The lessons of the grouper: Fried or grilled?

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During a recent visit to the Georgia Aquarium, I watched “goliath grouper” swim by through a viewing window that was two feet thick at the Ocean Voyager exhibit. At approximately 600 pounds, imagine the barbecue we could have with just one fish!

As I listened to the expert, I learned that eating grouper is not sustainable. Grouper can live up to 50 years, but don’t reproduce fast enough to keep up with the demand. In other words, if we keep eating grouper at the current rate, they will soon become extinct. Salmon, tuna, and tilapia are much better choices.

Then I heard about Georgia’s own Saxby Chambliss and the “Gang of Six” proposal. In a bipartisan effort to reach a compromise, the group suggests taxing healthcare benefits provided by employers, reducing the current tax deduction for charitable contributions, and reducing the tax deduction for primary residence mortgage interest.

Apparently, the current level of taxation is not sufficient to keep up with the demand. This bipartisan group has chosen three areas to target. They are looking for bigger fish to fry.

As far as I know, healthcare benefits have never been taxed before. Why healthcare benefits? The money paid for healthcare benefits does not go through the bank accounts of the beneficiaries. Some people may not even visit the doctor in a given year. Why should these benefits be taxed? Whose idea was this anyway? I suppose it might have something to do with the recent healthcare legislation. This new tax is a disincentive for employers to provide private healthcare insurance for their employees.

Here is an example of how this currently works with other benefits that are considered “taxable income.” I work at a private university. As a benefit, my children are able to attend my university free of charge. However, I must pay taxes on the tuition rate. Since the tuition is over $32,000 per year, that would bump us up to a higher tax rate overall. I would have to pay approximately $8,000-$10,000 in new taxes on money that never reached my bank account.

However, if my child attends a state institution, the tuition is only approximately $7,500 per year. Because of the tax system, I am encouraged to send my child to a state institution rather than a private one.

This is an example of how it might work if healthcare benefits become taxable. This seems to be part of a larger plan to get employers and employees to opt into a state-run healthcare system rather than private health insurance.

When I was young, I remember going to church-sponsored hospitals. Mercy Hospital was sponsored by the Catholic Church and the Baptists also had a system of hospitals. These hospitals were run by self-sacrificing people committed to the health and well-being of people in their communities. They were called to serve others. They gave of themselves and the people they served were appreciative of the healthcare they received. Some people could pay, and some could not, but it seemed to work that way.

Many charitable hospitals cannot survive today. They are being bought out by for-profit companies. American doctors and nurses travel to foreign countries to serve those in need. When it comes to domestic healthcare, what happened to that American spirit, seeking to serve the sick from a heart of compassion? Are we eliminating the need for kindness and empathy with forced increased taxation and healthcare bureaucracy?

Creating a whole new bureaucracy for healthcare does not seem to be sustainable. Taxing healthcare benefits would be the means by which the government subtly forces more and more people to become dependent on government healthcare services.

I suggest that the Gang of Six find another fish to fry. Do they really want private healthcare insurance to go extinct? I don’t.

What about charitable contributions? There are wonderful Americans in this country who give money to others willingly. Why? Because they see people in need and seek to meet those needs. Why should they pay taxes on money they are giving away? What ever happened to the “Thousand Points of Light”? Americans volunteer to help out other nations around the globe. Americans take joy in helping others. Why should this be discouraged through the tax code?

Think for a moment about the privately run charity programs and the publicly funded programs. Which ones seem to be more effective? Organizations dependent on donations from individuals seem to be more effective than organizations that are dependent on government assistance and bureaucracy. Privately run organizations also have more freedom to effectively meet the changing needs of others.

For example, a former student in one of my classes works at a daycare. She did a project on milk wasted at her daycare center. She tracked the amount of milk that she poured down the drain on a daily basis. As we talked about this, we realized that the daycare was being paid for the milk that was being served. It did not matter if the children drank the milk or not, they needed to be served the milk in order for it to count.

Another student in the class owned a daycare. She explained that funding is tied to the amount of milk served; she said she had no choice but to follow the guidelines. Waste was part of the process of being paid. The result: massive amounts of milk literally going down the drain on a daily basis.

So why has this bipartisan group decided to tax everyday Americans on money that they willingly give away to help others? Since this does not make any sense to me, the only conclusion I can draw is that they seek to limit the positive work that is done privately so more people are dependent on the government to meet their needs. Do we really need more people to be dependent on the government?

This new tax is not sustainable. Why? There will be more people in need when private relief organizations are limited through decreases in giving. Why? Because the Gang of Six decided they should tax giving? The government will not be able to keep up because of the increased strain on limited resources.

As we approach the debt ceiling, which should be more aptly labeled the “debt ditch,” we are reminded everyday of the limit on resources. I suggest that the Gang of Six find another fish to fry. Do they really want charitable organizations to go extinct? I don’t.

What about taxing primary residence mortgage interest? I am trying to understand how a bipartisan group could come up with the idea of taxing mortgage interest in the summer of 2011. As long as I can remember, Americans have not paid income taxes on money they spent on interest for their home. This tax deduction encourages home ownership.

Home ownership, without debt, has historically been an important part of financial freedom for American families. The income tax deduction on mortgage interest was intended to assist in providing a path to home ownership.

Unfortunately, it has also been an incentive for families to carry debt and place themselves in jeopardy of losing their homes in times of financial turmoil. So many families have walked away from their homes through foreclosures or short sales. So many other hard-working families, underwater in their homes, faithfully pay their mortgage each month because of the commitment they made when prices were high. Do we really want to push them over the edge by increasing their tax burden without any warning?

I can understand phasing this in over a 15-to-20-year period so Americans can see it coming and know in advance what they are getting into when they buy a home, but this is not the time. I suggest that the Gang of Six find another fish to fry. Eliminating the tax deduction on primary residence mortgage interest is not sustainable. Do we want home ownership to go extinct? I don’t.

Grouper may look like a large and delicious fish, but eating grouper right now is not sustainable. I don’t think that the Gang of Six proposals for new taxes are sustainable either. The stimulus was not sustainable. I suggest taking a long hard look at how we have tripled the deficit over the last few years and stop the spending. I suggest that we compromise on the areas of deficit reduction. We can all work together to find ways to cut back.

Can we put together a bipartisan group to identify the essential duties of government? Why should Americans depend on the government to do something that they can do themselves? We depend on the government for law enforcement so we can live peaceable lives. The government ensures that we have clean and safe drinking water and adequate roads to move about from place to place.

I love America and Americans. We are safe and we are free! Let’s not make government what it was never intended to be: It cannot do our work for us, think for us, or pay our bills. We should be doing those things.

But we can work together to make this country a place of freedom and peace, where people show kindness and compassion for each other. We can work together to support all American companies so all our citizens can be engaged in meaningful and fulfilling work. I am thankful and blessed to live in this country, a place like no other. The strength of this country is the faithfulness of the people who live here, to God and to each other.

Our representatives do not make us who we are, but they can support what is already there. I ask our representatives to give Americans the opportunity to work, think and make our own decisions. Like salmon, tuna, and tilapia, freedom, hard work, and compassion are all sustainable.

Mary Kay Bacallao

Fayetteville, Ga.