The Catholic Thing
Statecraft, Soulcraft, and the Politics of Envy Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 08 July 2011

Suppose a politician suggests that increasing the sales tax on yachts and private jets from 8 percent to 25 percent will increase government revenues that will only affect the wealthy (who can afford it). So with this increased revenue the government may provide financial assistance to other citizens, including college students, the poor, and public employees. Imagine that this policy is implemented but the politican’s prediction does not come to pass.

What happens is that the demand for luxury items decreases (since some of the “rich” are not “filthy rich”), the prices for these items are lowered in order to increase the demand, and the luxury item manufacturers, distributors and retailers fire a large number of their workers since their employers can no longer afford their salaries. Moreover, those that benefited directly and indirectly from the sale and use of luxury items were harmed as well.

For the tax increase resulted in decreasing sales of fuel, life vests, parachutes, cleaning articles, alcohol, first aid kits, bait and tackle, and all sorts of other items. Yacht and private jet mechanics had less work, and thus less business and thus less income. So, what the tax increase did was not “soak the rich,” but, paradoxically, it resulted in less tax revenue for the government, since it helped facilitate a decline in sales by artificially increasing the cost of the items, and because it created unemployed workers who no longer paid taxes and less prosperous businesses that paid fewer taxes.

I bring this narrative to your attention because of something President Obama asserted at his June 30 conference: “If we do not have revenues, that means there are a bunch of kids out there who do not have college scholarships. . . .[It] might compromise the National Weather Services. It means we might not be funding critical medical research. It means food inspection might be compromised. I’ve said to Republican leaders, ‘You go talk to your constituents and ask them, Are you willing to compromise your kids’ safety so some corporate-jet owner can get a tax break?’”

The president implied that the elimination of a tax break for corporate jets is a zero-sum game with only an up side, and that up side helps those who are not as well-off as those who procure the services of corporate air transportation. (And he left aside the fact that all but three Republicans in Congress voted against the legislation that granted the tax break while those in his own party supported it in large numbers.)

       Soak the rich? The people who make private jets aren’t wealthy.

It seems to me that any elected official who presents a contested public issue in such an unsophisticated and simplistic manner, and in the framework of class warfare, does not truly care for the people for whose good he was elected to advance. For no one, least of all a statesman, is ever justified in appealing to the lesser angels of our nature, since to do so elicits and exacerbates the sorts of vices – e.g., envy, jealousy, covetousness – that if left unchecked contribute to the diminishing of our characters. So, when the President engages in such rhetoric, he either knows that it is bad and thus shows contempt for his fellow citizens, or he thinks that it is good and thus reveals that he is ignorant of the requirements of statecraft.

What’s more, the president does not seem to understand, among other things, how wealth is created, how markets work, what sorts of government policies increase jobs, and what type of monetary policy produces inflation (which hurts the poor since it increases the money supply while decreasing the value of that money, just as counterfeiting does when practiced by private individuals).

And even if one were to master these aspects of political economy, it does not mean that one will know precisely what government policy is best. One also needs to have an understanding of human nature and what sorts of social institutions and practices make poverty less likely. For this reason, some political economists argue that the government should also be making sure that its policies do not undermine or interfere with certain institutions, practices, and beliefs that flourish in economically prosperous communities, for example, intact families, an educated public, a commitment to the common good, and a strong belief in the moral law.

It has been well documented, for example, that the U.S. government’s now defunct (1935-1997) Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), though intended to provide financial help to single mothers below the poverty line, actually resulted in a dramatic increase in out-of-wedlock births and fatherless homes. Because the government, according to AFDC critics, was literally paying women for having children out of wedlock, it got what it paid for. But it got more social pathologies and thus more poverty as well. 

In 1996, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, in cooperation with a Republican Congress, signed legislation that ended AFDC and replaced it with a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Although many critics of President Clinton’s welfare reform in 1996 predicted dire consequences for the poor, in 2006 the liberal magazine The New Republic pointed out, “A broad consensus now holds that welfare reform was certainly not a disaster – and that it may, in fact, have worked much as its designers had hoped.”

