December 18 2012
Put the Death Tax Six Feet Under
Once upon a time, fiscal conservatives advocated a strategy known as “starve the beast.” The theory was that cutting taxes represents the best, perhaps the only, way to check rampant government spending.
The beast is the redistributive welfare state. Conservatives advocated starvation as the only credible means of counteracting the beast’s tendency to decrease the rewards of work and increase the benefits of loafing.
How quaint that all seems today. Now, instead of a weight-loss diet, the beast has its own government-sponsored ad campaign shilling for food.
Forget “starve the beast.” Today’s campaign brazenly demands that we “feed the pig.” The taxpayer-supported Ad Council and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants have teamed up to “encourage and help Americans aged 25 to 34 to take control of their personal finances.”
This unabashedly pro-pork campaign promises to “help you think through your spending and saving habits, identify ways you can start saving and commit to making changes that will reduce your debt and grow your savings.”
Here’s another idea to reduce debt and grow savings: Stop spending citizens’ tax dollars on ad campaigns telling them to spend less money. We promise not to waste our money on self-defeating ad campaigns.
“Feed the pig” aptly describes the federal government’s estate tax regime. When you die, the federal government will take your money and spend it on advertisements encouraging you to save more.
Even more insulting than the death tax itself is its supporters’ claim that it is necessary to reduce the budget deficit.
But let’s face it, the death tax has nothing to do with raising revenue. Federal gift and estate taxes represent less than 0.4 percent of total federal receipts.
So why have a death tax at all? When it comes right down to it, the tax is about social engineering and confiscatory wealth redistribution.
Death-tax proponents support confiscatory taxation of lifetime earnings in the interest of wealth redistribution. And what’s not to like about wealth redistribution? As Barack Obama told Joe the Plumber, “When you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
Everybody? In the short run, it’s certainly not good for the person whose property is taken away. Nor is it good for that person’s heirs. And, in the long run, it’s not good to reduce the rewards of hard work and increase the benefits of idleness, which is exactly what happens “when you spread the wealth around.”
In any case, since when is it fair to take one person’s rightful property and give it to someone else? “If someone builds something, it belongs to him, not the government,” says economist Kevin Hassett, whereas “an entitled government undermines liberty.
Even so, the super-wealthy don’t mind the idea of wealth redistribution. They have already accumulated more than they and their survivors can spend in several lifetimes. Thus, Warren Buffett and his billionaire cronies lobby Congress to keep the death tax while embracing sophisticated tax shelters available only to the super-rich.
Buffett and Bill Gates dreamed up the “giving pledge” to encourage other mega-rich plutocrats to promise to give away at least half of their wealth “to philanthropy” during their lifetimes or at death.
Buffett concedes that his apparent magnanimity involved no personal sacrifice — unlike ordinary people, who “regularly contribute to churches, schools, and other organizations,” relinquishing “funds that would otherwise benefit their own families,” meaning “forgone movies, dinners out, or other personal pleasures.”
Buffett signed the pledge voluntarily and “will give up nothing” as a result. Yet he thinks the government should increase taxes on those who already give to charities in amounts that require forgoing movies, dinners out, and other creature comforts that billionaires will never lack.
So, if he loves taxes so much, why didn’t he give the money to the federal government? Buffett’s answer is that his charity does a better job at allocating resources. He says his charitable foundations “do a better job with lower administrative costs and better selection of beneficiaries than the government.”
You can say that again. So why exactly does he advocate tax increases that will take more money from private-sector organizations that “do a better job than the government”? The estate tax, like the giving pledge, causes the mega-rich to give up nothing that they need or want.
For those citizens who don’t hire advisors to help with sophisticated tax planning, a confiscatory death tax regime encourages them to dissipate their wealth on high living, reduced savings, earlier retirement, and less investment. Enjoy it while it lasts, before the government takes it all.
Meanwhile, the merely-rich or almost-rich need only hire lawyers, insurance agents, and accountants to structure their financial affairs in ways that avoid a whopping tax bill. Just pay a few thousand dollars in advisory fees, insurance premiums and commissions, and you avoid millions of dollars in taxes you would otherwise pay.
For the professional advisors, it’s good work if you can get it. But the underlying legal policy of the death tax makes little to no sense.
This crazy-quilt of laws and regulations, with its dubious policy objectives and paternalistic advocates who can afford to opt out of the system, exists all for the sake of collecting less than 0.4 percent of total federal tax receipts.
As Warren Buffett would say — at least when his own money is at issue — the private sector would “do a better job with lower administrative costs and better selection of beneficiaries than the government.”
Time to put the death tax where it belongs: six feet under.
Gayle Trotter is general counsel of the Independent Women’s Forum.