Monday, May 08, 2006

"Money, So They Say, Is The Root Of All Evil Today."

It's long been a contention of mine that a big problem with the conservative approach to taxes is that it redefines taxation as an onerous burden to be avoided rather than a civic duty that promotes the general welfare. I have no problem with cutting taxes so long as we (a) cut spending as well and (b) cut it in such a way as to not harm those whose well-being depends on government aid. I have been a staunch opponent of Bush's tax cuts, not because they were completely unwarranted initially, and that's a topic for another time, but because they targeted the top 1% of wealthiest Americans, none of whom actually needed tax relief. They unfairly shifted a huge amount of our tax burden, and future government debt burden, onto the middle class. This is not only unjust but also a recipe for economic disaster down the road, as more and more of our economic wealth accumulates among fewer people. See our neighbors to the south for an idea of what happens when a country has a very wealthy aristocracy awash in a sea of poverty. Not a pretty picture...

Unfortunately, another hallmark of conservative thought in America is a complete unwillingness to ever admit that one of their policies may, in fact, be hurting the country more than helping it. Case in point: the popular drum beat over the past decade agitating for a repeal of the estate tax. You'll never guess who's behind that drumbeat (From United for a Fair Economy):

The multimillion-dollar lobbying effort to repeal the federal estate tax has been aggressively led by 18 super-wealthy families, according to a report released today by Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy at a press conference in Washington, D.C. The report details for the first time the vast money, influence and deceptive marketing techniques behind the rhetoric in the campaign to repeal the tax.

It reveals how 18 families worth a total of $185.5 billion have financed and coordinated a 10-year effort to repeal the estate tax, a move that would collectively net them a windfall of $71.6 billion.

The report, available at, profiles the families and their businesses, which include the families behind Wal-Mart, Gallo wine, CampbellĂ‚’s soup, and Mars Inc., maker of M&Ms. Collectively, the list includes the first- and third-largest privately held companies in the United States, the richest family in Alabama and the worldĂ‚’s largest retailer.

Well. It's no surprise, sadly, that the effort behind the repeal of the estate tax has been championed by those most likely to benefit from it. Apparently these families feel that they owe nothing to the nation whose laws, economy and workers have allowed them to enjoy the vast wealth they've accumulated. In fact, they're determined to make sure that as much of that wealth as possible passes, unearned, to their children, in the way that medieval aristocracies have always transferred wealth. Once upon a time it was actually considered tasteless and crass to accumulate so much wealth and not give it back to society. There's a reason why so many museums, schoolslibrarieses and more, bear the names of wealthy families from years past.

The public support for repealing the estate tax is a marvel of modern political advocacy. It's probably the most visible example of the Republican party convincing everyday Americans to vote against their own economic interests. The entire sell appeals directly to a very American sense of fair-play; after all, the thought of the government taking from a small group of people does inflame some Americans. The problem is that this is a very misleading representation of the issue. It's all predicated upon the belief that taxes are something evil that governments wrongly inflict upon the citizenry, instead of being seen as the contribution each person makes, according to their own abilities, to the common wealth of our society. Conservatives have so internalized the idea that taxes are evil, that they hate all taxes, to the extent that they no longer associate paying taxes with receiving the services for which taxes pay.

The estate tax is completely misrepresented in the conservative spin in three main ways. The first is that it could affect middle class families, which is garbage, as it only effects less than 1% of all households in the United States. After all, it comes with a $3.5 million exemption. I don't know about anyone else, but my lucrative career in corporate middle management hasn't yet yielded me that kind of financial success. Moreover, there is not one, single documented instance of the estate tax forcing the forfeiture of a family farm, which is one of the most common examples the anti-tax crowd whips out to demonstrate the evil of the estate tax. There is simply no way around this simple truth: the estate tax is a tax on the wealthy and only the wealthy.

The second lie that conservatives perpetuate about the estate tax is that it's a tax on "death", as if that somehow makes the estate tax morally questionable. The truth, however, is that it is not a tax on the accumulated wealth of the person passing on the estate. It's a tax on the unearned wealth received by the heir to the estate. Once upon a time, it was a core conservative principal that our nation should be a "meritocracy"; that each should benefit according to their contribution to society. When the estate tax is discussed, however, that notion of earning one's own way is completely thrown aside. George W. Bush is the poster boy for unearned power and affluence; his conservative cohorts are only trying to emulate his shameful example.

The final bit of mendacity associated with the estate tax is the notion that if the wealthy are not taxed, they will use their additional wealth to bolster our economy. This is also the same rationalization that Bush's targeted tax cuts are based upon. Now, while that may certainly be true anecdotally, there is no reason to believe such a thing is true across the board. For one, even conservative economists admit that it is still too early to tell if Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy have actually stimulated growth. Beyond that, the idea that more untaxed wealth means more philanthropy is nonsense. Funds donated for the public good, such as libraries, museums, schools, etc., are not subject to the estate tax anyway. It's only that huge unearned income that is taxable; income not earned from labor or investments but from a fortunate birth.

I have nothing against the wealthy, which is a common accusation against liberals like myself. I believe everyone is entitled to their own well being and if someone invents the next best thing since sliced bread, they deserve what they get for it. However, the ability to benefit so greatly from one's own innovation and entrepreneurialism is a hallmark of our liberal democracy. As such, those reaping the benefit of such a system should give back a bigger share of that largesse to the common wealth. Of course no one thinks the government spends their money well and that's partly the point. Taxes pay for things that are not market viable; either because those that need them can't afford them or those who can afford them don't need them. Paying taxes is part of the responsibility of being an American and it's something that should be undertaken proudly, and with great deliberation. What the families above are doing is disgraceful and, frankly, un-American. They are essentially asking that they be able to reap the benefits of a system that enabled their great success while giving nothing in return. It's selfish and immoral, and it says much about the Republican party that it is one of their core platform issues.

It's just another give away to the high vitalogy, first class traveling sect in exchange for more of those sweet, sweet campaign dollars.

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