Sunday, February 27, 2022

I didn't like it, but I did it

I often quote what Preacher Mapple told the whaling sailors before they went to sea in Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Paraphrasing for brevity, he said that the things God wants us to do are hard to do, which is why God commands us rather than tries to persuade us. But to obey God we must first disobey ourselves, and we mistake the difficulty of disobeying ourselves with the hardness of obeying God. 

And we should recall that Jesus said, "My burden is easy and my yoke is light." 

All that said, at church this morning a member informed me that Russian President Vladimir Putin has started rattling Russia's nuclear weapons. The BBC reports,

President Putin’s announcement that he is putting Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert has been condemned in the strongest terms by the US.

Pentagon officials say it is an unnecessary step and a dangerous escalation that raises the stakes of a miscalculation.

Elsewhere, it was reported that Putin blamed the "high alert" on threatening statements against Russia made by NATO leaders. And how many such statements have there actually been. Zero, that's how many. So President Biden's press secretary, Jen Psaki, was exactly right this morning

President Vladimir Putin's order to put Russian nuclear forces on high alert is part of a pattern of Moscow manufacturing threats to justify aggression, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Sunday.

"We've seen him do this time and time again. At no point has Russia been under threat from NATO, has Russia been under threat from Ukraine," Psaki said on ABC's "This Week" program.

"This is all a pattern from President Putin and we're going to stand up to it. We have the ability to defend ourselves, but we also need to call out what we're seeing here from President Putin," Psaki added.

After the church member told me about this news, I grabbed a moment to read about it on my smart phone. Now I have to say that during my military career, I served as a nuclear target analyst and as a commander and then operations officer in two units with nuclear capability, for which I also had special training, especially in receiving, decrypting, and handling Nuclear Control Orders, for which standards are extremely strict. In both those assignments, I - or anyone occupying those positions - would have been a central figure in firing atomic warheads. I point this out to buttress why Putin's order is very scary. There is zero reason for Putin to feel Russia is under threat from NATO or anyone else, and announcing such a reason for placing nukes in high alert - whatever that actually means in the Russian status - makes me wonder whether Putin has turned into a nut case losing grip on reality. (Some Euro observers have also wondered that and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said much the same thing this morning. Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this morning and said Putin is "unhinged.") 

So when we reached the time for prayer concerns in this morning's worship, I knew that Jesus was not joking when he commanded us in Matthew 5, "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... ." I knew we had to pray for Putin. 

But I confess I did not want to do it, that I would rather pray about Putin than for him, like this: "O Lord, may you swallow him in the earth and commit him to the fires of hell." But of course, I could not do that and be loyal either to my identity as a disciple or to my vows as an ordained minister. After all, we are instructed, 

  • "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them." (Rom. 12.14)
  • God himself "is kind to the ungrateful and the evil." (Luke 6.35)
  • "As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live." Ezekiel 33:11
So I knew that I would indeed have to pray for, not against, Putin. But in this I remembered what my friend Rabbi Daniel Jackson wrote me about the commandment, citing its verses in Proverbs 25.21-22:

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
    and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
for you will heap burning coals on his head,
    and the Lord will reward you.

Rabbi Daniel explained to me that of course, one may interpret the first verse literally - if your enemy is physically hungry, give him a meal, if physically thirsty, give him water. But the second verse is a key that literalism is not the only way to read this. After all, you will not literally heap burning coals upon your enemy's head, nor is that a metaphor for discomfiting your enemy so much by your kindness that he will metaphorically be that uncomfortable in reaction. 

Instead, Daniel cited multiple Scripture where the image of burning coals being poured over one's head refers to the certain judgment of God. If there are coals to be poured, Daniel explained, make sure you do the righteous things necessary to avoid them. The hunger, then, refers to a spiritual emptiness that you try to fill with the bread of life - for Jews, it means the Word of God, the witness of the Tanak; for Christians it means that also, plus the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. And the same meaning for the water to drink. 

So, how then to pray for Vladimir Putin? I could do nothing except pray for the grace of God to fall upon him and for the Holy Spirit to lead him and give him clarity of understanding, to turn his purposes to righteous endeavors, to bring him to lay aside the sword and embrace the cross. More specific than that I dared not. The many blanks are ably filled in by God.

And for the record, I also prayed for President Biden and the leaders of our and NATO governments. For this is also commanded by our Lord. And the people of Ukraine were at the top of our list today. 

God bless them, every one. 

Monday, February 14, 2022

How taxes work

Came across this in my archives. A friend emailed this to me in 2003. It was purportedly by T. Davies, a professor of accounting at the University of South Dakota. I did then confirm, back then, that a man named Tom Davies with accounting credentials taught at the school; whether he was the author of the essay below seems reasonable but not certain. But it is an interesting analogy of the tax systems and tax cuts.

Let's put tax cuts in terms everyone can understand. Suppose that every day, ten men go out for dinner. The bill for all ten comes to $100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this: The first four men - the poorest - would pay nothing; the fifth would pay $1, the sixth would pay $3, the seventh $7, the eighth $12, the ninth $18, and the tenth man - the richest - would pay $59. That's what they decided to do. The ten men ate dinner in the restaurant every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement - until one day, the owner threw them a curve (in tax language, a tax cut).

