Class warfare? Yes, it’s real, and it’s a war. Indeed, it is an ‘unjust war,’ and immoral. It is not wealth itself that is immoral in America today; what is immoral is the growing political influence that extreme wealth can buy. It’s a struggle for political influence to get economic advantages, including tax advantages, and in this kind of class warfare, only the mega wealthy have “the nuclear bomb” as Warren Buffett has recently said .
What Buffett means about “his side,” i.e. the mega rich, having all the nukes in class warfare means the very affluent have the means to pay for heavy hitting lobbying and influence in Congress. According to Buffett, the mega wealthy like him can pay for the best weapons. "We've got K Street and lobbyists. We've got money on our side in terms of contributions." Indeed, as Buffett said last fall, this is a war his class already “has won”.
What have the mega wealthy gotten for their “win”? One important win is highly favorable tax policy that benefits especially the very wealthy. The difference in what the wealthy and the rest pay in taxes is one of the major factors in creating accelerated income inequality since 1979, as the well-known CBO report documents. Republicans cry “class warfare” when the extremes of income inequality are critiqued, not only by President Obama or #OccupyWallStreet, but also by clergy like me . But it’s not “class warfare” to critique, from a Christian perspective, the deliberate efforts to create gross economic inequality; to me, that’s just following Jesus and what he taught.
But “class warfare” is going on, as Buffett so clearly explains, and it is a war of the super rich against the rest, a war they have already won. For example, the mega wealthy have bought themselves a tax structure where someone who is very wealthy, like Mitt Romney, pays far lower overall tax rates than the vast majority of Americans. This is an income war, and it is a war against the majority of income earners in the U.S. who are largely unarmed in terms of political influence.
This is, by any measure, an ‘unjust war,’ and that is what makes it immoral. Some of the mega wealthy have engaged in a deliberate and sustained effort to “un-level the playing field” in America. They have been spending enormous sums to create conditions that hugely favor one group (the very wealthy) over another (the rest). To set out to do this on purpose is immoral precisely because it is creates a society that is structured to be unfair.
Fairness and justice are bedrock issues in moral philosophy, and few have explained this better than John Rawls, one of the leading thinkers in moral philosophy in the 20th century. His greatest work , A Theory of Justice (1971), is an acknowledged classic. The theory takes its starting point from the argument that "most reasonable principles of justice are those everyone would accept and agree to from a fair position."
“A fair position” means the kind of position people would adopt if they didn’t know what hand they would be dealt at birth. Wouldn’t you want to be born into a society that was fair and equitable if you didn’t know who you’d be, either the child of a well-off family or of one that was less well off? Or, as in an example I often use to help people understand Rawls, what smart parents do when you’re trying to settle an argument between two of your children about sharing a piece of cake. Tell them one child will cut the cake, and the other child will pick first. You can see the scrupulous attention to equality that the cake-cutting child pays, trying to make every crumb equitable. That’s Rawls.
The “Wizard of Omaha,” Warren Buffett, is doing a great job teaching Americans how and why the wealth cake is cut so unfairly today. This really helps people who, like myself, have a hard time understanding the ins and outs of the tax code, especially since it seems to change all the time. Buffett gave a face and a name to this inequality in the “tax playing field” through highlighting the real difference between what he pays and what his long-time secretary, Debbie Bosanek, pays. A person like Debbie, with a good job and a good boss, can’t put as much of her income toward investing, like her boss recommends people do, because she pays so much in taxes. It’s a simple picture that tells a complicated story very clearly.
Buffett has a gift for clarity. His witty critique of “trickle down economics” in the same interview, is that “a rising tide lifts all yachts,” not all boats.
Buffett was asked in the interview cited above whether Mitt Romney, a very wealthy man, has a “moral obligation to pay more.” No, says Buffett, the “moral obligation is to change the tax code.” What’s critical to understand, both from Buffett’s perspective and from that of John Rawls, is that structural inequality is not an individual moral problem. It’s a structural decision that we make about what kind of society we want to be.
This is the purpose of the “Buffett rule,” where those who earn “a million dollars a year” should pay a tax rate of 30%. There is a growing and influential group of wealthy Americans who agree. Bill Gates also thinks that the rich should pay more taxes . The group “Patriotic Millionaires” supports the Buffett rule and has released this video to make their case that members of Congress who are millionaires are part of the problem.
The wealthy need to start paying their fair share in America because it is immoral for this country to continue down the road of widening inequality. Raising what the rich pay in taxes is not the only solution to rapidly accelerating income inequality, but it is a significant part of the solution, especially since it would take more of the burden of debt reduction on to the shoulders of those who can afford it, instead of placing on the backs of those who can least afford it.
Many on the losing side in this class warfare are suffering, just like in a real war. Fifty percent of Americans now live at or below the poverty level. Just like in a shooting war, there are casualties. Real casualties. Pain and suffering, illness and even premature death from continued food insecurity are some of the consequences. “In the United States, more than one out of six children lives in a household with food insecurity, which means they do not always know where they will find their next meal.” Continued inadequate nutrition depresses the immune system and leads to vulnerability to a range of diseases, some of them very serious.
Great wealth is not, in itself, immoral. What is immoral is when some of the wealthy their means to lobby for an unfair advantage that tilts the economic playing field so grossly in their favor.
All Americans have a moral obligation to level the playing field again. We need to end this class warfare through policies that promote fairness.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and a regular contributor to On Faith.