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Reward for the Hereditary Elite . . .

By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, June 5, 2006

It doesn't matter if you are liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. There is no possible excuse for doing what Congress is poised to do this week: Abolish the estate tax.

The federal government faces a future of expanding deficits. Thanks to the baby bust and medical inflation, spending is projected to rise by nearly 3 percent of gross domestic product by 2030, a growth equivalent to the doubling of today's Medicare program. What is the dumbest possible response to this? Take a source of revenue and abolish it outright.

The nation faces rising inequality. Since 1980 the gap between the earnings of the top fifth and the bottom fifth has jumped by almost 50 percent. The United States is by some measures the most unequal society in the rich world and the most unequal that it's been since the 1920s. What is the dumbest possible response to this? Identify the most progressive federal tax and repeal it.

The nation faces the prospect that inequality will damage meritocracy. When the distance between top and bottom widens, it becomes harder to traverse the gap; people of low birth are stuck at the bottom, and human talent is wasted. What is the dumbest possible response to this? Take the tax that limits what the super-rich pass on to their children and get rid of it. Send a message to hereditary elites: Go ahead, entrench yourselves!

For most of the past century, the case for the estate tax was regarded as self-evident. People understood that government has to be paid for, and that it makes sense to raise part of the money from a tax on "fortunes swollen beyond all healthy limits," as Theodore Roosevelt put it. The United States is supposed to be a country that values individuals for their inherent worth, not for their inherited worth. The estate tax, like a cigarette tax or a carbon tax, is a tool for reducing a socially damaging phenomenon -- the emergence of a hereditary upper class -- as well as a way of raising money.

But now the House has voted to repeal the estate tax, and the Senate may do the same this week. Republicans are picking up support from renegade Democrats, such as Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Max Baucus of Montana. Several more may go over to the dark side if a "compromise" bill, which would achieve nearly everything that abolitionists dream of, is introduced in the Senate. President Bush, who has already muscled a temporary repeal of the estate tax into law, would be delighted to sign a bill making abolition permanent.

If the abolitionists succeed, some other tax will eventually be raised to make up for the lost revenue. So which tax does Congress favor? The income tax, which discourages work? A consumption tax, which hits the poor hardest? The payroll tax, which is both anti-work and anti-poor? Really, which other tax out there is better?

The abolitionists don't respond to this question because there is no convincing answer. Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, has written that "we would be hard-pressed to find evidence that, compared with the alternatives, a reasonable estate tax significantly discourages work or innovation or savings." In other words, killing the estate tax and raising some other tax instead would damage the economy. And that's before you take into account the positive distortions introduced by the estate tax, such as more social mobility and higher charitable giving. Charitable bequests will fall by at least a fifth if the estate tax is repealed permanently.

People often remark on the perversity of popular support for estate-tax repeal. A majority wants to abolish the tax, even though only the richest 2 percent of households have ever had to pay it. Yet this shoot-your-own-foot weirdness is easily explained: Most people just don't know that, under the law's current provisions, a couple can bequeath $4 million without paying a penny to the government.

But I'm fascinated by the spectacle of elite support for this policy. How can the president and the abolitionists in Congress, who understand the tax and its details, possibly want to kill it? They all say they accept the principle that the tax system should be fair -- Bush officials are constantly claiming that their tax cuts are progressive. They all accept the principle that free trade and competition get the best out of American firms, so what about subjecting rich heirs to competition from ordinary Americans?

Repealing the estate tax is like erecting protectionist barriers around the hereditary elite. It is anti-meritocratic and unfair -- and antithetical to this nation's best traditions.

smallaby@washpost.com

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