Let's see if this changes anyone's mind.

I have posted a few blogs now about why the government needs to be careful about taxing more (even the rich), about how we have the power to tax the rich with our consumer power and how even the arguments for taxing the rich are riddled with logical fallacies. Before I show another interesting thought on taxation, let me throw out this one fact that came to light recently. This Tax Foundation data which comes right from the IRS but is presented neatly is amazing. It shows that in 2008, almost 140 million tax returns were filed. If you just divide the number of returns up evenly and look at the top 1% or the top 1.4 million returns, the bottom return of the 1% had an AGI of $380,354. Certainly a nice amount of money. What is interesting to me is if we took every dollar (AGI) that the top 1% made in 2008), it still wouldn't be enough to balance the federal budget this year. Every. Single. Dollar. Yikes.

What I want to look at today is the application of morals in our laws. I have had a few discussions on this where the argument is made that morals are the basis of our laws. I would argue that in reality, it is our laws that protect our personal freedoms and personal property that happen to coincide with our morals. Perhaps the lines are simply more blurry. A simple example might be a law against physical harm. Someone who assaults you or someone who kills another is charged with a crime for inflicting personal harm against your or the deceased's body (property). Most would agree it is morally wrong to inflict that kind of harm against another, but the basis for the law is a property harm. Same with theft. It might be morally wrong, but it is a law because it is a violation of the rights to my property.

Let's take a clear example of a moral law applied as governmental law that I feel is wrong. I have blogged in the past about gay marriage and how there are many reasons, one of which is protection of contract law, as to why gay marriage should be legal. I think most readers of my blog are going to be in agreement with me that gay people should be able to get married, or at the very least don't really care. The bottom line is it is two adult people who are consenting to a specific arrangement that by law has special benefits only allowed with one person at a time (right now in MN statute as one man and one woman). The argument from the Republican side is that government has an interest in heterosexual marriage for the health of the state (nation) through procreation. The law doesn't and I don't think would be Constitutional if it required procreation, so even if that were true the law couldn't require that as part of the contract.

Some would argue that being gay is a choice. I don't really care. Even if it is a choice, the science says it is not a disease (the APA removed it in 1973) so it is a choice a person is free to make. Note: I am not offering my opinion that it is a choice for people to be gay. I am simply saying that choice or not, it is irrelevant in how homosexuals are treated by the law. An adult watching pornography to excess may be harmful to their own health, that is a choice that person can make. I can choose to have a 3rd or 4th beer which many experts would say is harmful, but should the government make it illegal for me to do so? Mormons abstain from all alcohol, but we do not impose their morals on the entire country (and when we did it fail miserably). My point is even the moral choice argument is not a reason to ban something because some morals simply do not violate another's personal rights or property.

The more compelling or interesting moral argument I want to make is in government taxation and spending. Starting with taxation, the interesting arguments I often hear when making a case to raise taxes on the wealthy and on corporations is the "ability to pay," "paying their fair share" and "keeping massive profits." Let's start with a very basic premise, is it wrong to make money? The question may seem like a straw man question, but it is not because there would be a few people who would probably say we should all make exactly the same amount. OK, so once we've eliminated that for the most of us, I ask the next question. Is it wrong to make lots of money? How much is too much money? If you answered there is no amount too much, then shouldn't the rich pay the same rate as the rest?

However, if you answered that some people do make too much and should contribute more than the rest of us, I want you to think about what kind of judgement that is. Isn't that a moral judgment? Isn't the very idea of judging somebody to be too rich or so rich that they should be giving to the poor a concept of morals.  That is the internal debate I have whenever the idea comes up about setting a separate rate for those making incomes much higher than me or any of my friends. Who gets to decide what is "rich?" Are we not making a moral judgement? By making that moral judgment from the left (since taxing the rich is a liberal concept), are we any better than those conservatives making a moral judgment on homosexuality?

I do realize that for most homosexual people, it is not a choice (I can't say all simply because I don't think the science would even say that). So certainly there are differences in the gay marriage issue and the taxation issue. We have to have some taxation in order to provide police, courts, the military, etc. We can't have "some" gay marriage. Taxes always have to exist as a part of government and they have to adjust as the government faces national security threats, national disasters, etc. A gay person shouldn't be denied a free consensual choice just because some find it morally objectionable.

One other thing to consider that makes me very sad about the vote on this gay marriage amendment that also applies to the "tax the rich concept." The reason we have a democratic republic and not a direct democracy is to filter the majority. We don't want 51% to be able to rule 49% of the people. It is sad that Minnesota's Constitution could possibly change if 50.01% of people make it so. Hopefully next session the DFL will be able to pass another amendment proposal that would require a 3/5 vote in both chambers to have an amendment appear on the ballot. It would help to filter contentious issues. At the same time, this filter is also meant to protect those at the top from the majority. When government taxes us, they are taking our money by force (go to jail if you don't pay). So when we tell the rich they need to pay even more than we do, we in essence are saying we paid you for your product, but now we are taking back that money by force through mob/majority rule. Is that moral? Note: See my previous posts or IRS data. Top 1% of income earners (make over $400,000/year) pay 40% of income taxes and top 5% (make over $250,000/year) pay over 60% of income taxes.

