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Pope Francis and property tax

Sunday, October 4, 2015
Douglas Mendes

Pope Francis does not mince his words when it comes to the assignment of responsibility for the degradation of the environment and its impact on the poor and underprivileged, and the abject failure of current economic arrangements to foster any semblance of equality. 

It is the overconsumption by richer countries of the earth’s limited natural resources which is responsible ultimately for climate change. The dramatic rise in sea levels which is expected to manifest itself in mid-century will impact poorer countries and the poor disproportionately. So that those who are the least responsible for the earth's environmental tumult are destined to suffer most from its effects.

And it is the greed which the capitalist system nurtures and at the same time feeds on which is responsible for the ever widening gap between rich and poor nations, between the privileged few and the swarming mass of the economically deprived.

The Pope delivers his message with humility and palpable compassion. He walks with kings but prefers the common touch. All of this was on full display on his recent visit to the United States where, it is an understatement to say, he is not the favourite of the conservative Republican Party. His perceived attacks on the capitalist system were not appreciated at all by the majority party in the congress. Not sure what Speaker Boehner was all teary-eyed about. Maybe he knew that that event was his swansong, the last significant public event he would preside over before his retirement. His tearfulness surely did not spring from regret that the policies he had pursued all his political life had failed to score even a dent in poverty levels in his own country, but quite the opposite had made matters worse. After all, as JK Galbraith once commented: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

We have just emerged from a period of wanton selfishness, if not criminality, in which state resources were showered on an undeserving few. But that is more symptom than cause of the equality manifest in the poverty and inequality which seems to be a permanent blot on our oil-and-gas-rich nation. Profligacy abounds. It is evident in the mansions, the multi-million-dollar high-rise apartments, and the gas-guzzling over-sized cars that proliferate on our nation's highways and byways. We have our own one per cent accounting for a disproportionate portion of the nation's collective wealth. At the same time, we contend on a daily basis with the homeless, the under-educated, communities in distress, and the resultant, ever-present and ever-resistant criminal element.

The Prime Minister has been lamenting our past excesses and talking about reigning in state expenditure. Hopefully this is not just because the reality of our limited and dwindling national resources is sinking in. Hopefully this is the beginning of a rethinking of our national priorities.

My friends will have heard me complain repeatedly of the waste of the billions of dollars on the waterfront development, the government campus which is as yet unused, the recurring emphasis on mega-projects for their own sake, it would appear, when just a few miles away, in plain view, are communities where single mothers and their lost sons struggle with daily living. Billions of dollars spent to house government ministries, while the communities which incubate and replicate the criminal element are left to fend for themselves. More police enforcement, less bail and better prisons just deal with the symptoms of a broken system. To lower the crime rate, the problem has to be dealt with at its source. Hopefully we will hear about a sea change in our priorities in the upcoming budget.

Hopefully we will also hear about renewed proposals for the reform of the property tax system. In Canada, property tax, which is not insignificant, is used to provide many of the local services we take for granted: garbage collection, road repair, utilities, even schools. The higher the value of your property, the more tax you pay. In T&T, property tax is a joke. There is very little difference between what you pay for your modest dwelling and what is paid for a multi-bedroom mansion in Valsayn. In a real sense, the mass of homeowners subsidise the privileged few living way beyond what is humanly necessary.

But making property tax more equitable serves another important purpose. A person’s wealth is on display in the property he or she owns. Taxing it at its proper value forces everyone to make their own proportionate contribution to the nation’s treasury. Unlike income, real estate cannot be hidden. Those who cheat on their taxes, or make use of creative methods to avoid paying tax, cannot escape the Inland Revenue when it comes to the properties they simply cannot camouflage.

This is why it mystified me that the property tax proposals advanced by the previous PNM regime were greeted with such opposition from progressive forces in T&T. Property tax is a method of redistributing wealth and making everyone pay their fair share. It contributes to the narrowing of the gap between rich and poor. Maybe this PNM Government will try again. I’m sure Pope Francis would approve.


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