Posts Tagged ‘taxes’

There’s a lot of talk these days about the big choices this election holds for all of us. It’s true–the stakes in this election could hardly be higher. Like everyone else, I’ve watched as spin became lies, was exposed as such, and somehow still remained a part of our political conversation. The cumulative effect has been, I suspect, a sort of national case of disassociation–we have been asked to believe twelve impossible things before breakfast, and, rather than calling bulls*t, we have tried. Oh, we have tried.

I can’t speak for you, but for myself, I have to say that the result hasn’t been pretty. There’s the perennial, “Hey, wait…” reaction when I hear one of the tired old canards trotted out and whipped round the track for the bazillionth time. There’s the anger that we never seem to move beyond this. There’s the frustration at the thought that millions of Americans are apparently being taken in by a group who has openly disavowed any ties to reality. And most of all, there’s the sneaking fear that I’m going crazy.

This political campaign defies logic. A candidate who has flipped and flopped and flailed around and openly taken to political whoring in pursuit of the Oval Office should have been laughed out of the race by now. But he hasn’t. And I think the reason is really very simple. I think the reason why Mitt Romney is still in the race is because while those of us in the dwindling middle class all want pretty much the same things–we want social and financial stability, a secure old age, college education for ourselves and our children, and the hope that when we leave we’ll have enough to leave a little behind–on a deeper level we really only want one thing–we want to be safe.

The question is, how do we achieve that? I am reminded of my medieval English lit class. Medieval English literature reflects the two prevalent cultures in Britain at the time: Anglo-Saxon culture, which had its roots in North Central Europe, where winters were savage, life was harsh, and wolves were fierce; and Celtic culture, which had its roots in the softer, milder climates of southern Europe. Anglo-Saxon literature’s most famous poem is Beowulf. Celtic poetry is less well-known, but much of it is short, lyric poems about the beauties of nature, myth, and tradition.

Beowulf happens in a dark, gloomy, savage, cold, and dangerous world where monsters prowl. Safety is to be found by shutting out everyone and every thing except for one’s sworn brothers and fellow knights.. The horror of the poem comes when Grendel, the monster from the mire, actually invades the hall, Heorot.

The world of the Celtic poems is very different. Many seem to have been written by hermit monks, who lived largely solitary in small huts out in nature. The poems speak of the joy of sunny days, the beauty of birds singing in bushes, the pleasure to be found in watching one’s house cat hunt for a mouse. They tell snippets of legends, fragments of stories. These poems speak of a world in which safety is found not by walling out the world, but by making one’s self a part of it, becoming a piece of the whole, forming bonds of love, friendship, and support with the animals, plants, and people that make up the world.

Which brings me to this campaign. Mr. Romney’s worldview is in many respects akin to the Anglo-Saxon view. He has spent most of his life in a world preserved by exclusion. He has built his safety behind walls of wealth, religion, and society. He sees financial success as something one achieves on one’s own, or with the help of one’s parents. One builds a wall, and then builds one’s success behind it, locked away from the rest of the world. One succeeds or fails on one’s own (or with the help of the folks). Professionally he has operated in a world famed for secrecy–call it “confidentiality,” if you will. One of the ongoing stories of this campaign has been his refusal to disclose details of his professional dealings–or even the customary number of tax returns. (He demanded the returns of his VP pick, but never mind.) When he speaks of international relations he speaks less of alliances than of a “strong military.” He doesn’t offer many details, but then again, I suspect they aren’t really important to him. What is important is the wall. Some members of the GOP are actually pushing for the erection of a literal wall along our southern border. Stripping all this down to fundamentals, what we are left with is that for Mr. Romney, safety lies in Heorot–America huddled around a warm fire behind tall, thick walls, hoping and praying that Grendel never gets in.

