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A Self-Imposed Luxury Tax

by Fr. John Rausch

   Stuart and Ginger wanted to pay more taxes - not to the government - but to the poor.  A certified public accountant, Stuart could afford a comfortable middle class life, yet he and Ginger realized the seduction of material things.  On vacation one year they hard a sermon on wealth and poverty.

The homilist proposed a simple and concrete way for comfortable folks to connect with the poor: whenever you treat yourself to a luxury, like an expensive car or an island vacation, compute the cost and add a 50% tax for the poor. A $30,000 car now costs $45,000 and a $4,000 cruise bumps to $6,000. In addition, giving away the self-imposed tax raises a new awareness about justice issues and puts people in solidarity with groups involved in addressing social problems.

This self-imposed tax counters the greed and conspicuous consumption rampant in the U.S. today. Although general consumption rose 29 percent in five years, adventure travel increased 46 percent, sales of gourmet chocolates grew 51 percent, luxury cars climbed 74 percent, and yachts jumped 143 percent. With the stock market booming the U.S. now boasts 189 billionaires. To be numbered among the fifty top wealthy people in America in 1998 required a minimum of $2.9 billion. Families worth only a million or two consider themselves simply middle class.

With such wealth and disposable income available, living an authentic life in light of the world’s poor begs for guiding principles that distinguish between goals and means. Economic goods exist not for themselves, but as instrumental means for happiness.

Lisa and Damon are raising their children in a rural setting. Damon, a contractor, and Lisa, a librarian, take turns going to work because they value one parent at home. They could have more amenities, but they have chosen a simpler life-style for the sake of their family. Both Lisa and Damon recognize the distinction between "being more" and "having more."

Denis Goulet, a philosopher of development, suggests a principle concerning material possessions that relates to all people: "To have enough in order to be more." On the lower side of material prosperity, every person has a right to the essentials of life--food, clothing, shelter, health care, education--in order to be fully alive, to become more deeply human.

On the upper side where many Americans find themselves, superfluous wealth seduces the spirit with justifications claiming the person worked hard for it, deserves it, should enjoy it. Economic goods subtly substitute themselves for human goods, and enough never becomes enough. Pope Paul VI reminds us: "The exclusive pursuit of material possessions prevents man's growth as a human being."

Few people give themselves totally to avarice, but many find themselves handsomely rewarded by the economic system. Stuart, as a CPA, possesses a valued business skill, and receives a good salary. He views his wealth, not with a burden of guilt, but as a liberating responsibility. Guilt looks backward at a past fault or injustice. It is passive, sometimes immobilizing. Responsibility looks to the present and future. It recognizes technology exists to eradicate poverty, and hence wealth becomes a trust. We humans are "responsible" for creating conditions that make life more human for others.

Again, Paul VI tells us our giving "involves building a human community where men can live truly human lives." For some that means living a simple life to witness human values. For others, especially those with wealth, the challenge becomes finding a way to avoid greed and contribute to others.

The self-imposed luxury tax of Stuart and Ginger offers one way.

Read other articles of spiritual enlightenment in the September 1999 edition of The San Francisco Charismatics or return to the Main Menu by clicking on the blue. Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary priest, teaches at the Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center, Berea, Ky. His column appears monthly in many Catholic journals and in ours beginning this month, courtesy of the Friends of the Good News. When you purchase books, videos, etc. from this site, we receive a referral fee from them that support the work of the Friends of the Good News.