Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Spread the Wealth and Share the Well

As the presidential election enters into its final week, there's been a lot of talk about Obama's comment to "Joe the Plumber" that "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." John McCain pounced on this in the final debate, and he and running-mate Sarah Palin have practically made "spread the wealth around" a mantra for attacks against their Democratic opponents. Crises of "socialism" usually follow pretty closely.

This is a deep issue for many voters. People don't like to feel that money is going to be taken from them to be given to people they don't know, especially if they feel that they have no say in how that money will be redistributed.

I've heard cries of "socialism" before. As I've said on at least one occasion, "socialism" has to do with the “public control of the basic means of production, distribution, and exchange, with the avowed aim of operating for use rather than for profit.” What people don't seem to realize when they make these accusations, obviously intending "socialism" to be a term of attack, designed to make voters afraid of a certain candidate or party, is that pretty much every politician currently in office advocates for some form of progressive tax system (which is the context in which Obama's remarks were made in the first place). That is to say, people who make more money are taxed at a higher rate than people who make less money. This is, it could be argued, a mild form of "socialism" (although very mild, and as the previous link will attest, few people would use the word in that way). It's been this way for many decades now, having extremely widespread support among both conservatives and liberals. The United States government practices "socialism" (with a very small "s") to this extent all the time, and McCain's proposed tax system is no exception. It is therefore disingenuous for him and Palin to throw that word at Obama so relentlessly.

Here is an excerpt from an interesting article on the subject written by economist Chuck Collins:
What I’d really like to see is a parade of all the people who benefited from the massive “spread the wealth” programs in the 30 years after World War II.

Envision this: Millions of people –- mostly white -– holding up signs saying “Low Interest Home Mortgage” or “Free College Education” or “Food Stamps and Health Care Helped Me Live Past 60.”

There would be millions of people from John McCain’s generation, lives transformed by public investments in educational and economic opportunity. The banner at the head of the parade would read, “Thanks America for Spreading the Wealth.”

There is room, of course, for debate about just how the American tax system should be worked out. More to the point, how much should we "spread the wealth"? It is not my intention to hash out those details. I do feel the need to point out, however, that besides being supported by many members of both major political parties, spreading the wealth is actually biblical! For just one quick example, Leviticus 19:9-10 makes this command of the people of God: "When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.... Leave them for the poor and the foreigner." The Bible again and again commands people to share what they have with those who have little.

When I was in Montreat this past summer, one of the more popular "energizers" was built upon a song by Caedmon's Call: "Share the Well" (Here's a video of the energizer from a few weeks before I was actually there). The lyrics of this song talk about "spreading the wealth" in a literal and a metaphorical manner, both appropriate to a Christian setting such as a PC(USA) Youth Conference. Here are some of the words:
You know I've heard good people say
There's nothing I can do
That's half a world away
Well maybe you've got money
Maybe you've got time
Maybe you've got the Living Well
That ain't ever running dry

Share the well
Share with your brother
Share the well, my friend
It takes a deeper well
To love one another
Share the well, my friend
There's plenty of room for debating just how much a citizen's wealth should be "spread around," and how much of that should be at the hands of the government, but let's at least stop using the phrase "spread the wealth around" as if it is a bad thing to be avoided. It is God's command to us as Christians!

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