President Obama, on the other hand, sees safety less in walls than in alliances. His life has been lived as a global citizen in some respects–he spent his childhood, in part, in Indonesia, and in multi-cultural Hawaii. He was a member of a non-traditional family. When he left school he became a community organizer, helping poor and middle-class people form alliances. When he speaks of international policy he speaks of building global alliances, of acting in concert with other nations for our mutual good. When he speaks of domestic policy he speaks of our commonality, of the growing separation between rich and poor that’s killing us socially and economically, of the need for all of us to have a certain level of safety, if any of us are to be truly safe.

I don’t see this as an election about right-and-left politics. Mr. Romney has, if anything, shown himself to be a man who governs in response to the deepest pockets and loudest voices. He has played the idealogue this campaign, but I suspect he cares less about ideology than he does about the bottom line. He’s a money guy, and he wants to be sure that all the guys in his “in” group are taken care of. This isn’t politics. It’s closer to nepotism. By the same token, President Obama has been more centrist than progressive in his policy. How much of that centrism is due to GOP obstructionism we will probably never know, but the fact remains that when we set aside the talk and look at what has been done the result has been centrist, mildly progressive policy domestically–and quite hawkish action militarily, at least in some respects.

Here’s the thing about medieval English poetry–the stormy, savage world of Beowulf and the warm, sunny, placid world of the Celtic lyric verses were both talking about the same part of the world–the British Isles. The difference in the world each poet sees reflects not what lies around him, but what he sees in himself. That’s this election. Both men claim to be offering us what we want most–safety, but if we can extrapolate from their past lives and their prevailing spoken remarks (I’m purposely excluding campaign stuff, because I really don’t see how we can evaluate Mr. Romney in a meaningful way if we include it–his spoken remarks have been inconsistent, nonsensical, and mutually exclusive in many cases) we can see that the men believe that safety is best achieved in opposite ways.

Mr. Romney believes that we are safest behind strong walls, excluding everyone we have decided is not like us, caring only for those who are inside the walls with us. He sees our national life as an exercise in wall-building–making the walls bigger and stronger, and taller, and if doing that means that we take supplies from those who are not within our walls, well, that’s just the way it is. Likewise, when time, money, and resources must be spent everything goes to building the wall. The idea of investing for the coming winter, of seeing to it that those who serve the “in” group have enough to eat and warm clothes to wear, comes a distant second. What matters is the “in” group, and the wall.

President Obama believes that we are more than our walls–that while a good wall is necessary, true safety can only be achieved by recognizing that we are part of a larger community–by forming alliances, by learning to appreciate the diversity and beauty that lies around us, but understanding that we are safest when our social safety net is wide-flung, strong, and inclusive. He believes we are safest when we have good, strong walls–and can navigate the world both inside and out. After all, Beowulf only manages to deal with Grendel and his mother when he leaves Heorot. Even for Beowulf, walls ultimately failed him. And I fear that Mr. Romney’s walls will fail us, too. Grendel has learned how to find his way inside our walls. And he has some pretty scary bombs out there in the mire.

The last four years have been hard ones. I tried–and failed–to get my house re-financed. I was threatened with foreclosure. My credit card interest rates drove my balances so high that ultimately I was left with no choice but bankruptcy. I’ve been sick–I was recently diagnosed with a life-threatening (but fortunately very treatable) condition. I still don’t have health insurance. There have been times when I couldn’t buy my kid shoes. These years have been hard. And I watched as many of the measures that were supposed to help were watered down and subverted by men more concerned with making sure that all the gold stayed in Heorot.

But here’s the thing. These years have also taught me that I am surrounded by a townful of caring, loving people. They are my safety net, and I am part of theirs. We are not rich. But we understand how to care for each other. And we understand that we are better together. At some point, we have all faced the question of how we will be safe, and we have all recognized that safety lies less in bank balances than it does in relationships. We have all made peace with the idea that we are our brothers’, sisters’, and world’s keepers. And that’s why I’m voting for President Obama again–not because I agree with everything he’s done, but because I believe that we share a vision–we believe that we can best keep each of us safe by keeping all of us safe, inside our walls, and out.

