Applying Biblical Economics

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson speaks during the Freedom Summit in Greenville, South Carolina May 9, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Keane

U.S. presidential candidate Ben Carson recently announced that, as a Christian, he is in favour of a simple “flat tax” based on the biblical system of tithing to replace the present convoluted American tax code.

It is not often that one finds a conservative Republican politician speaking in favor of a massive redistribution of wealth – from the business sector, the “job creators,” to those receiving entitlements, the “takers” to use a current political expression.

So what was actually involved in the biblical principle of tithing, and how would it apply today?

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1) The economy of ancient Israel was agrarian, and the tithe was calculated as one tenth of the total produce from the land (grain and fruit as well as their manufactured by-products, e.g., wine and olive oil) and one tenth of the annual offspring of the flocks (Lev. 27:30-33).

Applying the principle to today’s diversified economy, the tithe would include a broader list of things produced from the land, i.e., not only through agriculture but also through resource extraction, manufacturing and so on.

2) It is important to note that the biblical tithe did not represent one tenth of the landowners’ net profits, but a tenth of their total gross production.

Applying this to our present situation, the latest estimate of America’s current Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is $17,985 trillion. A flat tax tithing system would yield just under $1.8 trillion in tax dollars annually.

3) In the biblical system only the landowners (the producers) paid the tithe. Merchants (selling the produce) and labourers (hired to facilitate production) did not owe a tithe.

Under the current system of taxation, it is projected that the total federal and state tax payable by the corporate sector will be $396 billion for 2015. Based on a GDP of $17,985 trillion, corporate taxes would need to go up by 454% to meet the tax levies required under a biblical tithe. Individual taxes on the other hand (currently at $1.818 trillion) would be greatly reduced.

4) What was the tithe used for? In ancient times the tithe supported the priestly class of Levites (who were landless), resident foreigners, orphans and widows (those who had inadequate means for supporting themselves) (Deut. 14:29).

Today the tithe would pay “entitlement” benefits to the elderly, the disabled, the poor and the unemployed (those who do not have the means for adequately supporting themselves).

In keeping with the original purpose of the tithe, revenues for defence, protection services, transportation, infrastructure, education, administration, debt servicing, etc., would need to be collected separately. In the 2015 U.S. budget those costs total $1.868 trillion.

Both individual and corporate taxpayers share in financing these services today. These costs would, therefore, further increase the total taxes to be paid by the corporate sector under a biblical flat tax tithe.

Although Ben Carson says he supports the biblical flat tax system of the tithe, I am not so sure he has thought through the full financial implications of such a taxation model. It is doubtful that the business community would back such a proposition, although individual taxpayers may welcome the corporate sector shouldering a larger share of the total tax burden.

The massive redistribution of wealth produced by a flat tax tithe on production would undoubtedly have major consequences for the American economy. But is it really the kind of tax reform that conservatives are seeking?

Oh … one more thing.

Immediately after prescribing the annual collection of the tithe in Deuteronomy 14, the text continues with the requirement that every seven years all outstanding debts are to be cancelled (Deut. 15:1-2). Applying this biblical principle to our modern economic system would, of course, quickly collapse the banking sector and financially ruin all those who invest in bank stocks, mortgage securities and bonds.

So perhaps one should think twice about applying biblical economic models to modern society. These principles may sound appealing to religious conservatives but are they practical when applied to modern economies?

That might be something else for Ben Carson to consider.

Photo credit: Reuters/Chris Keane

The Demise of Moderate Republicans

A friend of mine recently stated that in their view,

There are many moderate Republicans in our government now. And there are also some conservatives. Some of them are running for president, but the majority in my opinion, are what I would call moderate.

As one who has extensively studied American political history, I would have to strongly disagree. Political ideology has moved further and further to the right over the decades. While moderate and even progressive views were once dominant in Republican circles, today they can scarcely be found.

The Progressive Republican Legacy

Teddy RooseveltA century ago the Republican Party had a vibrant progressive wing led by Theodore Roosevelt. After Roosevelt became president in 1901 following the assassination of President McKinley, he quickly established himself with his “Square Deal” platform as an avid trust-buster waging war on corporate power, and a committed conservationist.

Teddy Roosevelt served two terms as president, winning a strong majority in the 1904 election. When his successor, William Taft, elected in 1908, turned out to be not as progressive in his policies as Roosevelt had hoped, Roosevelt ran against him in 1912 on the “Bull Moose” ticket.

His party platform called for (among other things) strict limits on campaign contributions, a system of social insurance for the elderly, the unemployed and the disabled, minimum wage laws and an eight-hour work day, women’s suffrage, an inheritance tax, and a constitutional amendment to allow an income tax.

