Tuesday, April 26, 2005

It's Not the Money, It's the Principle of the Thing!

Compared to many other taxes we tolerate, the estate tax has several important distinguishing features. It represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, give or take. Regardless of who you think is paying it, the amount can be large enough to get your attention. And the tab arrives at the table when people are already upset.

I have groggily supported sports stadiums when paying a bar tab. Sent troops and tanks to Iraq almost before my paycheck cleared the bank. Routinely paid for schools and snowplowing and county hospitals through escrows attached invisibly to my mortgage payment. Funded godknowswhat in other cities when renting a car or settling a hotel bill. Laid a stretch of asphalt with each squeeze at the gas pump. And made deposits like clockwork without so much as a nickel trickling through my fingers on its way to the Social Security trust fund.

But consideration of the estate tax almost always comes at an inopportune time: When reflecting on one's mortality, accompanied by a sizable attorney's bill, or at the settlement of a loved one's estate, accompanied by unresolved guilt and recrimination.

It's tempting to put down the estate tax repealers as greed heads, but I believe family stuff is what really colors one's view of this tax. Did the old man live a good and honorable life and raise you to be your own person? Or did he ignore your real needs for 50 years while he built his fortune? Did mom scrimp and sacrifice, putting the family at the core of her life? Or did she substitute spending for love? Does the inheritance consist of securities and the Aspen chalet built with golden parachute money? Or is it tied up in ranchland that great grandad homesteaded, now escalating in value as the Hollywood stars and corporate titans buy up the county for their cowboy fantasies?

In this context, how easy it is for someone receiving a long-awaited bequest to feel they are hemorrhaging money to the government. How hard for one who expected to exert a controlling hand beyond the grave to see one's grip loosened. How reasonable to think the dearly beloved's cash has been twice taxed because it was first taxed when transferred from an employer or a stock redemption. How human to quake at the prospect of leaving only half a legacy, courtesy of the grim-reaping tax code. How understandable to think a parent's lifetime of selfless sacrifice for family has been for naught, if so much of the result ends up in government coffers. How natural for the dutiful child to be pissed, after dreaming she would rule at last, only to come away with Miss Congeniality.

Still, I have a hard time empathizing with repeal advocates who get all weepy over the rare offspring foiled from picking up dad's pig farm or dry cleaners free and clear — and then stand by approvingly as Wal-Mart decimates another smalltown business district or as corporations throw thousands out of work in the name of shareholder value. It's possible to doubt the sincerity of advocates who decry entitlements for those born American, while supporting them for those born Mellon.

But that is the stand taken by the Wall Street Journal: "[T]he death tax isn't just about economics. It's about justice, and no policy that penalizes the thrifty and busts up family businesses belongs in our tax code, whatever its effects on Paris Hilton."

It ain't the money, see, it's the principle of the thing.

O.W. Shaddock, the steroid-addled lineman played by John Matuszak in North Dalls Forty, cries out in frustration at being whipsawed by his coaches and the owners of his football team: “Every time I call it a game, you say it’s a business. Every time I say it’s a business, you call it a game!”

When it comes to taxes, every time we say it’s the principle, they say it’s about the money. "Early childhood education? Can't afford it." And every time we say it’s about the money, they say it’s the principle.

I'm all for taking principled stands. White civil rights workers who registered voters in Mississippi during the 1960s were working on behalf of a principle. Curt Flood gave up his All-Star career to oppose baseball's reserve clause. Marla Ruzicka, killed by a suicide bomb in Iraq, was devoted to the principle that Iraqi civilian war casualties should not remain invisible.

The Mars candy family stands up for the principle of passing wealth to the next generation however they see fit. And it just happens that instead of facing harassment, unemployment or death as a consequence, members will receive many millions more of the family's $4-billion-plus estate.

Some proponents of the estate tax may be self-righteous, unionized, rich-hating, socialistic, risk-averse, non-job-creating slackers. But what do they personally gain, beyond a couple points off the federal deficit, better funded environmental enforcement, or a few more bucks to HeadStart?

The estate tax can be complicated, but who benefits on behalf of principle is usually a pretty simple calculation.

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