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[T]he accounting firm which prepares my taxes has done a very thorough and complete job [to] pay taxes as legally due. I don’t pay more than are legally due and frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don’t think I’d be qualified to become president.
– Mitt Romney, July 29

Michael Takiff has a piece on HuffingtonPost about his father disputing Mr. Romney’s comment that paying “more than is legally due” makes one unfit for the presidency. It’s a moving profile of Takiff’s father’s life, and how he saw tax-paying as patriotic–the right thing to do.

For me, it’s more than that. But it hasn’t always been that way. When I was young I resented the hell out of paying taxes. I saw it as unfair, as little more than legislated robbery. Each April I sat, tight-lipped, as I got the bad news, wrote a check, and mailed it off.

And then I got pregnant. I made a lot of decisions that seemed like the best ones at the time, and may have been, but that certainly weren’t above question. I chose to keep my baby, and to start a home-based business doing design so that I could raise him myself, rather than delegate his babyhood to a series of caregivers. It seemed like the right decision at the time–and it still does; I’ve never regretted it–but as I said, there were certainly other ways of looking at it.

In spite of the fact that my decision wasn’t the “right” one to a number of my family, they helped–a sister hired me to do design work for her. My brother and his wife made a room available in their house for several months. My parents put the down payment on a nice, but reasonably priced townhouse for me. My old bosses in California continued to send me work–and started referring me to people they knew who might need my services. I had help. I had a lot of help. But the fact remaind that as a result of my decisions my son and I lived well below the poverty line for a number of years.

And so I did something that was, for me, a source of deep shame–I got yet more help…from The Government. I applied for, and got, WIC. And, and shameful as it was–and yes, there were grocery store clerks who make sure I understood the Shame of WIC–I used it. And as a result, my son and I at better, healthier foods than we would otherwise have been able to afford. And when tax time came around, I got the Earned Income Credit. I got back more money than I had paid in. And I was grateful. It made a huge difference.

And then my old boss in California referred me to a major corporation, and I began designing books for a small press, and that year at tax time my tax lady told me regretfully that I owed a few thousand dollars in taxes.

I can’t tell you how great it felt to write that check. Writing it proved that, at long last, I was on my way. I had earned enough money that the United States of America had decided that I could start contributing again.

I’m not crazy about it–I hire a good tax preparer, and adjust my income to factor in my business expenses. But I don’t finagle. And when I write the check, I am grateful. Because while I might not be rich compared to many, I am rich compared to many more. Like everybody, I have been challenged by the last few years–but those challenges have been caused not by government, but by private institutions–mortgage companies, credit card companies, insurance companies. Government has played a role, true, in eroding the safeguards that limited private industry depredations in the past, but the real culprits were the private companies that enriched themselves at the expense of the rest of us. And continue to do so.

But for me, that’s beside the point. I pay my taxes because I understand, in a real sense, that I have benefitted from the good that is America–and because I am proud now to be a part of that good for others. My money goes to maintain many of the goods and services that I use. It goes to help take care of the old. And it goes to help other women and children like my son and me, women who, for whatever reason, find themselves needing help.

Of course, it also goes for earmarks, for obscenely large defense contracts, and for boondoggles, which is why I am politically active, why I write letters to my congressmen when I have something to say, and why I vote. Government isn’t perfect, and I don’t much care for how they use the money I give them sometimes. But overwhelmingly, I believe that my money goes to help keep us all connected, healthy, and safe.

Mr. Romney believes that paying the very least he can equips him to be president. I have to wonder if that translates to how he would execute the office of the presidency. Does he plan to spend as little time as possible in governing? Does he plan to give to the office the bare minimum he is legally mandated to provide? Will he be conspicuous by his absence? Will he outsource us? Will we call the White House and discover we’re talking to call center on the other side of the world?

Except for the very limited information Mr. Romney has released, I don’t know how much tax he pays. I do know, though, based on his own words, that he hires people who devote a great deal of time, effort, and yes, money, to seeing to it that his taxes are smaller percentage of his income than most off us pay.

