Friday, October 7, 2016

Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, and the Forty-Seven Percent

When Mitt Romney spoke about the "forty-seven percent," 
I doubt that he had Donald Trump in mind.
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
James 2:1-4

We tend to favor the rich.

And we have always favored the rich.

The biblical witness, on the other hand, consistently presents an alternative vision. From the Torah through the prophets, to Jesus and the early church, the Bible argues against our bias.

The poor, says the Bible, are blessed by God precisely because they are not blessed by us.

Four years ago Mitt Romney translated our bias into political language when he made his famous observation about the forty-seven percent of Americans who paid no income tax and would vote for President Obama because they were dependent on government. This was his analysis:
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, he starts off with a huge number.
“These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. So he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people.
“I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not.”
Romney made two claims in his analysis. First he claimed that the 47 percent who pay no income tax are “dependent upon government.” And second, he claimed that because they are dependent on the government they will vote for the politicians, like President Obama, who support the programs on which they depend.

Both claims are mistaken.

About half of those who pay no income tax are working people whose incomes are so low (typically below $27,000) that they do not owe any income tax. They do pay other taxes (Social Security, Medicare, excise taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes), but they do not pay income tax. Some receive government benefits and others do not. Others who pay no income tax are seniors on Social Security and those whose deductions and credits eliminate their tax liability.

The forty-seven percent do not vote as a block. Nearly half of them typically vote for Republican candidates. The ten states with the highest percentage of individuals and families owing no federal income tax all traditionally vote Republican, and conversely all of the ten states with the lowest percentage of those with no tax liability typically vote Democratic.

Apparently, Donald Trump is one of the estimated 7,000 families and individuals making more than a million dollars per year and not paying any federal income tax. In Mr. Trump’s case it is possible that he has not paid income tax in nearly two decades.

What is most striking in this is that our reaction to a rich person paying no taxes is so very different from what we think when a poor person is doing the same thing. The rich person, we think, is smart. The poor person is characterized as a freeloader.

A friend who works in a very lucrative field and is very good at what he does observed that, “It’s amazing; when you’re rich everybody wants to give you stuff.”

Sometimes the free stuff is given in the hope that the rich person will buy an expensive car or house or boat. Other times the free stuff comes along because rich people are friends with other rich people who give them the use of a yacht or a summer home.

When a poor person gets something for free, we worry that they will become “dependent.” When a rich person gets something for free we somehow think they have earned it.

At some point, if we are Christians we need to ask ourselves the biblical question, “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?"

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