It turns that Aristotle was right: statecraft is soulcraft. And demagoguery remains the same in whatever century it is used.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, and Resident Scholar in the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University. His most recent book is Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft

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Comments (16)Add Comment
written by James, July 08, 2011
Thank you. This a great analysis of the faulty welfare state and the politics of class warfare. In addition, the socialist derision is aimed at human achievement itself. The fact that we're able to perfect these thing, whether it's an airplane engine or a nautical vessel, Is part of God's blessings on our nation. The socislist wants to throw them back in the name of compassion.

written by Mark, July 08, 2011
The most recent tax breaks for corporate jets were signed into law by President Obama himself.
written by Yezhov, July 08, 2011
I can't imagine that it makes any difference to Obama (whose African socialist father believed in 100% taxation!), but envy is one of the seven deadly sins. Encouraging such, one will share in the merits of its perpetrators.
written by Other Joe, July 08, 2011
Corporate jets are used to put decision makers where the action is. The livelihoods of thousands depend on the outcome of those decisions. Nancy Pelosi wasn't content with a corporate jet and demanded an airliner to be set aside for her personal use to fly home on weekends. The president's family and friends have the use of various aircraft including Air Force 2, a 747 to fly around the world on vacations. No one mentions them. Who - in a just society - should have access to the tools of efficiency? Is it the government’s job to define allowable levels of luxury for their subjects (how we can spend our own money) while jetting about like royalty? Aside from the hypocrisy, which is now so common as to become invisible in its ubiquity, there is basic fairness (morality) involved.
written by Grump, July 08, 2011
Maybe if Obama could get some of the 47% of people in this country to pay taxes, there would be no budget gap. Plus, a trillion+ saved from prosecuting 5 unjust wars would go a long way toward balancing the budget.

Memo to Obama: I'm available as an economic consultant for low six figures with modest perks. RSVP Grump, c/o TCT.
written by Trish, July 08, 2011
Mr. Obama needs to take a lesson from the rich he's attemptimg to soak. After all, few rich people got rich just by inheriting all their wealth. Many rich folks have worked hard to earn their money, saved hard to keep it, and managed their money well to make it grow. The same thing needs to be done with the bugdet -- why soak the rich to pay for the government's poor management of tax money when it would make much more sense to manage the money better in the first place? You know, the same ol' tighten-the-belt routine that every responsible household has gone through to get through the bad economy. Why should the government be any different?

And you know what, Mr. Obama? Why should everyone get a scholarship for college, anyway? What's so wrong with having to pay one's own way? I never got one, and you know what? I worked hard a full-time job and put myself through school part-time in the evenings. Sure, it took longer than the standard four years, but so what? I still have my degree, and I probably appreciate it much more than my peers who got scholarships. Scholarships are PRIVILEGES, not rights. And that's really a huge problem in our country. We all think we're entitled to things that have long been considered privileges.
written by Ray Hunkins, July 08, 2011
You are spot on Professor. Good job! No one should be surprised by the naivete`of President Obama - he is without experience in the private sector. It is time we looked for adults with real life experience in other than the public sector to fill leadership positions at all levels of government.Professional politicians NO! Citizens on loan to the government YES! Mr. Smith, it's time to go back to Washington!
written by jsmitty, July 08, 2011
it's you actually think these special tax breaks are a good idea because they create jobs for airplane mechanics or not? Or is your point only that you don't like Obama's rhetoric (the sort of which every politician sooner or later indulges in)

And the segue to welfare reform which has nothing to do with the current debate over the tax code or Obama was truly strange.

Perhaps you could have instead told us "how wealth is created, how markets work, what sorts of government policies increase jobs, and what type of monetary policy produces inflation."

I would have liked to have heard your explanation of this...seriously!!!

Because no one really seems to know this...after 8 mediocre years under Bush (in which any gains were wiped out by the recession in 2007-08) or the two less than mediocre years under Obama), it turns out that we know alot less about these things than we think. It's starting to look like macroeconomic performance has alot less to do with airplane tax credits and presidential rhetoric than we think. A bit more humility and less asperity would have been in order.
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
written by TIDEferrari racing,palm beach.Robyn Lyle,Rebecca Cummings., July 08, 2011
Tax the nuvo fake churches & keep the time hornored real ones FOUNDED BEFORE 1880.
written by Cavaliere, July 10, 2011
I agree with your article up to a point. Sure that multi-millionare spending money on big ticket items can help the economy. Unfortunately too often the scenario goes something like this. The head of corporation X makes a deal to sell off part of the company and as a result sees his income/worth rise from $1 million to $10 million and he buys a bigger yacht. Too bad he laid off 10 division heads in the process who were all making $250K a year. Those 10 execs could have each bought a $50K boat and lets assume 8-10 life jackets apiece. Now thats 80-100 life jackets produced which creates a better boon to the economy than the multi-millionare who bought the yacht who I really doubt is going to buy the same amount of jackets for his boat. Also I would bet a large percentage of his boat will be built with expensive components which although they might generate more sale tax generally won't require a large number of workers.