And maybe that’s legal. Is it right? I wouldn’t presume to make that call for Mr. Romney. All I know is that for me, paying taxes isn’t a game. It’s a responsibility that I incur every time I benefit from what our tax dollars provide. It’s a way of paying forward the help I received when I needed it most. Most of all, it’s an acknowledgment that I am an American. I am both an individual, and a part of something much, much larger. I make a difference. I matter. I have it in my power to make life a little easier for those who are struggling, to offer opportunities to those who need them.

Paying our fair share of taxes is our civic responsibility. Why and how we pay them is much, much more.

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Once upon a time, in a kingdom not so very far from here, there lived a king. He lived in a beautiful castle. The castle was full of courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, like many castles are. The castle was also surrounded by a moat–also part of your standard castle. But what made this castle, and kingdom, different was that while most moats are filled with water, and are dug down into the earth, this moat was dug down through the earth and deep into a layer of ice (a really not-so-thick layer of ice, it turned out when scientists from the castle got around to measuring it) that stretched not only under the castle, but under all the kingdom. And under the ice was a fathomless, dark, icy ocean.

You might think that building a castle on a layer of not-so-thick ice is a not-so-bright idea, and you might be right. The scientists in the castle agreed. “The ice under our kingdom can only sustain just so much weight,” they told each other in portentious voices. “The kingdom is growing too heavy. Unless we can reduce the weight of our kingdom the ice will surely break. No can know what will happen then.”

Since the scientists were speaking in carrying voices, it wasn’t long before the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles knew about the kingdom’s weight problem. And once they knew, of course, it was only seconds before word had spread to the farthest corners of the kingdom.

“We’ll just make the castle weigh less,” said the captains of industry. “Easy peasy. We’ll take all the grain out of the emergency food supply rooms. Then we’ll close the rooms down. No grain plus no peasants walking in the castle means a lighter castle! Problem solved.”

“But where will the grain go?” asked the king.

“We’ll buy it,” said the captains of industry. “Easy peasy. You can give us a great price, because after all we’ll be saving the kingdom by lightening the castle.”

“But then how will the people get grain to eat in hard times?”

“We’ll sell it to them. Easy peasy!” said the captains of industry.

“It doesn’t seem to me that taking the grain everybody in the kingdom has contributed, selling it to you at a great price, and then making the people buy it back in hard times is really fair, but let me think about it,” said the king.

Next came the courtiers.

“We have a better plan,” they said. “We’ll just force everyone who wasn’t born in our kingdom to leave. Then we won’t need so much grain for emergency supplies. We’ll sell what we need to the captains of industry, and they’ll sell it back to the peasants. Since so many people will have to leave the nobles can buy more land, which means they’ll need to find more peasants, and it’ll be good for everybody. We might even be able to permanently remove the grain storage areas in the castle!”

“Well,” said the king, “almost all of us came from other kingdoms ourselves. Besides, many of the people who have come here from other lands actually put more into the emergency supplies than they will ever use. Do we really want to exile all of the people who make it possible for us to have such great stuff?”

“Yes! Yes!” chanted the nobles. “Out them, out them, one and all. Then we’ll build a giant wall!”

“Let me think about it,” said the king.

The next group to come up with a plan was the priests.

“Destroy the grain,” they said. “The gods are punishing us because of our lack of faith. The peasants spend all their time in farming, and not enough in prayer. The gods will send grain for the faithful. And the others don’t deserve any.”

“Refresh my memory,” said the king. “Which god is it that’s in charge of grain production?”

“We can’t believe you asked that,” gasped the priests. “Clearly You Are Not Like Us. Anyone who is faithful knows who’s in charge of grain.” And they started a rumor that the king was a heretic, and should be forced to abdicate.

The admirals were the next with an idea. “Having the ice break is a good thing,” they said. “The castle and the grain stores and most of the peasants will slide into the fathomless depths. We’ll be fine. We have boats. And they congratulated each other on having had the foresight to become admirals in what had seemed to be a landlocked kingdom.

