Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Taxes and Tithes

So I have been watching the ongoing debate around solutions to our current "debt crisis" and amidst the frustrating rhetoric and political machinations it has occurred to me that maybe Washington DC is not really the source of all our problems.  I am wondering if instead maybe we are.  What are our criticism of those in DC?  Usually we complain that they are self-motivated, out for themselves, not thinking of the greater good, etc.  Washington is full of corrupt individuals who have lost touch with the rest of us.  Is that the case, or do they actually more accurately reflect us? 

In 2008 Mike Huckabee made a big deal about a fund he had set up as governor.  Without be totally sure of the details it was basically a chance for people to pay more in taxes than required if they wanted to.  He used this to illustrate the fact that no one wants to pay more in taxes, since the fund only got a few thousand dollars in it.  While I think he used it for political showmanship, I think there is actually something more to this.  Why was no one willing to put a few extra dollars in their annual envelop to the government?  When things are tough financial at church we ask people to give a little more and usually people find ways to help out, whether it is for unexpected building repairs, to help out with a need in the community, or even just to deal with a church's "budget deficit problem."  I think there are two reasons for this; we don't feel like our contribution would make a difference towards a tax problem and also we are not convinced others would do their part as well.  There is a third reason, which is that we are not convinced that the government would spend the money responsibly, but while there is some truth to that, I feel like it is also something of an excuse.

In the end I think many, if not all of us, act with our own self-interests when it comes to taxes.  We don't want to pay more than we have to and we want others to pay their fair share.  There were two main arguments against raising taxes on the wealthy in Minnesota.  One was that it was an example of "class warfare" ... making others pay instead of us.  The second reason was that the rich would simply leave the state if we taxed them more.  So excuse number one was we were being selfish in just wanting to tax the rich and not ourselves.  The second excuse was that the rich were selfish and would look for a cheaper state to live in.  So is it just the politicians in Washington who are greedy and self-motivated, or is it really all of us?

If taxes were like giving in the church, how much would you give?  What value do you place in your government?  Would taxes end up being like the tithe is today ... we all know we should give 10% but on average most church goers give far less.  Would we end up doing the same with taxes, giving a fraction of what each of us really needs to give to have our government do what we need/want/hope for it to do.  Maybe government has gotten too big.  Not in the traditional sense that people mean when they say that, but so big that we lose track of it.  We dehumanize it, thinking of those involved as mindless or selfish, forgetting what it is that government does to help each of us.  What if we started thinking of our taxes as what we give to make our nation great, to help it truly be the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Would that help us each April when it comes time to right the check?  Maybe not, but I think it is worth thinking about.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How Do You Tip? (and why?)

I have been doing several different pre-marital session in the last couple of weeks as I prepare for some fall weddings.  One of the handouts I use talks about the different ways that we value money.  These are money as security, money as prestige, money as enjoyment, and money as control.  While I can respect why it is that people value money for the first three, the last one, money as control, strikes me as a bad thing.  Using wealth as a way to exert influence over someone just feels wrong to me.  It goes against that fundamental notion that we are meant to have free will.  Once we start seeking to control others, we remove some of that freedom.

I ran into an interesting experience of this today as I was dining out for lunch.  I had finished my meal and was waiting to pay for it.  The server had dropped of the bill and then disappeared.  I quickly got out my card and waited to give it back.  Several minutes later I was still waiting.  As the time passed and my server clearly remained busy with other tables, I became more frustrated.  One of my first thoughts was to tip less because of the lack of service.  In a very small way (a dollar difference) I was planning to use my money to influence the behavior, to reward, or in this case punish behavior.  As I wrestled with my emotions it cause me to wonder if it was a good thing or a bad thing to see money as a form of control, and whether any control could really be a good means to an end.

What are we trying to accomplish when we tip?  Are we seeking to reward good service? (A way of thanking the server for a good meal/experience) Are we giving money in hopes of influencing future good actions?  (We tip well now hoping to get even better service the next time.)  Are we simply tipping out of social necessity?  (Since in general restaurants do not pay their servers enough to really survive with out tips.)  Is tipping just another way we use our money to exercise power and control?  As my brain tries to work this one out I come out with unsatisfactory answers on either side.  Using money to control actions seems wrong, but at the same time, isn't that exactly what we do every day when we buy food, pay our bills, and participate in any other part of the service based economy?  Is the real issue with money that how each of us has is so imbalanced, so that a server at a restaurant has to work hard for each dollar that others of us have to give away at our leisure?  Though maybe the real question is why I still cannot type restaurant correctly? (thank you spell checking)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Thoughts on Compromise

As someone living in Minnesota who likes football I am confronted daily with three great examples of the challenges of compromise, the NFL Lock-out, a shutdown state government, and a national government heading towards a self-created show-down.  Personally I find the last one the most frustrating because the only reason we have the problem is the same people who cannot decide on whether to raise our debt limit already voted to spend the money.  The state government can blame conflicting messages from voters and the NFL is doing the time honored thing of fighting as hard as possible to get as much as possible.  Regardless they all are great examples of the challenges of compromise.

As the "peace-maker" second child I think I am partially wired towards finding compromise. (as a note to my family who might be reading this, I am not claiming I actually am good at making peace, just that studies tend to say that the second child often falls into that role, I probably also create my own share of conflict as well)  The question comes however, when is compromise a good thing and when is it not.  Are there times that it is better for there to be some conflict, some struggle, in order to work out a solution?  Are there things you simply cannot compromise on?  At least on the national level there seems to be a race to stake out clear uncompromising positions on various issues such as taxes and entitlements before any negotiating actually occurs.  This seems to go against the ideas of compromise.  If you sit down convinced you cannot change your mind, what is the point of negotiation?

Where I get stuck in all of this is between what I think are two equally compelling realities.  As a Christian I have strong opinions informed by my faith.  For example I believe we are called to help the marginalized, the poor, the sick, those in prison, etc and that this call is made quite clear as a key part of what Christ wants us to do.  So I would personally be prone to calling that an uncompromising position.  I would also consider equal treatment for everyone to be a similar position.  So what happens if I were to have to negotiate with someone who did not share my values?  Should I simply refuse to budge, trusting in my reading of scripture and my faith in what God's call for the world is?  Or should I be willing to give up on some of my principles so long as they are giving up on theirs as well?

I think the danger comes when we see everything as zero sum, win or lose, yes or no.  True compromise comes when we see each others' points of view, when we understand where the other person is coming from.  Then it stops being about who wins and loses but how we all succeed, how we all win.  Personally I found the best way to do this is through patience and through prayer.  I have been in numerous tense situations in meeting where people of different opinions fought unyielding over issues.  Things worked out better when we were able to pray together, to break bread together, to worship together, to be reminded that in spite of our differences we really are all the same.  Will that really solve all our problems, maybe, but even if it doesn't it seems like a necessary step to reaching a compromise, something which is good for all of us.