Hey, remember the estate tax? That bogeyman of the Bush years—the injustice enshrined in the federal tax code that robs hard-working Americans of their right to establish multi-generational dynasties as the Founders intended? The death tax? It’s possible you’ve forgotten it because it only applies to estates valued above $3.5 million dollars, and like most Americans you only stand to inherit, like, $3.2 mil. Then again, maybe you forgot it because it doesn’t apply this year.
One of the stranger provisions of the Bush tax cuts was that the estate tax wouldn’t be assessed in 2010. It was a compromise between the hardcore, vampire wing of the Republican Party and the element that preferred church and/or foreign wars to the full-time service of billionaires—like if Lincoln had freed the slaves, but only during Christmas. Our current Democratic Congress intended to reinstate the tax for 2010 back in December, but what with making sure everyone at Wal Mart said “Happy holidays,” they forgot. That’s too bad, since according to today’s New York Times, two things have happened.
One, Ben Bernanke announced that the current federal debt is “unsustainable,” but we have to keep spending money to fight off the recession. Two, Dan Duncan died, passing his $49 billion estate to his children and grandchildren utterly tax-free. If he had passed in 2009, that bequest would have been taxed at 45%. If he’d held on until next year, it would have been taxed at 55%—netting the federal government $27 billion, which would have covered next year’s NASA budget plus $8 billion for statues or something. As it is, the Duncan family will get to start its own 2.6 space programs, or maybe just set aside one million dollars for each of its next 49,000 children.
The estate tax raises a lot of tricky moral questions. On one hand, it seems unfair that, at a time when Congress has just spent a year viciously debating whether we can afford to give free medicine to sick kids, a small group of kids are going to get $49 billion dollars. The gap between rich and poor in this country is currently larger than at any other time in the nation’s history, save 1893. The process of widening that gap has also left us with the largest debt we’ve ever had, and it seems absurd to let the 400 or so Americans with more than a thousand million dollars set up permanent aristocracies while the country falls apart.
One the other hand, it seems wrong to take their money away. By all accounts, Dan Duncan was a badass who earned his $49 billion. He started his gas pipeline empire with ten grand and two propane trucks, and built for himself a life that included, among other things, shooting polar bears. Duncan appears to have been that creature so common in American myth and so rare in American history: a self-made man. For us to get together and vote to take half of his life’s work away just because he died feels uncomfortably totalitarian.
Then again, we’re not talking it away from him; we’re taking it away from his kids. Dan Duncan’s grandchildren are not self-made men, nor are they likely to make much of anything now that they’ve got $49 billion to play with. They can spend 50 million dollars a year and still not have to work for the next thousand years, during which time one suspects they will not be tremendously useful members of society. The people lucky enough to be born Duncans will be kings, if not in title then in practice.
While our brand identity has migrated a little, the selling point of America is that we have no kings. Of course we have always had a de facto aristocracy, whether it’s been the freedom-loving, slave-owning Jefferson or the fourth-generation Rockefeller in the US Senate. Still, our aristocracy is permeable. A farm boy in Texas with a couple of trucks can set himself up to go to Africa and peel an elephant. Or at least he could, in 1955.
The longer this country lasts, the less permeable our aristocracy becomes. Is it a coincidence that our rich men are richer than ever at the precise moment our government is broke? Once the bad cuts come—once Social Security and two unfunded land wars in Asia have forced us to choose between Grandma, the post office and the public schools—do you think it’s going to get any easier for farm boys in Texas? Part of the game that is America is that the winners give the money back at the end. We need an estate tax, precisely because the next generation of Americans deserves some estates. Otherwise, we will wind up like so many other countries—all the land bought, all the money made, and all the hope reserved for the children of those lucky enough to have gotten to it first.