Woodrow Wilson was the Democratic nominee in 2012, and as Jules Whitcover reports in his book, Party of the People, “The campaign [soon] became a contest between the two [Roosevelt and Wilson] to claim the progressive mantle” (p. 308).

It seems remarkable to me that a century ago Republicans and Democrats were in an all-out contest to determine which had the most progressive policies. But that was then, and this is now.

The Progressive movement, which had split from the Republican Party, was quite widespread a century ago. Wikipedia reports that 21 Republican candidates ran as Progressives for state governorships in the 1912 campaign and over 200 Progressives ran for seats in the House of Representatives. A large number of candidates, many of them women, ran for House seats as Progressives in 1914, and again in 1916.

By 1918 the Progressives had rejoined the Republican Party seeking to influence it from within. It is a remarkable history, but one that seems totally foreign to the political landscape today.

The Moderate Republican Legacy

The socially progressive New Deal policies of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (a distant relation to Teddy Roosevelt) helped America recover from the Great Depression in the 1930s, and the Democratic Party enjoyed overwhelming electoral success into the 1940s.

Thomas DeweyIn light of this reality, a platform of moderate policies represented the best foundation for Republicans to regain their influence in American politics. The Moderate Republican element was strongest in the Northeastern states, especially New York. Thomas E. Dewey, the Governor of New York from 1942 to 1954 was the Republican presidential nominee in 1944 and 1948.

Nelson RockefellerThe movement’s best-known representative, however, was Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York from 1959 to 1973, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1960, 1964 and 1968, and served as Vice-President from 1974 to 1977 under President Gerald Ford.

Moderate Republicans supported many of the existing New Deal programs, although they remained critical of how they were managed. Rather than seeking to rescind them, they promised to run them more efficiently. Moderate Republicans supported limited government regulation of business and labor union rights. They supported large-scale spending on national infrastructure projects, the environment, healthcare and education. They took a liberal position on many social issues, and supported civil and voting rights for minorities.

Dwight EisenhowerEven Dwight Eisenhower, as president, recognized that it was in the party’s interest not to oppose popular New Deal programs. In 1956 he stated privately to his brother Edgar,

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.

Other Moderate Republicans of note were

  • Michigan Governor George W. Romney (1963-1969) – the father of Mitt Romney – who ran for the Republican presidential nomination against Richard Nixon in 1968 and later served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon administration
  • Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush (1952-1963) – father of George H. W. Bush; and
  • Mark O. Hatfield, Governor of Oregon (1959-1967) and U.S. Senator from Oregon (1967-1997).

Decline of Moderate Republicanism

Barry GoldwaterModerate Republicans suffered a major defeat in the 1964 campaign when the “New Right” movement took over the Republican primary process through a well-orchestrated grassroots campaign and nominated Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate.

He was defeated in one of the largest Democratic landslides in American history. I reported on these events in some detail in my previous blog “The Republican Party’s Shift to the Right.

What happened after that? The following brief statement by historian Geoffrey Kabaservice summarizes it quite well:

[M]oderates had lost the fight for the soul of the Republican Party by the end of the 1960s. They couldn’t match the organizational power or ideological passion of the party’s conservatives. While moderate Republicans continued to hold office, their numbers dwindled rapidly. And the party’s conservatives not only grew in number but in ideological vigor. Midterm sweeps in 1994 and 2010 hastened this lurch to the right.

A few Moderate Republicans have continued to serve in elected office into the 21st century – most notably

  • Senator Olympia Snowe, who retired in 2013
  • Senator Susan Collins
  • Jim Jeffords, who left the Republican Party in 2001 to sit as an Independent
  • former Senator and current Governor of Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee, who left the Republican Party to sit as an Independent in 2007 and is now running for President as a Democrat.

The number of currently serving Moderate Republicans is exceedingly small. A recent article in the Washington Post calls moderate Republicans “an endangered species.”

The New Norm

According to historical standards, there are very few moderate Republicans serving in government now. One can’t simply look at all Republican members, see who stands in the middle of the pack, and label that person a “moderate.” The vast majority of Republicans today are grouped at the conservative to extreme conservative end of the spectrum.

Political scientists have measured the relative liberalism and conservatism of both Democratic and Republican members of Congress over many years. Here is their latest tally for the House membership:

polar_house_extremists_2015

This chart clearly shows that from the beginning of the 20th century through the mid 1970s the vast majority of both Democrats and Republicans in the House held moderate views. (Note the chart displays the percentage whose views were non-centrist; from the mid-1930s onward it was less than 10%). In fact, there was a great deal of overlap in their positions.

Then, in 1976, about the time that Richard Nixon began to implement his “Southern Strategy” to bring southern conservative white voters into the Republican tent, the number of Republican House members holding non-centrist views began to climb. It accelerated through the Reagan years and has continued upward ever since, while the number of Democrats holding non-centrist views has remained roughly the same.

