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At War with Community Responsibility

By Lawrence Davidson
March 14, 2011

Editor’s Note: The leadership of the Republican Party has now almost fully embraced the extreme theories of “free-market” economics -- the desirability of shrinking taxes on the rich, shrinking regulations on corporations and shrinking government social programs that improve the lot of the average citizen and the health of the society.

These radical policies – espoused last century by economist Milton Friedman and popularized by President Ronald Reagan – are now spreading through state governments where Republicans gained sweeping majorities in last November’s elections, a dilemma addressed by Lawrence Davidson in this guest essay:

I live in a university town just west of the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Both the town and the university share the same name, hence West Chester University. WCU is a publicly owned institution and part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).

In all, the State System serves about 120,000 students. Despite a heavy reliance on PAASHE to help educate the youth of Pennsylvania and surrounding states, the entire system has recently come under mortal threat (along with all of the rest of public education in the state).

That threat comes from the state government itself, which is now in the hands of Republican pseudo-conservative extremists.
On March 8, Pennsylvania’s newly elected governor, Tom Corbett, delivered his budget address to a receptive state legislature. In it he called for a 50 percent reduction in PAASHE funding. If enacted, of course, this would decimate the state’s public higher education system.

Gov. Corbett said that such draconian cuts were necessary to close the state’s admittedly large deficit. We just don’t have the money to carry on as we use to, he implied.

But Gov. Corbett’s claim is inaccurate. The fact is that Pennsylvania and other states in similar situations do have the money to eliminate deficits and fund important social services like education. All they need to do is utilize the time-honored, traditional method of raising revenue known as taxation, and particularly corporate taxation.

One should keep in mind that while it is possible to tax a society to ruination, it is also quite possible to under tax it to ruination. Alas, Corbett and his supporters do not understand any of this.

And so, the real problem here is not lack of money, but rather a lack of will to collect it and direct it to community needs. It is an attitudinal problem that has become a political problem.
Gov. Corbett expressed this attitude by telling the voters who elected him that he understands that "it’s your money" and he thinks that they have been taxed enough. Actually, Pennsylvania is a state with quite low rates of taxation and, in practice, the assertion that "it’s your money" is not entirely true.

For instance, I have a real aversion to sharing my resources with a federal government that uses much of it to wage wars against Muslims, often based on propaganda and lies, costing hundreds of billions of dollars and killing millions of innocent people.

But what does Gov. Corbett think would happen if I withheld those resources from the IRS because, after all, it’s my money? It would not work. By law and tradition, by virtue of a social contract, if you will, part of my resources must be given back to the community of which I am a part.
Somehow the radical Republicans who now control states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, etc., as well as the plurality of voters who put them in office, have lost their sense of obligation to address the needs of the larger community in which they live.

It is the old Margaret Thatcher nonsense, "there is no such thing as society. There are only individuals."

Therefore, all too often it seems that the only things the Republicans are willing to recognize as public responsibilities are the police, the courts, and the waging of (usually unnecessary and disastrous) warfare.
Turning on Muslims
Now for a brief, but relevant aside: As Gov. Corbett was espousing his version of economic selfishness in Harrisburg, his fellow Republican Party radical, Rep. Peter King, R-New York, was holding hearings in Washington, DC. King is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and is presently using that perch in a McCarthyite fashion to assert the alleged disloyalty of Muslim American citizens.

It appears that Rep. King wants to bring those very costly wars back home and wage them against a vulnerable subgroup of Americans. Where Corbett would have us believe that we are nearly destitute, when the problem is really greed and a gross misdirection of resources, King would have us believe that we must spend yet more billions in a home front war to protect us against ourselves.

Can we connect, in a way that promotes learning, the taxophobia of Tom Corbett and the Islamophobia of Peter King? Yes we can, and the link lies in a consideration of the Muslim approach to economics.

Peter King’s Islamophobia hides from us not only the responsibility of U.S. policy in creating anti-Americanism abroad, but also prevents us from examining the positive things Muslims have to teach us right here at home – aspects of which can serve as a corrective for Corbett’s taxophobia.
At the core of Islam’s teaching on economics is the notion that the wealth that individual (or a business) possesses is not just his, her or its money. You possess this wealth by the grace of God and so you are commanded to return a portion of it to the community.

For a Muslim this is a religious obligation, but you do not have to be a believer in any religion to see its important implications.

What wealth we possess is accumulated within the context of a societal existence. This is particularly true for business which cannot stand apart from its customer base.

Indeed, removed from our community life, none of us would have any material wealth, as we understand it. Because the community provides the sine qua non basis for the acquisition and meaning of wealth, we owe something back to it – something other than the funds necessary to wage war on false pretenses.
You do not have to be an advocate for Sharia law to learn useful things from the Muslim experience, any more than you need to be an advocate of Canon law to learn useful things from Catholicism. And one can repeat this truism almost as many times as there are religious traditions.

All you need to do is shed your phobias and approach the world in an open-minded way. But it is obvious that all too many of us (perhaps due to our conditioning) cannot do this.

All right. There will always be people of that narrow frame of mind. The important thing is not to put them in positions of power. Unfortunately, that warning comes a little too late.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest; America's Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

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