As an addicted reader and fan of FREE INQUIRY, I hesitate to make even a small criticism of Paul Kurtz's editorial in the Fall 2000 issue. However, in the spirit of "FREE INQUIRY" and objectivity, I feel I must address what I see as a misunderstanding.
I, too, am troubled about the vast disparities between the economically well-off and disadvantaged. However, when Mr. Kurtz points out the vast inequalities of "wealth" in the U.S. he is not addressing the real problem that contributes to economic inequality. The vast majority of the "wealth" of the top 1% is not consumed by its owners or stashed away in cellars, but is invested in income-producing assets that fuel the economy and contribute to economic growth and more employment.
The real problem is "income" inequality, which I agree is a problem with which humanists should be concerned. This may seem like a slight difference; however, the distinction is crucial. Effective public policies that reduce that figure should be supported by humanists.
Roy E. Overmann, President
Rationalist Society of St. Louis
St. Louis, Missouri
Paul Kurtz cites humanistic principles of fairness and attempts to present an ethical case for maintaining the estate tax. I fully agree with fairness and ethics as generally understood by humanists. But what if there is an individual raised by a single parent in a low-income household? And what if this individual has acquired, by his own honest and legal efforts, substantial wealth, has paid in full all taxes incurred in the process, and wants at the end of his life to transfer the wealth to his or her children?
What is fair about the government having once taxed the income, and then having taxed the interest or dividends produced by that income, taking an additional tax upon death? What is fair about denying an individual the right to dispose of legally acquired assets as he or she wishes? Magnitude of wealth should not be the issue. If it is desirable to tax the wealthy in order to assist the disadvantaged and truly needy, then it should be done in an open, readily apparent way on a continuing basis, and not in some back-door method after death.
Joseph F. Coursey
As a long-time subscriber to FREE INQUIRY, and as a part of the organizational group of New Orleans Secular Humanist Association, I am concerned about the tendency toward socialism often expressed by Paul Kurtz. I find a commitment to democracy and to altruism in "The Affirmations of Humanism," which appears in each issue of FREE INQUIRY, but neither of those commitments imply denigration of free enterprise capitalism, nor a requirement of redistribution of wealth.
In the fall 2000 editorial, Kurtz calls the movement to reverse federal estate taxes "the latest brazen effort to advance the interest of plutocracy," and further attempts to show that those taxes are not "death taxes." There is nothing immoral, nor unethical, about an individual in this country trying to maximize his earnings and income, while paying all required taxes on such income. Whatever assets exist in one's estate are net values after having paid income taxes when they were earned. Federal estate taxes (and state inheritance taxes) impose an almost confiscatory second taxation on these already taxed assets, allowing the government to redistribute the dead person's wealth in a manner other than that which the deceased requested in his or her will and other documents. As long as he or she remains alive, the government can't grab his or her assets, but the moment of death brings them in like vultures over the cadaver. Tell me that is not a "death tax"!
Altruism and charity are willing gifts. Estate taxes are government theft.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Why has your otherwise estimable publication to become a mouthpiece for the political left-wing? Your latest outburst advising the confiscation of wealth at death is just one example. Why don't you return FREE INQUIRY to doing what you do best--presenting cogent, understandable arguments for unbelief.
Paul Kurtz responds:
I don't see how the opinions expressed in my editorial can be construed as "socialism" nor do they denigrate free-enterprise capitalism, which I have consistently supported.
Progressive income tax exists in all democratic capitalist societies in the world; similarly for estate taxes. Indeed, the latter have been in place for a good part of this century; and they have been supported by both Democratic and Republican administrations. To call for their total repeal is, to my mind, a very radical proposal indeed.
A plutocracy refers to a society in which a small number of wealthy people exert an inordinate influence on the political process--I think this is happening in the U.S. today. Democracies can only survive when there is a large middle class. Estate taxes are based on the principle of fairncss, for they enable a more level playing field for the children of ordinary citizens.
I don't see where they are "confiscatory." Most estates will escape any taxation. The first $675,000 is exempt for individuals, and this will rise to $1,000,000. Estate taxes do apply to large fortunes, many of which are based on capital gains (now taxed at only 20%). If a person leaves $10 million to his offspring, they net $4.5 million. If he leaves $10 billion, they net $4.5 billion--again this is hardly confiscatory.
Some conservatives have argued that no governmental taxes are fair. Some people complain about real-estate taxes, some insist that people without children should not be taxed to pay for the schooling of other people's children, some oppose sales taxes as an onerous burden on the poor, some oppose all income taxes as confiscatory, etc.
The point is that some taxation--including estates taxes--is a necessary method that society has for raising revenues for the common good.
A Mouthpiece for the Right Wing
In 1969 I (along with thousands of other women) walked out of the male Left. It was clear that substituting one set of egomaniacs programmed for violence by another set was an exercise in lunacy.
For men, "reproductive rights" was a dirty joke, and pay equity was a form of treason. Pornography was good, clean fun and not an attack on women and children. The typical response to women who demanded to be treated as equals was: "Take her out and nail her."
So let me say that, committed atheist that I am, when I open FREE INQUIRY and I see Christopher Hitchens and Nat Hentoff, I gag. Both are opposed to a woman's right to choose an abortion. Hitchens, whose jealousy and hatred of President Clinton borders on the delusional, is contemptuous of the gains of African Americans, women, and gays have made with the Clinton administration. Both men pretend left-wing purity and act like right-wing hacks.
