As our nation bumps up hard against a national debt north of $31 trillion, let's start with the obvious: Our expenditures are greater than our revenue. And while this isn't the crisis that Republicans imagine when a Democrat is in the White House, common sense suggests that bringing expenditures and revenue into closer alignment would be a good thing.
The Republicans' default formula for this dilemma? Decrease expenditures and decrease taxes. But, as yet, this attractive campaign slogan hasn't solved the problem.
For one thing, expenditures are very difficult to cut. For the most part, the federal government funds programs that citizens want and need. More than 60% of federal dollars is committed to non-discretionary programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Add in infrastructure, education, health care, veterans' benefits, law enforcement and defense spending, and there's not that much fat in the budget.
And the counterintuitive notion that lowering taxes will result in higher revenue has never worked out either.
Democrats haven't been much more successful than Republicans at aligning expenditures and revenue. But some Democrats are addressing the question of where to get more money by asking another question: Where is the money?
Unsurprisingly, in our country a lot of the money belongs to the very wealthy. Accordingly, a number of states are considering changes in tax policy that employ some version of the "wealth tax" long championed by Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
According to The Associated Press, California, for example, is considering an annual tax of 1.5% on assets of more than $1 billion and 1% on assets above $50 million, a change that would affect 23,000 ultra-millionaires and 160 billionaires.
Other states are considering similar measures; for the most part, they stand little chance of enactment. But they raise an interesting question: Why are we so reluctant to tax the accumulated wealth of our richest citizens?
To ask the question is to invite insinuations of envy and petty resentment of the hard work, intelligence and good fortune of our most prosperous citizens. But to fail to ask the question is to associate the idea of ultra-wealth with more virtue than it deserves.
The very wealthy in America depend much less on personal virtue than on a stable, secure, ordered society based on the rule of law and blessed with abundant natural resources and sound infrastructure. They depend on most Americans, of all economic classes, to accept and support our society's stability.
And when our national stability is threatened by external forces -- Nazis, communists, al-Qaida -- the wealthy expect that all Americans -- and often especially the poor and middle class -- will fight and sacrifice to defend the stability that makes their wealth possible. And Americans have always done so.
The American Dream was never about ultra-prosperity, but wealth has become the American Fever Dream.
In America we have the opportunity to aspire to more, and many do. But many others willingly take on careers -- as nurses, teachers, policemen, firemen, health care workers -- that they know will never make them rich, but which contribute more to the well-being of our nation than do many of the ultra-rich.
Then there's this: We like to call ourselves a "Christian nation," even though the Founders would have gagged at this mischaracterization. But we're good at ignoring the parts of Christian doctrine that make us uncomfortable.
Consider Luke 12:48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required."
And nowhere have the ultra-wealthy been given more than in America.
So, go ahead and tax the wealthy. And don't feel guilty about it. They'll be fine.
Tribune Content Agency