Tuesday, August 23, 2016

We're all gaming the system

I found myself in a conversation recently with a couple of people on the Appalachian Trail. The AT is one of those places where I can go and nobody has to know I'm a priest. We all look the same in cargo shorts, t-shirts, and hiking boots. My conversation partners were a man and woman - she was the ridge runner for that section of the trail and a fellow Episcopalian and he turned out to be a stockbroker and devout Roman Catholic. The conversation turned to economic and social issues and especially the plight of the poor in our country.

Our stockbroker went on about how poor people "game the system." I asked him to unpack what he meant by that. He told us he had a friend who owned a McDonald's franchise which pays minimum wage to its employees. His friend told him that a number of these employees will work up until early December and then quit their jobs so that they will not lose their eligibility for food stamps and Medicaid. This clearly angered our companion and he went on about how they were "gaming the system" at the expense of hard working guys like him.

So I asked him a question: "Have you ever sold securities at the end of the year at a loss to offset your capital gains and lower the amount of taxes you pay?" He replied, "That's different." I told him I didn't ask if it was different, I asked him if he ever did. He said, "Well, of course. That's just good business. Besides, that's perfectly legal." I agreed with him that it was good business and perfectly legal, but it was also gaming the system - albeit a different part of the system.

I continued, "So what makes your legal maneuver to lower your tax liability to your financial advantage any different from a poor person quitting their job in order to protect their own financial interests? Especially in light of the fact that quitting your job is perfectly legal too ... Lincoln freed the slaves you know." He conceded that I had a point.

Accusing the poor of "gaming the system" to gain financial advantage while simultaneously denying the ways wealthier people game the system through tax breaks, loopholes, and business losses is hypocrisy. It's a demonization of the most vulnerable among us while rationalizing our own self-righteousness ... the very behavior Jesus condemned.

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