Then there is Christina Hoff Sommers. About 10 years ago the overt women haters like Phyllis Schlafly faded from the scene. Conservative think-tanks and foundations started funding women who called themselves "feminists" in order to attack feminists. Gloria Steinem--smart, beautiful, fiercely loyal to women, and derisive of male posturing--has been the constant target of their venom.
I am an atheist (ex-Catholic, ex-Quaker) because I believe that religion is not only the cornerstone of male supremacy and the oppression of women, but also a dangerous major form of mental illness. (The Vatican now considers feminism its most dangerous enemy. It is.) But I will not accept that, because I oppose the organizers of religion, I need to fall in with Sommers, Hentoff, and Hitchens!
The Necessity of Playing God
I enjoyed reading Christopher Hitchens's "Message from the Human Genome," and I agree with him. Unfortunately, Hitchens doesn't seem to remember how vehemently religious authorities opposed genetic research before they realized they could simply give What's-His-Name credit for DNA.
I recall, only too vividly, how they pressured the government to prevent genetic researchers from "playing God." Forbidding others to play God makes one not only a hypocrite but a claimant of the title. Just imagine how many people would have died if Louis Pasteur, for example, had been accused of playing God.
If it's a choice between having the religious interfering with genetic research and having them credit their deity for life's building blocks, which it is, they can put crosses on every GR laboratory for all I care.
Hyatt D. Brooks
Girl Scouts Rule!
I agree wholeheartedly with Paul Kurtz's editorial "The Need to Come Out of the Closet" (FI, Summer 2000). But it contained an untruth that I hope you will correct in FREE INQUIRY. The Girl Scouts do not discriminate against free-thinkers or gays.
I believe Paul Kurtz is mistaken when he says that the Girl Scouts explicitly deny atheists membership. In fact, unlike the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts are staunchly nondiscriminatory, and national policy forbids the exclusion of staff, volunteers, or girls based on either sexual orientation or religion.
This, for example, is on the Web page for the national organization:
Who Can Be a Girl Scout?
Any girl who is 5 through 17 years old (or K-l2th grade).
Girls of all races, cultures, and religious groups.
Any girl or adult who agrees to try to live by the Girl Scout Promise and Girl Scout Law.
And on the Web page for the Patriots' Trail (Boston Area) Girl Scout Council you will find the following footnote to the text of the "Promise":
(*.) Since Girl Scouting is for all girls, those whose beliefs may be better expressed by a word or phrase other than "God" may substitute that word or phrase when they say the Girl Scout Promise.
Paul Kurtz replies:
Many thanks for the correction about the Girl Scouts.
Another Satisfied Reader
I only recently discovered your publication, incredibly at my public library! In this community of right-wing ideologues (Walter Annenberg), accidental presidents (Gerald Ford), and astonishingly dumb politicians (Mary Bono is my representative), it was quite a find.
I have been engaged in a running dialogue (read seething shouting matches) with my sister over God, Jesus, and the Bible for several decades. She is a fundamentalist Christian who believes literally in the Bible. . . every word of it. Reason doesn't work on these people, or logic, or sensibility Everything is settled with the phrase, "You must have faith."
I think I struck one serious blow, however, on the sad occasion of our father's death. I asked her if Dad would be in heaven. And she replied, "We'd instantly know our old hobbling, gray-haired Daddy" "That's funny," I replied. "He told me he planned to be a boisterous, beer-drinking, tobaccochewing nineteen-year-old!"
Anyway keep up the good work, and never yield to our unenlightened brethren.
Sterling R. Johnson
Palm Springs, California
Challenging Media Plutocracy
Mark Crispin Miller's piece, "When Goo17d Books Vanish" (FI, Fall, 2000), should convince any thinking person that Paul Kurtz's editorial on the virtually unchallenged reign of media for plutocrats is very real. That Professor Eisenberg's spectacularly scholarly book, Drawing the Line, on the shocking truth about the division of Germany and the origins of the Cold War, has been ignored by all of the mainstream newspapers for four years is a crime against humanity
It reminds me of Ramsey Clark's The Fire This Time, which exposed the massive United States villainy in the Gulf War. The book, which is 1800 from the prevailing American view of what went on in Iraq back in '91, was nearly 100% ignored by our media. Ramsey Clark is not some hippie-he is a former Attorney General and the son of ultra-conservative communisthater Tom Clark, who was a Supreme Court justice. If they can bury him, they can bury anything.
On October 5, Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman fell all over each other glorifying the U.S. role in the Persian Gulf War, totally ignoring Ramsey Clark's thoroughly researched condemnation of the whole fiasco, as if his powerful book had never existed.
More money is made from the sales of military weapons than from any other business, and Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather are employed by two of the top 10 arms contractors. It is hellish that most Americans trust Tom and Dan.
I wish every person in this country who cares about the truth could focus on the fact of good books vanishing, as Miller reports it. The truth at all costs, a fundamental concept for readers of FREE INQUmY, is doomed if we slide much farther down toward media serving the needs of the corporations. Larry Surber
Stoneville, North Carolina