Tag Archives: charity

There is no IRS scandal

31 May

I was beginning to think I was the only person who was upset by the so-called IRS scandal that they supposedly discriminated against “conservative” groups seeking tax-exempt status. Why are all these people resigning for doing their jobs? Glad to read Robert Reich’s post on his Facebook page on May 28 in which he says that “The more I understand what actually occurred at the IRS, the more it appears IRS agents were doing their jobs. A close examination of the conservative groups allegedly targeted by the IRS — reported in yesterday’s New York Times — revealed a wide set of election activities that tax experts and former I.R.S. officials say provided a legitimate basis for flagging them for closer review.” He wrote a similar post on his blog, www.robertreich.org, on May 17. There is also an excellent article in The New York Times detailing what kind of organizations were targeted and the rationale behind this.

Several IRS officials have been driven to resignation because it came out they were directed to pay special scrutiny to the applications from Tea Party organizations and for tax-exempt status by virtue of the 501(c)(4) exemption for – and this is the actual statute –
(A) Civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare, or local associations of employees, the membership of which is limited to the employees of a designated person or persons in a particular municipality, and the net earnings of which are devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.
(B) Subparagraph (A) shall not apply to an entity unless no part of the net earnings of such entity inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.

I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve worked in nonprofits all my adult life. The way I interpret this, in ordinary English, is that these organizations must meet certain criteria:
– They must be organizations operating for social welfare (or be employees in one municipality)
– All their net earnings must go “exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes”
– No part of the net earnings should benefit any private individual.

How does any organization devoted to electoral politics, whether it’s the Tea Party or any offshoot of the Democratic Party or any other party, fit this definition? Apparently the legal loophole is that any activity devoted to telling the public about issues or candidates is now deemed to be “educational.” So, by this logic, we would say that any kind of advertising is now “educational” about the products being sold.

These organizations have become so powerful, and in some cases rich, that when their classification was challenged by the IRS, they went on the offensive, howling that they were somehow victims of partisan discrimination. But the onus is on them to show how their earnings are going to “charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.” In doing so, they have so cowed the Obama Administration that the IRS is backing down without a fight. Isn’t anybody in Congress going to say, as is their oversight responsibility, “Wait a minute, how are these organizations charitable or educational?”

In my most charitable moments, I might concede that information about any candidate – whether or not it leads to their election – is “educational” (especially if it is true), but even so, any policy or candidate whose work results in either economic redistribution from the poor to the rich, or the prevention of vulnerable populations to achieve their rights or overcome the ways they are socially disadvantaged (which is to say oppressed), is by definition working in a way that is the antithesis of “charitable.” An organization that lobbies to cut taxes resulting in the underfunding of schools, cuts to education and nutrition, health care, prenatal or neonatal care, women’s health, job training, and the arts, is acting in a way that is categorically the opposite of “charitable.” That’s the real scandal.

But then I read articles like this one in The Washington Post in which the Tea Party is actively involved in opposing educational standards. This should give the IRS pause. Not only is the Tea Party’s work not going to education, as required to maintain their non-profit status, but they are using the status to oppose stronger educational programs on a national level. So, “charitable” now means taking from the poor and giving to the rich, and “educational” now means blocking stronger school standards nationally. The IRS not only should have questioned these groups’ missions, they should have gone further and stripped them of non-profit status, for they are in violation of the code. They can still operate as NGOs (non-governmental organizations) but our tax law is quite explicit, and these NGOs are not entitled to tax exemption under the law.

The symbolism of Pope Francis

3 May

I have to start by saying I am not a Roman Catholic, so I am observing this from the outside. My first real exposure to Catholicism was through Latin American liberation theology, the life of Archibishop Oscar Romero, the murdered Salvadoran Jesuits, and that led me back to look at the radical tradition in American Catholicism. I also have to start by saying that I had a father who was deeply suspicious of what he would call “lip service,” people who would perhaps make a nod in a popular direction only verbally, or with some minor action, but the bulk of their actions perpetuated the same oppression and injustices that they had all along.

Having said that, like a lot of people, I have to admit I’ve been fascinated with some of the statements and symbolic actions of the new Pope, starting with his selection of his papal name after Francis of Assisi. I am just as troubled as many are about the questions in Pope Francis’ past and his behavior during the Dirty War in Argentina, and concerned about where he will stand on issues of gender equity, sexual orientation, and other social issues.