Last of all the to come up with an idea were the peasants. “What if we lightened the castle by removing the game room, and the some of the courtiers’ catamites and mistresses? And what if we took the gold and distributed it to the peasants, who could spend it for grain, and wood for home repair projects, and stock to improve their herds, and education for their children, and maybe even to buy a little extra grain to lay by for emergencies and old age? And then we could reduce the size of the treasury. This would spread the weight of the grain, help the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, to be healthier since without the excess grain they would lose flesh, and everyone would be better off.” The king never got to hear their plan, because in order to reach the throne room they had to gain the approval of the biggest, fattest courtier of them all. When he heard the peasants’ plan he sneered, “I worked hard for the grain I have. Why should I have to give it to you for free? If you’d just work hard like I do you could have more grain, too.” And then he told them that their plan was childish, and unfeasible, and that it would never get the votes to pass, and that though the king might actually consider it the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles helping him rule would surely know better.

And so it was that the king, the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, discussed the grave problem facing their kingdom, and at last, after hearing everyone out and carefully considering the needs of the whole kingdom, the king decided on a plan.

“Here is what we will do,” he said. “We will sell most of the grain stores to the captains of industry, and tear down the buildings that housed them. We will give some boards to the admirals so they build nicer boats. We will deport as many of the people who were not born here as we can. And then we will give a little bit of the remaining grain to the peasants, so that we lighten the weight of the castle for all of us. We’ll keep the game room, of course, but we’ll divide the national treasury among the captains of industry, so they may start more industries, and amass more wealth, and therefore hire more peasants, and in that way the wealth will Trickle Down.

“I object,” said the fattest courtier. “If we give any grain to the peasants we won’t have any emergency supplies at all. And besides, they might get the idea that they deserve to benefit from the grain they send to us. Next thing you know we’d have a nation of peasants depending on castle grain. No one would farm, and the grain god would forsake us utterly.”

“So what do you suggest?” asked the king.

“I suggest that remove both legs from all the peasants,” said the fattest courtier. “That’ll teach them to comment on their betters’ weight.”

“What?” asked the king. “Why should the peasants have to lose their legs? How will they farm without them? What would that solve?”

“Never mind,” said the courtier. “But I won’t vote for any plan that requires courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles to starve while we give free grain to layabout peasants. That’s just not right. I don’t think it’s too much to ask the peasants to sacrifice a little.”

The king and his courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, talked long into the night, and at last, in the morning, they came out of the castle and told the peasants the king’s amended plan.

The grain stores would be divided among the captains of industry, the admirals, and the nobles, who would Hold Them In Trust until time of famine, at which time they would sell them back to the peasants at whatever price they chose. The admirals would build more boats to hold the peasants, or else they would use the grain and wood resources to improve their own boats, no one was really sure which, since the admirals got all huffy when the king tried to ask. The priests would devise a set of guidelines for determining who was contributing to the grain god’s happiness, and who was making him angry, and then they would work with the admirals in deporting all heretical peasants. And, as a special concession by the fattest courtier, peasants would only be required to sacrifice one arm and one leg, rather than both legs, so they might better fulfill their personal and civic responsibilities, and be a part of the Grain-Producing Base, and help Rebuild the National Stores of Grain, and have Self-Respect, and a Sense of Worth. And the fattest courtier stipulated that the arms and legs should be returned to the castle and turned into a new and interesting line of Pies, Casseroles, Roasts, Mixed Grills, Soups, and Garnishes, and thereby contribute New Industry, and Free Trade, and Realize Financial Efficiences in the Kitchen.

Some of the peasants asked why they had to sacrifice any limbs at all. The king repeated the fattest courtier’s line about Shared Sacrifice. Some spoke of storming the castle, and taking the grain by force, and knocking down the game room, breaking open the national treasury and sending the gold to peasants farm and wide, and saving the kingdom by evening out the weight on the ice sheet, but the priests counseled against it. “This is too big a problem for any of us to solve,” they said. “Let us hold a big prayer meeting, and as the gods to solve this problem for us.”

When some of the peasants persisted the priests reported them for Terrorist Leanings, and spoke of how the grain god was best served by submitting to the king’s laws, and then the priests reported the angry peasants to the fattest courtier as special cases who should have both legs removed, just in case.

