What we owe each other

Drawer3.jpgI call it the Man Case. If you’re a father or husband of a particular age, you probably have one too. Some guys have a Designated Drawer or Bespoke Basket. You know what I mean: the one place in the house that is exclusively yours, the place where you keep all your assorted bumf that is either useful for recurring man-tasks (bleeding radiators), sentimental (that ticket stub from the cup semi-final a couple of years back) or apocalypse-averting (your replica Swiss Army Knife with the built-in horse shoe stone-remover).

Last week I found myself rummaging through my Man Case, searching for a matching cuff-link, when I accidentally came across a forgotten treasure: my Widow’s Mite. Now, this is no ordinary item on the Man Case inventory. I was given it a few years ago in the Shuk, Jerusalem, by a kind Palestinian Christian who owns a market stall trading in antiquities. Technically, the ‘Mite’ is a lepton, the smallest and least valuable (Roman or Greek) coin used in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. Despite its small worth – both then and today – I was delighted to be given it. There is something particularly cool about owning something which is over 2,000 years old.

The lepton gets its generic name from the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and Luke:

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the pontius_lepton.jpgtemple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on. Mark 12, 41-44

I’ve been thinking about the story of the Widow’s Mite this week as the debate over the 50p Tax Rate has raged back and forth, following Ed Balls’ announcement that the Labour Party would re-institute the rate (for income over £150,000) should the Party be elected to government in 2015. The coalition government dropped the top rate of tax from 50% to 45% in 2013.

Much of the response to the announcement has become pretty ugly, pretty quickly. There has been the usual ‘bad for business’ rhetoric coming from the Tory Party. Then a group of Business Leaders sent an open letter to the Press, decrying the short-sightedness of the Labour Party, suggesting that this retrograde step would both put jobs at risk and would chase ‘wealth creators’ from the country to jurisdictions where their unique skills would be appreciated with a more lenient tax regime.

Now, leaving aside the fact that several of the 24 signatories to the letter have donated hundreds of thousands of pounds between them to the Conservative Party, it seems to me that this is perhaps one of the most outlandish acts of self-interest I’ve witnessed recently. Through it, we see some of the wealthiest people in the land speaking out against a relatively-modest tax adjustment (in France, the top tax rate is 75%) that is intended to help with balancing the nation’s books, in order to protect their own income.

In fairness, the opponents of the proposed increase argue that it will depress investment in the economy and therefore affect the jobs and income of the less well off. But this is an argument that is rolled out every time there’s a threat to the vested interest of the super-rich. Think that the Bankers Bonus is a bit generous? Well, it’s needed to remain ‘competitive’. But I believe this is a smokescreen. The truth is that the United Kingdom is a great place to live and to do business. It’s a stable, safe, prosperous and relatively non-corrupt society where a good standard of living and global connectedness are possible. Top Executives are not going to give it up and move abroad for the sake of five percent.

Likewise, I find the investment argument unconvincing. The idea of the ‘trickle-down’ of wealth is at best hard to prove and at worst an axiomatic Myth of the Right. It’s much more common in my view – and the current difficulty of securing Credit in the economy lends itself to this notion – that the rich tend to either put their added wealth into their (offshore) bank accounts or spend it on luxury goods, depending on how secure they feel. The following sentence is rarely heard on the lips of a millionaire: “Ah, it seems that I have an additional 5% on my income this year. I think I’ll open a cod-filleting factory in Grimsby”.

What about the claim that the reduction in the top rate actually improves the tax revenue of HMRC? This is something of an intractable and statistic-laden part of the argument, which I confess to being somewhat bamboozled by. Although, I have a sense that most others are too. The variables at stake, and the changing context of the economic climate over the last few years, plus the difficulty of predicting the response that individuals make to changes in tax rates, makes determining the causality of tax rates vis a vis revenue raised a mind-bender for the layman. Yet HMRC’s own figures do seem to suggest that, the last time the 50% rate was in place, it raised around an additional £3 billion per year in tax, and in all of the debate I haven’t heard many voices denying that the 50p rate will actually increase the revenue intake, even if only in the tens of millions of pounds.

But of course, ultimately, the debate over the top rate of tax should not be primarilydetermined by the bottom line of the revenue it generates, but by the principle of fairness and the connected principle of civic duty.

The key lesson that I take away from the story of the Widow’s Mite – other than the idea that all of our wealth, however big or small is actually given by and therefore owed to God – is the principle that each of us should give to each other according to our ability to give. And what else is Taxation in a democratic society, other than each of us giving to one another for the benefit of the whole?