The other part of the concept of taxes hard to reconcile with the gay marriage debate is a whole host of taxation issues that comes with being a married couple. People who are married get special tax treatment (very special tax treatment). If one spouse dies, the other spouse is able to take over all of the property without having to pay the estate tax. We know there are people that find gay marriage morally objectionable. I would imagine there are a few people that find heterosexual marriage to be offensive as well. Should we go by their moral judgment and eliminate the spousal exemption of the estate tax, so the remaining spouse might have to sell the house to cover the 35% the US Treasury wants? The very concept of special tax treatment for married couples, gay or straight, could bring up moral objections from some of our citizens.

The very concept and intent of the income tax when the amendment was passed was to tax only the very top portions of income (in fact only about 4% of the population was intended to pay it at all). But since 1913, we have changed the income tax code to be such a mess of special interests that it has gone from a few percent of income over $1 million to over 20,000 pages of a mess not even the best tax attorneys can understand. Corporations like GE took huge tax credits because they built the windmills. (they still paid taxes, but no where near the 35% corporate tax rate. See #4 here). People like Governor Dayton or Warren Buffet take advantage of income tax free states and set up trusts to avoid taxes, and further avoid taxes by taking income as long-term capital gains which is taxed at a much lower 20% rate.

So yes, large corporations and the very rich often do pay a lower rate than many of us in the middle class. They also pay many more dollars than each year than we ever will in our lifetime. If we feel that they should be paying more on par as the same rate as the rest of us, then it is time to adjust the tax code and put some stability in the rates. It is not the fault of the corporations or the rich person for wanting to keep more of their money. They do it legally. It is the politicians that gave them the key to do it. A simpler tax code with lower overall rates would go much farther in fixing the "fairness" issue than changing the rates every couple of years would ever do.

On the other side of government, we can all agree that there is some waste in the spending. We can all agree to disagree where government should spend the money that it does take in. This is another reason why we need to be careful in how much money we give to government. Whenever government asks for more money by raising the tax rates, it usually means a program is going to be expanded or a new program is going to bee added. I again point you to this video of Penn Jillette I have mentioned before in this blog where he makes a great logical case as to why we need to be careful of the size of government because eventually government will spend money on something we object to. The more we allow government to clash with our own morals, the more we then allow them to impose their own morals on us as well.

So that was alot of information Eric, what are you saying?

Two people in a consensual relationship that choose to get married do so because there is a list of benefits that come with the civil contract as defined by statute. These benefits are a list of standard things you might do with a person you intended on living with for a long time anyway, and are some of the things that people have come to expect from the various religious marriages celebrated for many centuries. By state standards, that's what marriage is: a standard contract between two people. We don't allow gay marriage (or polygamy for that matter) based on a mostly moral objection based in a religious belief. There is also an economic objection because of the economic advantage gained by married couples, but the moral objection is by far the largest objection.

When someone gets rich (Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, Sam Walton), they do it by creating a product or service at a price or service we feel is fair or adequate. It is a private transaction between two people where they exchange their product for our money. When we choose to tax them because of the income disparity, we are making a similar moral judgment that income inequality is unfair. We also make a further moral judgment that if we take more from the rich, they won't notice it in their lifestyle as much as if it is taken from the middle class making it OK. The only economic argument I have heard made is that we need to equalize income or it stifles overall economic growth. Money has no value unless it is put somewhere.

I do find statistic such as in this article from salon.com  showing corporations with massive amounts of cash and large profits yet we don't see many of them hiring. We can all shake our fists at those companies, but then when we stop at a Bank of America or Wells Fargo ATM on our way to Dairy Queen (Berkshire Hathaway) and make a quick stop at Walmart for milk and bread and maybe some GE CFL light bulbs, we put more cash in those very corporations hands we claim to despise. I would argue to tax them more after voluntarily paying for their product is actually immoral because we are taking money back from them by force we gave them of our own free will.

The differences in the two issues are that in the gay marriage issue, there is no real defined benefit in keeping them from being able to be married. There are some flawed studies from group that are already biased to support the conservative position of opposition, but there is no real negative outcome in allowing a gay couple to marry. In taxing the rich more, we do get to provide more programs to help those in need, build better bridges, provide better education. If we don't tax the rich more, we are then not passing our moral judgment through the government. As you can see it is a much trickier balance.

Please realize this post is more about getting you to think about your own morality when discussing political issues. We will never get away from morals in the law and in politics since they do intersect often with personal property and personal rights. It is immoral to most people to steal from someone else, but you are also taking their property. It might be immoral to some to drink or do drugs, but when someone drives while intoxicated they put other's lives and property in danger. We bust some people for drugs, others we choose to ignore their personal use joint. Is that moral or even fair?

My premise is we will continue to discuss and adjust things that will be a necessary part of government such as taxes, spending and the criminal code. When we discuss and decide these issues, we need to be aware of our moral bias and try to acknowledge it and be as fair as possible in balancing morals with rights for every individual. Society has decided government has some role in helping those unable to provide for themselves, and we will continue to discuss the role of government versus the family in those situations.

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