In simpler terms the economy will do better with 10 individuals making $100K than 1 making a million because more of the money from the 10 workers will go back into the economy. Really rich people like their money and aren't often the consumers we like to think they are.
written by El Gringo Grande, July 10, 2011
Nice article, designed to appeal to rich "Christians" who will undoubtedly give more generously to the church.
Class warfare? Get serious. Dozens of studies have shown that income among the wealthiest 5% of the population has increased 40% since 1979, the middle class income is stagnant, and the poorest 10% have seen their wealth decrease. Your viewpoint is derived from 30 years of successful class warfare against the poor and middle class.
Oh, think of the workers who polish the gold fixtures on my yacht? Are you from this planet, or are you just visiting? I couldn't give a rats behind about the workers who won't have jobs installing gold fixtures.
And your expertise in economics is what, exactly?
I would have liked Obama to instead focus on what our current tax structure is doing: Creating a permanent ruling class of the uber-wealthy. Economic disparity between the rich and poor is equivalent to that of the era of the robber barons, and you are championing the cause of the wealthy? Spouting their nonsense? You are a pharisee, and I regard you with the same disdain as held by Jesus. Shame on you.
written by InnocentUntilProvenGuilty, July 11, 2011
Even if welfare reform worked as intended, as stated in the article, it was still a violation of innocent until proven guilty, and was therefore TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE.

In the wake of the Great Recession, I must ABSOLUTELY INSIST that from now on, the benefit of the doubt be given to ALL the economically marginalized. More specifically, I must ABSOLUTELY INSIST that innocent until proven guilty apply to ALL the poor and unemployed. In other words, ALL poor people MUST be presumed to be deserving of help if there is no contrary proof. Also, I must ABSOLUTELY INSIST on an IMMEDIATE end to the presumption that the unemployed are personally to blame for their situation. Even if some poor and unemployed are lazy, we have ABSOLUTELY NO RIGHT to presume guilt that has not been proved, especially during a recession.

Besides, I cannot believe that laziness is serious enough to warrant capital punishment. The deliberate denial of the basic necessities of life to someone because of behavior is a form of capital punishment. As long as tax dollars are being spent on life sentences for convicted murderers and to stop prison inmates from committing suicide, the taxpayer cost of welfare is simply not a valid excuse for not having it. The needs of non-criminals ought to have priority over the needs of proven criminals here, especially for crimes as serious as murder.

Regardless of personal behavior, it is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE to deny to anyone else rights that even convicted criminals, including convicted murderers, have. After all, convicted criminals, including convicted murderers, have not behaved properly by definition. If it is legitimate to make certain rights contingent on proper behavior, we ought to deny those rights to convicted criminals FIRST, especially for crimes as serious as murder.
written by AbortionGreaterEvil, July 11, 2011
"Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), though intended to provide financial help to single mothers below the poverty line, actually resulted in a dramatic increase in out-of-wedlock births."

It would be a much greater evil if any of those babies were aborted. Preventing abortion must have first priority here. Therefore, any politician who complains about out-of-wedlock pregnancies and childbirths automatically disqualifies himself/herself from being pro-life.

More generally, any penalties whatsoever for pregnancy, childbirth, or single motherhood are pro-abortion. In other words, any restigmatizing of out-of-wedlock pregnancies is pro-abortion. Again, abortion is a much greater evil. Working families have dependency exemptions and child tax credits to help with child raising.

Why can't we use abstinence education to deal with the problems above? Why can't we let God worry about punishment for immoral sexual activity here? Why can't we, at least, limit punishment for immoral sexual activity to cases without pregnancy, so as to avoid the danger of abortion? Why can't we, at least, wait until after outlawing abortion to deal with the problem of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and childbirths?

Honestly opposing abortion requires putting up with out-of-wedlock pregnancies, childbirths, and single motherhood. I believe a majority of women who have abortions are unmarried. Again, preventing abortion must have first priority here.
written by Micha Elyi, October 30, 2011
"Honestly opposing abortion requires putting up with out-of-wedlock pregnancies, childbirths, and single motherhood."-AbortionGreaterEvil

Still, we do not have to put up with so much of it. For example, we don't have to pretend unwed motherhood is acceptable. Most unwed motherhood would be curtailed by the simple expedients of either placing babies born to unwed mothers straight into sealed-record adoption or putting them into the sole custody of the father.

The first unwed teen who, after a pregnancy, returns to school and her girlfriends wailing "they took my bay-bee!!" will be a powerful deterrent to every other girl in town who's been imagining what it would be like to play house with a real live baby she could exploit as a love object.
written by TJ McGrath, January 03, 2012
Dear Mr Beckwith:
What would Jesus think of corporate jets?.....
What would he think of the Vatican?
Finally two words: birth control
Climb down from your ivory tower, Francis!

How much did the Pope's Bruno Magli shoes cost?
between $350 to $600!
Mamma Mia!....Jesus weeps
I would gladly debate you on any of your issues.

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