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Op-Ed

It’s time to stop reducing taxes on the wealthy

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House Republicans recently approved the “Death Tax Repeal Act of 2015.”  If we care about our debt obligations, social mobility, or equality of opportunity, we should consider doing just the opposite: raising the tax and applying it to more of the super-wealthy.

Currently, the estate tax doesn’t touch the first $5.43 million of an individual’s assets and the first $10.86 million of couples’ assets. The tax kicks in after that amount, eventually rising to a top rate of 40 percent.  

Proponents of repeal make a number of claims to make their case. Let’s examine the most common.

  1. The estate tax affects a significant portion of Americans. Only about 5,400 estates will pay any estate tax this year. That’s about 0.2% of all estates – that’s right, just two tenths of one percent.  That’s a fortieth of the 1970’s share. Americans worried about the Estate Tax have nothing to fear but fear itself. 
  2. The estate tax hurts small farms and businesses. In fact, the estate tax touches virtually no small farms or businesses. The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy estimated how many farm and business estates worth under $5 million paid any tax in 2013. Twenty did. Twenty small farms and businesses paid any estate tax in 2013. And those 20 estates faced an average tax rate of 4.9%. Only 660 farm estates—of any size—paid the tax in 2013, and 100 of those farms had assets worth over $20 million. The USDA estimates that 0.6% of all farm estates owed federal estate tax in 2013. This is because families who farm for a living have access to generous deductions: up to $1 million for continuing to farm the land for the next 10 years and up to $500,000 for adopting conservation easements. They can also delay payment and lighten their tax liability by gifting their land to heirs. Small businesses have similarly generous carve-out.
  3. Repealing the estate tax doesn’t affect the budget, because it’s a small share of federal revenue. In 2014, the estate tax represented 0.6% of federal collections, or roughly $20 billion annually, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. But part of the reason that’s so low is because Congress has increased the exemption and lowered the rate in recent years; in 2001, the top rate was 55% and the exemption was only $675,000. Still, even today, repealing the tax is costly. The JCT estimates that repeal would cost the government $269 billion over the next decade.
  4. The estate tax represents double taxation. Well, maybe. It is true that people  pay taxes on their income when earned and then may have to pay again when they pass it on to their heirs.  However, because the super-wealthy keep much of their assets as unrealized capital gains (55% for those estates worth over $100 million), the estate tax is the only way, right now, to tax these capital gains. In that sense it can be viewed as a partial corrective within our funhouse of a tax system. Some capital gains, to be sure, are the fruits of hard work and entrepreneurial creativity but a lot are simply the result of gains among those wealthy enough to participate in speculative ventures. 

One thing is true: repeal would mean a large tax break for the wealthiest 0.2% of the population. The 1,336 families with estates worth more than $20 million would get almost three-fourths of the benefit from the repeal and enjoy an average windfall of $10 million each, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The 318 families with estates worth more than $50 million would see an average windfall of $20 million each.

These facts are often obscured by our penchant for individual stories. One Washington Post story for example, acknowledges many of the statistics above, but then goes on to give two examples of farmers who had to sell land to meet their tax burden, one of which is several decades old, when the exemption was much lower. Elected officials love these kinds of stories and tell them often. Are they unaware of the generous special provisions for this group?  Do they truly believe that very wealthy families are the ones we should be helping? Or are they thinking about who is going to finance their next campaign?

The estate tax is one of the most progressive aspects of our tax system. In a time of increasing inequality, it provides a way to counteract the formation of a “permanent ownership class.” If anything, we should consider raising the rate and lowering the exemption to pay down debt and invest in opportunities for the unlucky children at the bottom of the wealth ladder. We could start by closing the stepped-up basis loophole and raising the estate tax to Clinton-era levels. We could do so in a way that protects real farmers and small business owners. Wealthy heirs, meanwhile, will still do very well, much better than the rest of America. A serious estate tax would allow us to come closer to our national ideal, in which no child is born a prince, and every child can become as rich as a king.

Note: An earlier version of this post said that the estate tax only applies to assets in excess of the exemption, which is incorrect. The estate tax is levied on the entire estate but is offset by a credit equal to the tax on the first $5.43 million. This version is corrected.

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