Sunday, June 18, 2006

Death and taxes

A “sin” tax?

Relabeling is a very useful political tool. Just as candidates are warned not to let themselves be defined by their opponents, people must take care not to let their rivals define the terms of a debate. A good current example is the wrangling over the president's plan to abolish the estate tax. Of course, that's not how his allies describe it. Rather, they prefer to call it the “death tax.” Surely no one would want to support something with so chilling a label.

This morning I was browsing the business section of the San Francisco Chronicle. (Yes, I read that newspaper in addition to The Bee. For that matter, I also subscribe to The Davis Enterprise. Don't worry, I don't try to read every page of all three papers. For one thing, I save a lot of time by skipping the sports sections.) An upset reader was taking David Lazarus to task.

From the June 18, 2006, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, Letters to Business:

Estate tax is immoral, hurts private economy

Editor — Columnist David Lazarus says that without the estate tax, “we're heading for financial catastrophe” (“Killing estate tax could be deadly to federal budget,” Lazarus at Large, June 11). What nonsense.

There are two things wrong with the death tax. First, it is immoral. What right does society have to impose this kind of law selectively on one segment—the rich? They or their forebears have earned the wealth and paid progressively high taxes on it. But in Lazarus' mind-set, the government automatically owns a dead person's wealth, and letting the heirs keep it is “handing out cash to the rich,” a “giveback to the wealthy.”

Second, almost everything heirs can do with their inheritance helps the economy—the private economy, that is. I would rather see an heir provide jobs for, say, a house remodel, or money for a startup company than see the government spend the money for the likes of the 33rd Robert C. Byrd freeway in West Virginia, or think up another “bridge to nowhere.”

Thomas Letchfield, Palo Alto

I believe we can conclude that Mr. Letchfield is not sympathetic to the view attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., that “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” I also note a curious omission in the conclusion of his letter He's willing enough to heap his abuse quite specifically on Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, dean of the U.S. Senate and a leading Democrat, but he lapses into uncharacteristic reticence when he cites the infamous ”bridge to nowhere,” a notorious Alaskan boondoggle sponsored by Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican, and supported by Governor Frank Murkowski, another Republican. No doubt this was an innocent oversight.

There is, by the way, nothing so special about about the estate tax that it should be any less or more immoral than an income tax, or a sales tax. Sure, Letchfield says that the deceased “paid progressively high taxes” on the estate being taxed, but this specious argument need not give us pause. It's a variation on the peculiar bête noire of double taxation, suggesting that an estate should be free and clear of “further” taxation. This same argument suffices to demonstrate that your employee's income should not be taxed because you're paying them with money you've already paid taxes on. (For some reason, I never hear this version of the argument being made.)

As Lazarus points out, outright repeal of the estate tax would punch an additional $1 trillion hole in federal revenues over the next ten years for a benefit that would pour into the accounts of super-rich heirs. Please note, the estate tax is not a tax on the dead person. It's a tax on the heirs. They're getting wealth they didn't earn, didn't work for, and have no special right to beyond the willingness of their forebears to leave it all to them (which some, of course, choose not to do). The bogus claim is that high-value but cash-poor estates like family farms will be ground under the boot heel of the estate tax, but those estates are already sheltered by a $2 million exemption. As the value of the dollar shrinks, it may be necessary to revisit the level at which that exemption is set, but the danger to the family farm is just an excuse for abolishing the estate tax. It's not an honest argument. The ultra-rich are spending their money to lobby a Republican Congress and a Republican president to pander to their base, the morbidly obese fat cats.

Mr. Letchfield decries the estate tax's impact on this tiny—but hugely privileged—segment of society. No doubt he considers the estate tax a form of class warfare. If so, I think he may be right. Instead of lamenting the specter of class warfare, however, I'll just point out that it wasn't the middle class that declared war.

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