How we share the cost of our Nation says so much about the kind of society that we want to create. If you were out for a meal with a group of friends and, when the bill arrived, you discovered that one of your friends had recently fallen on hard times financially and so could only contribute a small amount to the bill, you and the rest of your friends would club together to make up the difference. You would also have a loftier view of the contribution your hard-up friend made to the cost of the bill, even if it was much smaller than your own contribution.

This is really the heart of the matter of why the Labour Party is proposing the return to the 50p tax rate, and it’s why I support it. In our approach to taxation, we should prioritise the ideals of fairness, of civic mindedness, of compassion, of generosity and of mutuality. If the Widow can give her Mite, then I and the wealthier members of society can give ours and more.

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commented 2014-04-03 12:12:58 +0100 · Flag
David I think that you and I have more in common than at first would appear. Of course we do have to contribute via taxes – render unto Ceasar that which belongs to Ceasar – in order to have those things we value NHS, Education, etc. and I couldn’t argue with that. And we have to depend on the State to organise that process. Where I get hot under the collar is the fact that governments of all colours seem to forget that they are responsible TO US as well as for us, and it would appear that vote winning is the bottom line in their decisions, rather than wise stewaredship of the resources at their disposal. Some of the ills of society would be remedied if party politics were removed from the state. Our tax system would be fairer, our welfare fund would be better used and not abused, and overseas aid would not go into the pockets of corrupt governments. Interestingly that was a subject aired on Newsnight yesterday.

I also take your point about – stuff – we are undoubtedly a nation of consumers, and when I hear of a guy who complains of inadequate wages but still thinks it his right to travel far and wide to give his toddler – somewhere to exercise – and has lots of unessential stuff it rather illustrates the atitudes that pervade society. It’s not fair, It’s my right etc. never I have a responsibility. I am fully in agreement that a compassionate society should and would want to provide for the sick and those in genuine need. But I have no sympathy for the irresponsible and lazy folk who expect to be feather bedded by those who work hard. Th guy who has fathered 3 children by 3 mothers and expects the state to support all 7 of them, that is abuse.

Something which I notice on this website is that – on the LEFT – seems to be the more important aspect of the views expressed by many, not all, contributors, rather than CHRISTIAN, which I find strange. The attitude to the poor for instance; I think it would be fair to say that Jesus expected families to look after their own, he certainly rebuked the Pharisees for their nit picking tithing of their herbs while neglecting their family responsibilities, and it appears to me from Pauls writings and instructions to the church that families should be responsibility for their own, also that fathers should provide for their familes, (unless of course there is a very good reason why that is not possible – my words) and then and only then the church should take responsibility. I think that we do have to care for the poor, but that word poor has become rather overworked and today seems to have lost its meaning.
I wonder how well churches and Christian fellowships look after their own poor – just a thought.

There is so much in our modern and “more enlightened” world that is a cause for regret, the breakdown of family life the decline of marriage, the ever increasing number of children born to single mothers, the absent fathers…….
The mess we find ourselves in owes much the the moral decline and we as Christians are perhaps a little to blame as we have embraced the culture of the world and forgotten the Lord. Seek Him first and all these other things will be added unto you.
commented 2014-04-02 23:20:04 +0100 · Flag
Thanks for your feedback Ruth. There’s lots to say in reply! A few thoughts:
- I agree that politics is too tribal. To some extent it will always be corporate, and I think that political parties are necessary to actually get anything done in our political system. However, I certainly don’t think that everything that the Conservative Party says is evil, and I respect the decisions of Christians to support them if that is where they feel led, even if I disagree with them on much of their policy.
- I also object to some of the things that my taxes are spent on: the Iraq war, and weapons of mass destruction to name just two. However, I also recognise that my taxes are spent on things that I use every day and which benefit me and society at large: roads, hospitals, unemployment benefit and so on. The truth is that, if each of us withdrew our taxes because we disagreed with some of the ways that it has been used, then none of us would pay our taxes. Thankfully, we have the political process to engage with, in which different priorities and decisions can be made about the expenditure of the state.
- I think that £30k is not a lot in terms of giving oneself financial security in the UK in 2014. However, I was simply making the point that this really depends on who we compare ourselves to – particularly internationally. How do we value ‘stuff’? What do we need to live? These are questions I ask myself regularly and, in my answer to the questions, in which I routinely fail to follow Jesus.
- I believe in giving to charity, and do. I believe in giving to Christian work, and do. However, I also believe that there are certain things that only society at large – via the State – can organise and deliver. I don’t want to rely on Charities to provide primary health care or infrastructure development, for example. I don’t want to rely on Charities to provide the core of our welfare support (as much as they can be important in some provision) or policing. These are social needs which we should be aiming to provide for one another as a minimum – not relying on the whims of others in an ad-hoc way.
- Finally, the Widow gave all that she had, yes. This to me shows her faith, her generosity and her grace in her attitude to her material possessions. Yes, she gave to the temple box. But in a time and a place in which there was no social provision for the needy outside of what the Temple/Synagogue could (and did) provide, I don’t think that you can separate out her gift and plonk it in a ‘spiritual’ category, unrelated to the provision of social care that meets physical needs.
Anyway, I look forward to continuing the discussion.
commented 2014-04-02 11:56:13 +0100 · Flag
I am glad David that you agree that volountary giving is different to compulsary tax. In my experience very few people jump for joy at their tax bill, however much they are earning. So often it is seen as legalised theft. YES I fully understand that the benefits of a workable sdociety means that the individuals have to contribute, and I am not suggesting otherwise, after all the state has no money of its own. I am sure we might be able to agree on that.