And the next day the castle physicians went out unto all parts of the kingdom to enact the king’s plan for saving the kingdom, and in the end it worked, for a while. The ice sheet did not crack, for a while. The king and the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, continued to live happily in the castle. They dined nightly on the new range of Food Products that the fattest courtier had devised. As a result of their missing limbs and the depleted grain stores many peasants either died of infection or starved to death, thus lightening the weight on the ice sheet.

And if some of the remaining peasants wished that things had turned out differently, they learned to take comfort in the words of their priests, who explained that trials are sent to test us, and that if they were faithful the grain god, whoever he might be, would surely bless them as he had blessed the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles.

And then one morning the sun rose, and shone down not on a beautiful castle on a sheet of ice, but on a great black hole in the ice, and around it lay a wasteland.

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I grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist home. For those unfamiliar with the denomination, it grew out of the same explosion of religious fervor that gave birth to Mormonism and I believe the Baptists, and was characterized by its conviction that all of its doctrines were firmly based on scripture. Ellen G. White, one of the church founders, was–and is–widely regarded as a prophet in Adventist circles.

With its conviction that it holds “God’s final message for these last days,” that as “the remnant” Adventists will experience extreme persecution, and its “olde-tyme religion” focus it is perhaps natural that Adventism is heavily populated by social conservatives, as well as religious conservatives.

When I was growing up Good Adventists used the works of Ellen White to develop their child-rearing practices, but which portions of Ellen White got the most weight varied from home to home. In our home, one of the biggest issues was Knees.

Ours weren’t supposed to show. This was because Ellen White had said that women’s dresses should come “half way between the knee and the ankle.”

“Count yourselves lucky,” our mother said when we objected. “Your dad wants you to actually wear them there, but I talked him into just having them cover your knees.”

And so, while the rest of the world in which we lived sported neat frocks that hit them just an inch or so above the knees, our dresses came below our knees. Because that was Modest. Because that was what Ellen White  (aka “The Spirit of Prophecy”) said. In vain did we question why knees were obscene. In vain did we beg to look just a little more like our classmates. Our knees remained firmly covered.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned that when Ellen White was establishing the Adventist Dress Code in the 1800’s her strictures were considered bizarre, and women who wore them were subjected to the same sort of ostracism and humiliation that we girls experienced. But in her day the issue was not Modesty, but Health. Ellen White advocated for shorter dresses–and in fact for pantaloons–that allowed women to move more freely, and kept dresses from dragging the filth and manure from the streets inside and spreading disease.

As far as I have been able to gather, one of Ellen White’s central concerns as she wrote about fashion was women’s health. She maintained that clothing should be appropriate to the weather, simple and loose enough to promote easy movement, and short enough to avoid the unnecessary spread of germs. All that makes sense.

But when my parents were citing her strictures on fashion–following the same rules–their justification was not the promotion of health, but Modesty. And so it was that lived a key part of our life following an outmoded set of rules (that in fact inhibited free movement and health) for a reason that had nothing to do with the reason those rules were originally imposed. In our case, the rules about Modesty were so stringently enforced because the family was rife with child molesters, and in those days, in the circles in which we moved, the best way to address that sort of problem was to keep the kiddies from looking Alluring. Keep them Modest. You know. Unattractive. Like Good Christian Girls should look.

And so it was that a set of guidelines originally put in place to solve a real problem became a weapon in a struggle of a very different nature.

All of which puts me in mind of Grover Norquist, and pledges, and the GOP, and the issue of taxes.

Like the Seventh-day Adventist child-rearing tenets of my childhood, our tax structure was established to meet the needs of a world that no longer exists. And yet we have a whole segment of our population who continue to demand that those old systems designed to work for a smaller population with different demographics and different values and vastly different financial demands–the halfway between the knee and the ankle hemlines–are more than adequate to meet the needs of our nation. Indeed, they are seeking to move those hemlines down, down, down so they are once again dragging through the manure in the streets. Not only must no new taxes be imposed, but those in place must be cut, ever cut, and never, ever, reinstated.

