IFILL: Sen. Biden, .. [y]ou proposed raising taxes on people who earn over $250,000 a year. The question for you is, why is that not class warfare…?
BIDEN: Well Gwen, where I come from, it’s called fairness, just simple fairness. The middle class is struggling. The middle class under John McCain’s tax proposal, 100 million families, middle class families, households to be precise, they got not a single change, they got not a single break in taxes. No one making less than $250,000 under Barack Obama’s plan will see one single penny of their tax raised…
Now, that seems to me to be simple fairness. The economic engine of America is middle class. It’s the people listening to this broadcast. When you do well, America does well. Even the wealthy do well. This is not punitive. … It’s fair. They deserve the tax breaks, not the super wealthy who are doing pretty well. — Sen. Joe Biden’s defense of the Obama proposal to raise taxes on those making $250,000 and more, from the 2008 Vice-presidential Debate
Campaign debates are always instructive. Since they are unscripted, you never know what might be said. The candidates speak in whole paragraphs rather than sound bites, they interact with each other, they clarify and obfuscate, parry and thrust… Great stuff!
And if you listen carefully, you might just discover their values. Everyone has values, and every political proposal reflects the values of the people behind it.
Joe Biden values fairness, and to be fair, fairness is a great thing. If you polled Americans today and asked the question, “Which do you like better, fairness or unfairness?” what do you suppose the outcome would be? I’d bet my house that 99% of Americans of every political persuasion would back fairness.
In other words, we all like things to be fair. In a foot race, all of the runners start behind the same line and begin together at the sound of the gun, so that no one has an unfair advantage. A referee will penalize a football player when he doesn’t play fair. Judges carefully monitor the lawyers in a courtroom to assure every defendant a fair trial.
Fairness is about creating a level playing field and making things equitable, even, impartial and just.
The word fair originally meant “beautiful,” as in “my bonny lass is fair.” We still use the word in that sense when we talk about “fair weather” or a “fair ball.” “Fair” as a standard of behavior came later, but you can see how a word used to describe ideal beauty might gradually morph into a way of describing ideal circumstances.
When I was a kid and I complained about unfairness, my mother would say, “Life isn’t fair.” She was right. If life was fair, every child would always be loved and cared for by both her parents, money would grow on trees in the heart of Africa, and the Cubs would win the World Series, sooner rather than later.
Here’s proof that life isn’t fair: the “super wealthy” New York Yankees have won the World Series 26 times. 26 times! Does any patriotic American baseball team really need 26 championship trophies?
By contrast, the “middle class” St. Louis Cardinals and LA Dodgers have won only 10 and 6 times, respectively. The Cubs haven’t won in 100 years. Doesn’t simple fairness demand that we take away excessive trophies from the Yankees and give them to those poor, suffering Cubs fans?
This might just be an idea that fair-minded Democrats can get excited about!
I shouldn’t pick on Joe Biden and the Democrats. We all have inconsistent ways of applying the values we live by, and we’re often more rigorous about applying those values to others than we are to ourselves. That’s just human nature, and Joe Biden, despite all his high-minded talk about fairness, is just as inconsistent as any of us.
What’s more interesting to me than fairness as a political talking point is the question of fairness and God. Because as I read the Bible, it seems pretty clear that God doesn’t play fair, either.
For instance, here is Jesus preaching in his Sermon on the Mount:
No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. … This is what God does. He gives his best — the sun to warm and the rain to nourish — to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. — Matthew 5:42-45, The Message
Or, to put that in even more modern language, “God sends the very same sun and rain to bless both the CEO of Exxon-Mobil and the single mother struggling to feed three kids in downtown Chicago.”
That just doesn’t seem fair, does it?
It isn’t fair, but it is generous. God seems to deal with us out of mercy, generosity and grace, not fairness. At least for now, God doesn’t give us what we deserve (which would be the fair thing), but what we need.
Here’s another example of God’s unfairness. Jesus told a surprising story about a farmer who hired some workers for the day. He agreed to pay them a fixed price for their work. All during the day he hired more laborers under the same terms, right up to the end of the day. When it came time to be paid, there was some unpleasantness:
That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage.
When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’
He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’ — Matthew 20:8-15, NLT
Doesn’t seem fair, does it? But it is, when you think about it. Everyone got paid what they agreed to work for and everyone was treated equally. We Americans are big on equality, but somehow this parable is unsettling. It doesn’t seem fair that the guys who sweated all day long got just as much as the ones who only worked the last few hours of the day.
It may not be fair, but it certainly is beautiful. In this parable, Jesus wants us to understand that God doesn’t treat us with mere fairness, but with generosity.
This God of the New Testament is gracious, magnanimous, abundantly loving. He gives us far, far more than we deserve. He treats us mercifully despite our many sins, if we honestly and humbly confess our sins and lay our guilt at the cross of Jesus Christ.
You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that by His poverty He could make you rich. — 2 Corinthians 8:9, NLT
See, that just doesn’t sound fair. You and I have gained what Jesus gave up. Not very fair at all, but very, very generous.
Photo credit: J Pat Carter, Associated Press