It’s a classic American archetype: father and son gazing upon the fruit of a lifetime of toil, each contemplating mortality and the legacy each generation bequeaths the next. With a deep sigh of contentment the man murmurs, “Just think, son. Someday almost half of this will be yours.” Well, that’s the way it was between 1916, when the estate tax was made permanent, until 2001 when Congress decided to phase it out. It’s been observed that death and taxes are life’s only two certainties, to which I would add a third: feeble Whoopi Goldberg “specials” on HBO. But even if death and taxes are unavoidable, does that mean that death itself should be taxable? I think not. Which is why I support the effort currently underway to permanently repeal the so-called, “so-called death tax.”
And I say that even though it’s another of life’s certainties that I will never personally benefit from its repeal.
Defenders of the death tax usually focus on three arguments, summarized as follows: It’s not really your money; Uncle Sam really needs it; rich people are evil. A person pushing the first argument says things like “Abolishing the death tax would cost the federal government $745 billion over the next decade!” That statement presumes that these projected, yet-to-be-collected taxes (on income that doesn’t yet exist) already belong to the federal government which will then have to magically “give them back” to the bad mean rich people. An exchange which would require, at the very minimum, lots of cash and a working time machine. Or to put it another way, it’s like asking someone to please give you $100, having them hand you $80, then telling your friends, “That big jerk just cost me 20 bucks!” No, genius, he just gave you 80 bucks. Of his own hard-earned money.
The main thing the “Uncle Sam needs it” argument has going for it is that it was actually true for brief periods of time a century or two ago. Modest, temporary estate taxes were necessary to fund this country’s revolutionary and civil wars. But a restored estate tax today would generate a mere $18 billion a year, a veritable drop in the $2 trillion-filled bucket the IRS cheerfully wrings out of us working types each and every year. $18 billion dollars wouldn’t even cover the paperwork for health care, Medicaid, Social Security, or any other reforms that actually require more federal spending, to say nothing of programs that don’t, like education and AMTRAK. There’s probably 18 billion in loose change under George Soros’s couch cushions. Ted Kennedy pocketed more than 18 billion the last time he redeemed his bottles and cans. Congress spills more than $18 billion every time they…well, you get the idea.
Which brings us to the “rich people are evil” angle so favored by proponents of the death tax, especially those who’ve already inherited their money like John Kerry. In 1906 Teddy Roosevelt–who not only shot a rhino but was apparently, at least on this issue, a R.I.N.O. himself–proposed a permanent estate tax for the express purpose of breaking up rich family dynasties very much like the one that produced, uh…him.
Riding rather roughly over the feelings of the economic over-achievers of his day, Teddy called for an inheritance tax whose “primary objective should be to put a constantly increasing burden on the inheritance of those swollen fortunes, which it is certainly of no benefit to this country to perpetuate”. He also referred to America’s most successful as “the wealthy criminal class,” which as far as I can tell is the only indication that he knew the Kennedy family personally. I guess the old Bull Moose had never heard of the good works of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and…uh…I don’t know…the Chubb Group? You know, organizations through which the bad mean rich people have cheerfully donated hundreds of their billions to the world’s less fortunate without having to filter it through Washington’s leaky feeding trough first? If they’d had bumper stickers in his day (or, for that matter, bumpers), a political opponent of Roosevelt’s might have had one that read, “Speak Softly And Carry A Big Tax Burden.”
Possibly annoyed that all he’d inherited from his cousin was Teddy’s niece Eleanor, Franklin D. Roosevelt (like Teddy, a Harvard-educated son of wealth and privilege) ratcheted up the class envy a few years later with these words:
Great accumulations of wealth cannot be justified on the basis of personal and family security…Such inherited economic power is as inconsistent with the ideals of this generation as inherited political power was inconsistent with the ideals of the generation which established our government.” (italics added).
To which I can only add, Mr. New Deal Architect: The only thing we have to fear is irony itself.
As to arguments in favor of permanently repealing the death tax, allow me to introduce one of my own: it’s unconstitutional. Granted I don’t know much about history or the Constitution, and I don’t have a law degree. But Paul Krugman doesn’t either and that’s never stopped him, so here goes: The Constitution grants Congress the power to collect taxes with which to pay our country’s debts and to provide for the common defense and general welfare. As we’ve seen, an estate tax–even at rates as high as the current one–would have a negligible effect on both debt retirement and general operational revenues. Moreover, it could be argued to great effect that even my living, breathing copy of the Constitution in no way authorizes a tax whose primary, if not sole purpose is not to promote fiscal soundness but rather the deliberate, systematic obliteration of America’s great financial dynasties.
You heard me right: They want to take away half of Oprah’s money when it’s her time and girrrrrrrrrrrrrrl, that just ain’t right.
But the death tax provides for the general welfare, you say? How does forcing Bill Gates’s heirs to sell Microsoft (upon his demise) to the highest bidders promote America’s general welfare? When the new owners take Microsoft’s manufacturing jobs back home with them to Asia? A measly 18 billion a year makes that cost effective? How does de-funding every charity in this country, as the return of the death tax would help to do, promote the general welfare–particularly that of the people who are still on Welfare? Sorry, but I’m the old-fashioned sort who still believes that if it’s not specifically cited in the actual words of the Constitution as something the federal government can do, then they’re not permitted to do it, period. But just to be on the safe side, I’ll double check. Maybe I overlooked it. Who knows? The power of the federal government to seize half of a man’s assets upon his death might be another yet-to-be-discovered penumbra, tucked into the Constitution somewhere between the privacy-based right to abortion and that new right to sodomy they just found. Hey, I’ll let you know if I find it.
–Ned Rice is a staff writer on the new and improved CBS talk show The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Rice is also an NRO contributor.