Like the hemlines of my childhood, the outmoded tax structures are most firmly supported by those who don’t have to suffer from them. My father, who dressed exactly like all the other men at his job and in our church, was the lead advocate for hemlines in our house. He could talk about the need for Modesty, he could praise us for looking like Good Christian Girls and thereby earning the scorn of the children we would have liked to have for friends because that scorn never touched him. It’s easy to make rules that don’t touch us personally.

It is perhaps no accident that the people who promote the outmoded tax systems most vociferously are those for whom they work well–the very wealthy, and their bought and paid for legislators.

I’m a grown-up; I can dress how I like. My taxes are, I believe, mostly pretty fair for my income. So what’s the point of all this? There are two, actually.

The first point is that great harm can be done by blindly enforcing outmoded rules. The rules of my childhood contributed to the lonely, painful world in which I grew up. Had my local Adventist system–and my family–decided to espouse the underlying principles of health that led to Ellen White writing those words in the first place, my world would have been a far more comfortable, logical place. Instead of seeking the theological meaning of Knees, I might have been dressed in simple, age-appropriate clothing that promoted active involvement with my world and the people in it.

Likewise, if, instead of blindly enforcing a no-tax ban the likes of Grover Norquist, his pledgees, and his minions chose to take a look at the needs of a nation to function as a healthy whole and then sought to fill those needs responsibly and fairly, accounting for the increased needs of increased populations, they might do great good.

The second point is that the Adventist system as I knew it used what any reasonable person would understand to be an outmoded rule as a weapon in a hidden war. The true reason for enforcing hemlines in such a draconian fashion was to protect child molesters–to “not place temptation in their path,” to make sure that all of us girl children understood that if we found ourselves subjected to unwelcome advances it was our own fault, we had “tempted a man beyond what he could bear.” Instead of protecting children from predators, the system existed to protect the predators, both from children, and from themselves.

I see something similar at play in the debate in Congress today. Those pledges aren’t about teaching government to spend more reasonably. Nor are they about protecting “the middle classes” (the theoretical beneficiary of all this tax cutting). Like our hemlines, those pledges are about protecting a hidden population, those who truly benefit from the way that taxes are structured. When cuts happen, the invariable first cuts are to funds used to equalize the playing field, to provide a health and standard of living baseline–a safety net to keep those who struggle the hardest from slipping through the cracks.

Of course there will be those who work the system, just as there were girls among us who rolled their skirts. But using that fact as justification for stealing the safety net from those who have not misused the system is just plain wrong. And to do so when the wealthiest remain protected from any sort of meaningful contribution adds insult to injury.

So what’s the answer? Certainly it’s not in half-measures, any more than my mother’s solution that our dresses “only” cover our knees was a solution to the issue of pedophilia with which we were grappling. Cutting safety net programs and reducing already-unfair taxes on the very rich is no more effective a solution.

Maybe the answer for taxes is the same as the answer should have been for hemlines all those years ago. Maybe that answer begins with discarding a set of rules that no longer reflect the reality in which we life, and building a new code that meets our needs today. Maybe it continues with asking questions.

1. Who are we as a nation?

2. How much money do we have?

3. Where does it come from?

4. How can we provide for the emergencies that we will surely face, both as citizens, and as a nation?

5. What are our financial resources?

6. Where do they lie?

7. How can we work it so that everyone contributes, but that no one is asked to contribute disproportionately?

8. How can we spend what we have more effectively?

And perhaps most important:

9. Who are we really protecting by taking this action?

And maybe it ends with–well, maybe it never ends. Maybe the answer is less in creating a new set of rules than it is in finding a new way to think about what we are doing, as people, and as a nation. How do we solve problems? How do we meet the financial needs we share as a people? How do we take the principles that helped to shape us as a nation, and use those principles not as a set of rules to protect the powerful, or to demand that all others think and act like we do, but to carefully, rigorously, and responsibly shape ourselves into a nation that reflects not only who we were, but who we are now, and who we dream of becoming.

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Susan Wittig Albert

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