According to this chart, today, nine out of ten Republican House members hold extreme rather than moderate views, while nine out of ten House Democrats still fall within the moderate camp. Remember, we are talking about what fits the historical norm of being moderate.

So how does one explain the broadly held notion that although some Republicans may hold extreme right-wing views, the vast majority are “moderates” holding centrist views? The answer lies in what has come to define the “new normal” for core Republican values.

These core values are frequently summarized as follows:

Standing for smaller government, lower taxes, a strong military, pro-life policies, and traditional family values.

What many people do not realize is that some of these core values are quite new to Republican ideology. During the 2012 presidential campaign Mark Fisher penned an excellent column in the Washington Post outlining the shifts in Republican Party policy over the decades.

He notes that

Republican Platform Convention ribbon 1950The Republican Party, viewed through its quadrennial platform documents, is consistently business-oriented and committed to a strong defence, but has morphed over the past half-century from a socially moderate, environmentally progressive and fiscally cautious group to a conservative party that is suspicious of government, allied against abortion and motivated by faith.

He adds that “Many positions Republicans often tout as traditionally conservative are actually relatively new to GOP ideology.” For example,

The quest for lower taxes does not define Republicanism until the 1980s, and matters of faith play almost no role in the GOP’s plank until the 1990s.

The platforms of 1980 and 1992, he says, mark the party’s big pivots. He points out that

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the GOP platform includes vigorous support for an equal-rights amendment to protect women. Then, in 1980, the party stalemates: “We acknowledge the legitimate efforts of those who support or oppose ratification.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, the party positions itself as a strong advocate for D.C. voting rights, in the Senate as well as the House. Then, in 1980, all mention of voting rights vanishes; the subject has not appeared since.

The first appearance of the abortion issue represents a party very much split between business-oriented moderates and religious conservatives: Abortion “is undoubtedly a moral and personal issue” on which Republicans disagree, the 1976 plank says. Four years later, the issue has been settled: The GOP seeks a constitutional amendment protecting “the right to life for unborn children.”

The watershed platform of 1980 introduces tax cuts and an increasingly critical attitude toward government. “The Republican Party declares war on government overregulation,” it says.

Antipathy toward high taxes strengthens, resulting in 1992 in an explanation of how lowering taxes on the wealthy would lead to job creation, adding a simple declaration: “We will oppose any attempt to increase taxes.”

By 1992, “family values” become a major theme. The platform states that, “the media, the entertainment industry, academia and the Democrat Party are waging a guerrilla war against American values.”

The ’92 plank [contains] the first to mention same-sex relationships, rejects any recognition of gay marriage or allowing same-sex couples to adopt children or become foster parents.

What is significant about 1980 and 1992 as “watershed” years for Republican policy?

reagan_revolution_pop_art_design_print-p228888510838619878tdcp_40021980, of course, marks the beginning of the “Reagan Revolution,” in which Ronald Reagan (building upon Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”) focused on appealing, not to the educated professional class of moderate Republicans in New England’s traditional Republican stronghold, but to a new coalition group. It brought together ethnic blue-collar workers in the industrial states, rural farmers and ranchers in the Mid-west and Western states, and especially southern white voters opposed to desegregation and recent civil rights legislation passed by the Democrats.

Guided by a detailed policy manual developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation (their Mandate for Leadership, 1980), Reagan began implementing a radically new agenda of “supply-side economics,” reduced taxes, increased privatization, deregulation, union busting, and small government. According to the Heritage Foundation, “Nearly two-thirds of the 2,000 recommendations contained in Mandate were adopted by the Reagan administration.”

Bush-Clinton debate1992 marked the election contest between the incumbent Republican president George H. W. Bush and the Democratic contender Bill Clinton. Strong conservative opposition to Bush’s re-nomination (his main opponents, Pat Buchanan, David Duke, and Ron Paul, were far to his right) forced the Republican Party to incorporate many socially conservative planks into the party platform with a strong emphasis on “family values,”

Other sections of the party platform called for a repeal of the tax increases Bush had approved during his first term, cuts to (and caps on) government spending, job creation and economic growth, and increased individual rights.

While these policies still comprise the main stay of Republican policy today (it shows which wing of the Republican Party has become dominant in recent years), I again emphasize that these is not traditional platform issues, historically speaking, for the Republicans.

I willingly grant that since this framework largely defines standard Republican ideology as it exists today, it does reflect the current Republican “center.” My objection is to calling it “moderate.”

Reaganism may still set the benchmark for Republican ideology. I don’t dispute that at all. It has definitely triumphed over other standards of traditional Republican values. In some quarters it has even acquired near ‘sacred’ status.

But let us be clear: it is not “moderate” by any means.