My real problem is the fact that everything in this once great country is driven by the spiteful and bitter political cross party fighting. On this site everyting Convervative is evil and everything Labour is good. It of course would be the reverse on a right wing site I imagine.

As a committed Christian I object that my taxes over the years have been squandered on things that are total anathema to me; the cost of the military intervention in the Middle East, the waste of foreign aid which seems to do little good and ends up in the bank accouts of corrupt dictators, a welfare benefits system which is loaded on the side of the feckless etc. etc. without being unduly tedious.

To say that a wage of 30k makes a man rich would be hotley disputed by most people on such a salary. One would need a much higher income than that to be rich. Personally I take the view that the way taxes are raised needs a radical overhaul and change. The Big Companies must be made to pay their dues of course and hiding money away should be strongly dealt with. But it is a matter of resentment that men and women having worked hard for their pay see nearly half of it taken from them. During my late husbands working life he regularly worked a 70-80hr week, I less hours, as self-employed people to put food on the table for our family. You come from the perspective of a Christian on the Left and are happy to pay more to the government to waste in whatever way they want, however most tax payers aren’t and since this country can no linger claim to be even remotely Christian, taxes are not going to be seen as Christian giving. Many Christians would much prefer to have more left after tax to give to God’s work where they see the need. Not where Governments of both hues see the best economic investment of british aid.

There is a difference in giving as the widow did, and state deducted taxes. We, as Christians are exhorted to give willingly, without compulsion, to the Lord’s work. Governments are required to act justly, but in a secular society they are not going to act spiritually, that is a matter for the individual. Re. the widow the Bible says she gave all that she had, it doesn’t say she gave her dues and then gave more, she might have we just don’t know that. And what she gave was into the Temple Box, i.e. it was to God that she gave not Mamon.

The day that this country is governed by honest and upright people for the good of the people in justice will never happen while politicians see their job as a career and not a vocation and party politicians continue to follow their own selfish paths. However righteousness will never come until Jesus returns. Even so Come Lord Jesus.
commented 2014-04-01 23:01:52 +0100 · Flag
I take your point, Ruth – there is a distinction between purely voluntary giving and the legal status and consequent obligations of taxation. However, I believe voluntary giving and taxation are both important responsibilities (particularly for the Christian). In my attitude towards my charitable giving and paying my taxes, am I seeking to drive the contribution downwards? Or am I seeking to pay what, for my wealth relative to others, is a just contribution?

In both cases, it seems to me that our attitude to giving to one another (and as I say above, tax is a form of giving to society) is very important. We can seek to avoid our fair share of tax – as companies like Vodafone, Starbucks and Amazon and many individuals have – or we can pay our share according to our ability (i.e. our wealth). This is what was so striking about the Widow – not only did she give her fair share according to her ability, but she even paid over more.

On your second point, about envy and jealousy, I have to plead Not Guilty. The idea of raising the top rate of tax back to 50% has nothing to do with either. It has everything to do with fairness.

There is also a global implication for these principles. Do you know that if you earn over £30k per annum, that you are within the Band of the top1-2% richest people on earth? When we think about what we give as individuals voluntarily to Charity, and what we give as a nation to International Development, let’s keep that in mind.
commented 2014-04-01 14:53:11 +0100 · Flag
There is a misunderstanding here, giving is voluntry – tax is compulsory. These terms are not interchangable. Taxation based on envy and jealousy is no basis for righteousness.