The Taxman Cheats

Ecclesiastes 5:8-9

There’s a house in Jackson County, Missouri, the house where I grew up. On the county tax rolls, it is recorded as a three-bedroom home and taxed accordingly. I mention this because, if you were to count the bedrooms, you’d come up to five.

Why was a five-bedroom home recorded and taxed, for over fifty years now, as a three-bedroom one? From what I heard, my father had a friend on the assessment board when that house was being built. My dad didn’t ask this fellow to mis-record our house, but he did the favor anyhow.

I’m sure that this guy had some notion that my father, who owned a bank at the time, might do him a favor in return. I’m not sure if the quid ever got met with a quo, but I am confident that this house has been taxed too little for more than half a century. This takes me back to Ecclesiastes:

If you see oppression of the poor and perversion of justice and righteousness in the province, don’t be astonished at the situation, because one official protects another official, and higher officials protect them. The profit from the land is taken by all; the king is served by the field.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-9

Influence Peddling

Supposedly, some government official, accused of “influence peddling,” responded with this lovely quip: “What’s the point of having influence if you don’t peddle it?” And to some degree that makes sense. If you have the ability to make things change, then it only makes sense that you would make things change. It would be like having a perfectly operational car that you never drive anywhere.

Of course, influence can be used for good or ill. When my mother’s recent property assessment–in a house other than that one mentioned above–jumped by 35% this year, I not only filed the required appeal but contacted both of my county legislators. I knew that they were not likely to just go in and wipe away the increase, but I hoped that the complaint might do some good. As the news reporting has shared, there were apparently enough of these complaints that the legislature is looking for a way out of the mess.

But then there is the shadier dealing that goes on, only sometimes revealed to the public, when votes are bought, laws are amended to benefit somebody, prosecutions are quashed, and five-bedroom houses magically turn into three-bedroom ones.

Getting in Tune

What is Solomon saying with today’s passage? He’s not excusing corruption great and small, but then he’s not exactly condemning it either. What I hear him saying is that there is simply going to be corrupt behavior. Whenever people have power, whether they have power as employers, law enforcement, regulators, rulers, or anything else, some of them will use that power to defraud other people and line their own pockets.

We shouldn’t be surprised when these things happen. He’s not telling us to ignore it and think that it’s acceptable, but he is warning us not to be astonished.

We should work for justice and against oppression with a great deal of vigor, but we should not have the unreal notion that such work will ever produce a perfect result. Under the sun, there will be only an imperfect justice.