"Since you are all such good customers," he said, "I'm going to reduce the cost of your daily meal by $20." So now dinner for the ten only cost $80.

The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes. So the first four men were unaffected. They would still eat for free. But what about the other six men who actually pay the bill? How could they divvy up the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his "fair share?" The six men realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody's share, the fifth and sixth man would end up being paid to eat their meal. So the restaurant owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man's bill by roughly the same amount and he proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay. And so the fifth man paid nothing, the sixth pitched in $2, and the seventh paid $5, the eighth paid $9, the ninth paid $12, leaving the tenth man with a bill of $52 instead of his earlier $59.

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to eat for free. But once outside the restaurant, the men began to compare their savings. "I only got a dollar out of the $20," declared the sixth man, but he, (pointing to the tenth) got $7!" "Yeah, that's right," exclaimed the fifth man, "I only saved a dollar too. It's unfair that he got seven times more than me!" "That's true!" shouted the seventh man, why should he get $7 back when I only got $2?" "The wealthy get all the breaks!"

"Wait a minute," yelled the first four men in unison, "We didn't get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!"

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up. The next night he didn't show up for dinner, so the nine sat down and ate without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered, a little late what was very important. They were fifty-two dollars short of paying the bill!

Imagine that!

And that, boys and girls, journalists and college instructors, is how the tax system works. The people who pay the highest taxes get the most benefit from a tax reduction. Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up at the table anymore. 

After all, no one is obligated to become a millionaire. I remember attending a ministerial conference where at lunch, another pastor sitting across the table from me said that the income-tax rate should be 100 percent of all income, however received, of more than $1 million. I said nothing, but wanted to point out that all that would do is guarantee that no one would make more than $1 million. 

It is a political slogan today that "the rich should pay their fair share." Of course, the politicians saying this never - and I mean never - define what is a fair share except that it always means "more." But here are inconvenient facts

  1. The people who have more income per year than 99 percent of Americans - this makes them the fabled one percent - collectively account for 20 percent of all income earned by all Americans. 

    1. So, if they are to pay their "fair share," would that not mean the one percent would pay 20 percent of all federal income taxes? 

    2. But in fact, the one percent pay 40 percent of all income taxes. 
  2. The top 0.1 percent of earners paid 20 percent of all income taxes. That is a greater sum than the bottom 75 percent of all taxpayers. 
  3. "It is hard to say that the tax code is rigged in favor of the rich when more than 53 million taxpayers, more than one-third of all taxpayers, have no income tax liability because of the numerous credits and deductions that have been created or expanded in recent decades." And the number of Form 1040 filers who have zero tax to pay has increased from 23.6 percent in 1997 to to more than 34 percent today. 

Then there is the question of the value of federal benefits tax filers receive in comparison to the amount of tax they pay. Or, for every $1 a tax payer pays, what is the value of federal benefits received? And here is the answer:

The CBO data indicates that redistribution reduced the incomes of households in the top 1 percent by more than one-third, while lifting the incomes of households in the lowest quintile by 126 percent, those in the second quintile by 46 percent, and those in the middle quintile by 10 percent. Those are the results that you would expect from a highly progressive fiscal system.

I am not saying this is wrong. I am saying that anyone who claims that the rich (which of course, always means "other people") should pay their fair share might want to understand what their share is to begin with. 

BTW, over the years in no few discussions with others about this topic, I have asked the "fair share" proponents whether they thought they, themselves, personally paid too little in taxes. In other words, I challenged them to say whether they were personally paying their fair share. Not one progressive has ever answered that they thought their own tax rate should be increased. It was always other people whom they demanded be taxed more.

Closing thoughts:

In large measure, the federal revenue system is designed to transfer money from the top half to the bottom half. The federal government really is a money-distribution organization. We govern ourselves by the way we spend each others' money. How much gets spent and for what is determined by how much agreement can be reached by a majority. But whether Left or Right, whether Democrat or Republican, the only real questions of American government and governance are, "Who will be be the beneficiaries of government spending? How much shall we exact from the public for it, and by what means?"

During the 1980s, the Grace Commission was formed by President Reagan to examine to where tax revenues disappear inside the great government money maw. The commission reported that none of the money collected by income taxes paid for services. All income-tax revenue serviced the national debt. The commission said that one third of income taxes,

. . . is consumed by waste and inefficiency in the Federal Government as we identified in our survey. Another one-third of all their taxes escapes collection from others as the underground economy blossoms in direct proportion to tax increases and places even more pressure on law abiding taxpayers, promoting still more underground economy - a vicious cycle that must be broken.

With two-thirds of everyone's personal income taxes wasted or not collected, 100 percent of what is collected is absorbed solely by interest on the Federal debt and by Federal Government contributions to transfer payments. In other words, all individual income tax revenues are gone before one nickel is spent on the services which taxpayers expect from their government.

Link to the full text of the report is here.

Rethinking Marriage

What the Christian religion has to do with marriage is a huge subject, so at best this is an overview. I call it Rethinking Marriage becaus...