But there are two things that already are very notable, and in my opinion very admirable, about this pope. They are largely symbolic, but I’m arguing here that in a position such as his, symbolism is more than lip service, because it becomes an invitation for others to model their behaviors in response. Even if he is only “talking the talk,” it is right and necessary to talk in a language that listeners may not hear from other authorities in their lives. His talk makes it easier for millions of others not only to talk but act in a moral, even rebellious, way in the face of oppression of all different kinds.

The first of these is his attention to economic injustice, to poverty. What really prompted me to write this post was the comment he was quoted as having said when he learned of the Bangladeshi factory collapse: “Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us — the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity.” (This also is in many ways the essence of Liberation Theology, that as we are creative we extend God’s Creation.) And his statement yesterday, on Twitter(!), following on the heels of the other: “My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost.”

The fact that he is using his position to critique unapologetically the profit motive and the excesses of capitalist injustice is not insignificant, and links him in a common message with H.H. the Dalai Lama. They are perhaps the only world leaders who dare to criticize capitalism. At all. Think about that. Capitalism has become so dominant and unquestioned among our world leaders (elected and otherwise) that there are few lone voices even “permitted” (if I may say so) to provide a social justice or spiritual critique of the economic system that controls the world.

To be fair, Pope John Paul II was also critical of excessive capitalism. But the message that got more play in the international media was his critique of Communism, and the media tended to overlook some of his more radical criticisms of capitalism, which would surprise many people.

Who else is focusing on poverty and the excesses of the profit motive as severe problems in this morally bankrupt world? (Any American Presidents in the past thirty years?)

That’s why it becomes so essential to have someone in his shoes who opens the space for that discussion. Without anyone who gives that his blessing, even symbolically, every practical and even speculative discussion that takes place around the world on the question of sustainability and the relationship between capitalism and the survival of our environment and the poor is by definition marginalized.

The second of his qualities, symbolic or real, is humility. Whether or not he actually is that humble, certain of his actions, ways of thinking, and lifestyle choices, set an example for millions if not billions of people. Regardless of your politics or religion, humility is never bad. (I’m not even going to get into a theological discussion of this in the Bible.) Learning how to think humbly, how to choose the humble option that refuses to dominate other people, other beings, or our Earth, is part a process of personal transformation that is fundamentally necessary if we are to coexist and survive as a species.

Throughout your life, every day in fact, you are presented with options about how to act and how to behave. If you always look for and choose the option of humility, especially if you are a person in a position of power, the impact will be warm and positive on the people around you. What this pope seems to understand is that as a spiritual guide it is his role to show people there is always a humbler way.

Sure, when you get to that level of the world stage – and let’s not forget his actual power as the Supreme Pontiff – you can afford to be humble, even to pretend to be humble. But inspiring people to be humble by imitation, does not make them submissive, as some might cynically suggest, and for his Western audiences, some of the main reasons our environmental sustainability is at risk derive directly from Western and capitalist arrogance. For too long we have acted as if we have a right to conquer nature, to dominate the world, to control other people, and to have unlimited access to the world’s resources. But if indeed we believe that we are all part of God’s Creation, then we have to have the humility to recognize that we share the Earth not only with every nationality but with every living being.

Why not go to a jail to celebrate one of the most sacred masses of the year with the imprisoned, which included young men and women, immigrants, including some who were not Catholic, and some from the most despised ethnic and national groups? Aside from the literal fact that visiting those in prison is explicitly encouraged in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, wouldn’t we experience an incredible social transformation if we all did this? If the most privileged among us took the time and care, and charity, to visit those the most “at-risk” and oppressed?

Pope Francis may do this but once a year. But each of us can follow this symbolic example in our daily lives. Our international leadership, indeed our local civic leadership as well, has become so pragmatic, so cynical, sometimes so money-driven, and sometimes so corrupt, that qualities of justice, compassion, interdependence, empathy, creativity, honesty, sharing no longer exist in civic discourse, in any country. We can debate and write volumes about what it will take to bring about this social transformation, but without any world example, who will teach our young people that such qualities are part of global citizenship?

It is part of the greatness of Nelson Mandela that he is perhaps unique among world leaders to live this kind of life in a secular and civic context.

Another tweet from the Pope (and exactly who else would be listened to if he or she said this?): “How marvelous it would be if, at the end of the day, each of us could say: today I have performed an act of charity towards others.”

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