In life, George Steinbrenner elevated having the last laugh to an art form. Just ask any Red Sox fan. So it's only appropriate that he'd have the last laugh in death as well, and he did thanks to a loophole in the estate tax. By dying in July of 2010 (a year in which there was no estate tax), he got over on the IRS to the tune of $500 million and probably saved his family from having to sell the Bronx Bombers. Less well known but a great deal wealthier, multi-billionaire Dan Duncan died earlier in the year and saved his family $4 billion in estate taxes.
Naturally, these two guys have the wealth redistributionists screaming bloody murder. There's even talk of Congress re-writing history by voting to make estate taxes retroactive on these guys. But it's not just big government liberals who are calling for a return to the estate tax. Some of the people in favor of estate taxes would surprise you. You'd expect the president of AFL-CIO to be in favor of soak-the-rich schemes like estate taxes, but how about billionaire hedge fund manager Julian Robertson?
ESTATE TAX BASICS
Before we get into the right and wrong of the estate tax, let me lay out exactly what it is and who it applies to. Estate taxes have been around since the income tax was born in 1916. The earliest estate tax rate was a stout 70%. It fluctuated over the past century, and the last year we had an estate tax was 2009. The 2009 rate was 45% on any estate value above $3.5 million. In other words, the first $3.5 million of an estate was tax exempt, and the remainder of the estate was taxed at 45%.
Congress screwed the pooch on the estate tax in 2010 by not coming to an agreement about the sunset provision. In 2001 it was decided that estate taxes would be phased out altogether. Each year from 2001-2009, the threshold was raised and the rate was lowered. This gave the wealthy the opportunity to die tax free in 2010. But the estate tax is scheduled to return with a vengeance in January of 2011. As it stands now, the rate will be a 55% tax on estates over $1 million.
We're not talking about the richest 1% any more. With a threshold at $1 million, we're into the top 10% of the country, maybe more. I'm thinking my dad was worth about a million when he died in 2007, and he was a mailman, mechanic, and bartender his whole life (he happened to buy a starter house for $18,000 in the 1950's in an orange grove that later became Silicon Valley). So we're no longer targeting jet-setting business moguls if the tax proceeds as planned.
ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR
It's easy to spot the estate tax proponents who are only in favor out of jealousy. They'll be the ones telling you that no one needs that much money (which is true, but entirely beside the point) and that it's unfair that some people have nothing while others live the life of Riley. Not so easy to identify, however, are the unlikely bedfellows in favor of the estate tax counter to their own interests.
Julian Robertson is one such proponent. He offers a reasonable and considered argument in favor of the estate tax:
To Julian Robertson, the founder of hedge fund giant Tiger Management and a major philanthropist, the economic and moral case for an estate tax increase was simple. "You get out of a credit crisis by getting your house in order, and in America's case bringing your deficit down. This implies tax increases." The fairest way to do it, he said, is to tax "the least deserving recipients of wealth, which are the inheritors." The tax is not just good for America, he said, but even for the heirs and heiresses. Robertson noted that "there are indicators that inheritors have difficulty adjusting to their inheritance."
In fact, most of the unlikely people in favor of estate taxes site deficit reduction as their primary motivation.
Aside from the immorality of taxation in general, the estate tax inspires a unique level of passion in the arguments against it. To many, it represents grave robbing, plain and simple. Here is the most popular argument against tomb raiding:
A man (or woman, let's be PC here) works his whole life. He takes risks, he scrapes by, and he's taxed every step of the way. Every penny that comes into and leaves his possession is taxed. Income taxes, sales taxes, gas taxes, etc... Taxation is the single largest lifetime expense for every American. After paying taxes his whole life on every penny he's ever touched, you want to tax what's left over when he dies? It's double, triple, quadruple, quintuple taxation. He's already paid the taxes on that money.
In other words, the government is not entitled to take a single penny of what you have built for your family when you die. You've already paid the freight.
WHERE DO YOU FALL ON THE ISSUE?
It's not hard to figure out how I feel about the estate tax. To my mind, all involuntary taxation is theft. My family won't ever even be affected by the estate tax. I'm encouraging my mom to spend every penny she's got before she dies. And I won't consider my own life a success unless the check my family writes to the undertaker to plant me bounces. My sons will inherit from me what I inherited from my father: common sense and drive.
But that doesn't mean I think the wealthy are obligated to turn over the majority of what they spent their lives building because some government thinks they're entitled to take it. I understand the argument for deficit reduction, and it's a sound argument. For me, it's a matter of trust, unfortunately. Do you trust the government to pay down the deficit with the money? Or is it more likely that they'll piss it away on ridiculous pork?
We've been beating this drum all week, guys, so let's hear it. Estate tax: yes or no? If you're in favor, let us know why and even more important, at what levels you would set the tax (both threshold and rate). If you're opposed, what is it about the estate tax that really sticks in your craw?
One more thing: keep it civil for crying out loud.
It's Friday, which means there's only two working days left until Monday. Work hard and get rich, guys. There are millions of welfare recipients depending on you.