Gaming the Canadian Election

o-ELECTIONS-CANADA-facebookIt’s now official. The Canadian federal election campaign is underway.

In a surprise move, Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid a visit to the Governor General on Sunday morning and requested him to dissolve Parliament so that a federal election could be called.

Harper-electionThe announcement caught the other parties off guard. They had been anticipating the election campaign to begin in mid-September – five weeks (a minimum of 36 days) before the fixed election date of October 21, 2015.

Only the Conservative Party was prepared, with Cabinet Ministers and prominent MPs fanning throughout the countryside the day before to announce newly approved government projects for their ridings to the tune of over $1 billion.

The election campaign beginning today will last for 78 days, or eleven weeks, rather than the usual five weeks. This will make it the longest Canadian election in history after the very first national election following confederation in 1867 (81 days), and the second election in 1872 (96 days).

This has led news commentators to warn that the candidates and their supporters will have to be careful that they do not burn out early with such a long election campaign, and to wonder how the party leaders are going to sustain people’s interest in the election over such a long period of time.

(Readers familiar with American elections may scratch their heads at this point.)

So why has Stephen Harper arranged for such a long election campaign period? The answer is simple: calculated political advantage. Harper has a well-earned reputation as a master strategist. And he is operating true to form.

canadian-money-savingAs regulated by the Canada Election Act, each federal political party is normally allowed to spend a maximum of $25 million on their campaign and individual candidates are limited to spending no more than $100,000.

In five of the last six federal elections, the campaign period has been either 36 or 37 days. But (evidently thinking ahead) last year the Conservative government under Stephen Harper amended the Canada Elections Act to allow for increased spending during lengthier campaigns.

For each additional day the limit was increased by 1/37th, or $675,000. This means that over the 78 days of the campaign each party will be allowed to spend more than double the previous limit – over $50 million. (Spending by individual candidates also increases by $2,700 a day, raising their allowable campaign expenses from $100,000 to over $200,000.)

Mulcair-Harper-TrudeauThe two other major political parties, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals were, until this past weekend, gearing up to raising their maximum allotment of $25 million. It is doubtful that they will be able to double that during the election campaign itself.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives, relying on wealthy corporate and individual donors, are in an excellent position to raise this additional money. And the smaller parties (the Greens and the Bloc Québecois) will find themselves trailing far, far behind.

The NDP and Liberals will likely borrow heavily to raise the necessary funds to compete with the Conservatives. But another change to the Canada Elections Act made by the Harper government last year prohibits the parties from accepting interest free loans; they can only borrow from financial institutions.

Some have speculated that if the Conservatives are able to form the next government, within a year Stephen Harper may ask the Governor General to again dissolve Parliament, and the Conservatives will go into the next election with a full war chest while the other parties are still paying off their debts.

It’s a masterful plan.

Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley speaks following his signing the first of the 301 writs to be signed for the upcoming federal election at Elections Canada in Ottawa, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2000.(CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward)

But not everyone is pleased with it. In an interview this weekend on CBC Radio’s The House, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the former head of Elections Canada, accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of “gaming the system.”

“What it does,” he said, “is completely distort everything we’ve fought for; everything we’ve established as rules.” In particular, it eliminates the concept of a level playing field. “That level playing field gets it in the neck.”

A second element in Stephen Harper’s political calculation is that by calling an early start to the campaign he can stifle criticism of his administration by third parties.

greenpac-logoPolitical Action Committees (PACs) are new to Canada, but with an election looming and the Harper government using public monies to tout its achievements, various organizations have gotten into the fray strongly criticizing the Harper government and its policies. They have become a major irritant to Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.

Under Canadian law there are no restrictions on spending by PACs outside the election period, but once an election has been called, third-party advertising by any group is limited to $150,000. Stephen Harper can flood the airwaves and other media with his $50 million worth of positive sounding campaign ads without having to worry about negative ads by outside groups.

li-cash-money-canadian-currency-620Many people have raised questions about the increased costs of an 11-week election campaign. It has been estimated that a 37-day campaign would cost Elections Canada (and thus the Canadian public) about $375 million to administer. The 78-day campaign will cost much more to oversee, with lengthier leasing of offices and salaries for elections staff in each riding.

Then there is the increased cost to taxpayers for the raised limits on campaign spending. Under the Canada Elections Act, all parties receiving least 10% of the popular vote are reimbursed by the government for half of their campaign expenditures. Individual candidates receive 60% back. With campaign expenditures more than doubling in this election, the Canadian public will be saddled with reimbursing the parties and candidates millions of additional dollars. This is not going down well with many voters.

Stephen Harper’s political opponents may be furious with his tactics, but his supporters are happy to press their advantage. In eleven weeks we will know whether or not his political gamble has paid off.

Photo credits: Canadian Press; Blair Gable/Reuters