By Stephen Moore – October 8, 2017
My father built a small business from scratch with years and years of sweat equity and many, many weeks away from home. He employed about 50 people and by the end of his working years the business was highly successful. He became a millionaire. Liberals seem to hate such “millionaires and billionaires” and act as if they are enemies of the state because of their wealth.
But my dad simply lived the American dream. He sold a product that people wanted, provided a solid income for dozens of families, saved and invested his earnings well, and gave lots of money to our church and numerous other charities. On top of it all, he paid his taxes, millions of dollars of income taxes, business taxes, sales taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes, gas taxes and so on, his entire life.
He died two years ago at the age of 91. Should someone like my father have forked over as much as 50 percent of his life savings to the government when he died? Do we want to live in the kind of country where half the business or farm or ranch that an owner builds gets handed over to the IRS when the person dies?
Those questions are pertinent to the current tax debate because liberals are denouncing President Trump’s proposal to eliminate the death tax. Many countries, even socialist Sweden and former communist Russia, have done away with their death taxes. They found the confiscation of wealth at death to be counterproductive.
The entire American concept of the “family business” is put at risk by the death tax. Many small business owners want to pass their family legacy on to their kids and grandkids, but they are turned over to vulture funds because the family may be asset rich but lacks the cash to pay the estate taxes. I have met people who literally sold the farm to pay the taxes.
This hurts the economy. It incentivizes business owners to sell the company and live lavishly during the retirement years so there is little left at their death for the government to snatch. Dying broke beats the tax man, but is terrible for future generations who could keep building the business and hiring more workers.
Ask yourself this question: Why would anyone who is 70 or 80 years old and a multimillionaire continue to save, reinvest to grow a family business, or keep working if they can’t turn their assets over to their kids or grandkids? It would be one thing if the death tax actually raised real money for the government. But it doesn’t. In 2014, the estate tax collected less than $18 billion, or about 0.4 percent of all federal revenues.
It’s true that only a tiny percentage of Americans pay the tax. But a tax that collects $18 billion and costs the economy multiple times that amount in lost investment and complicated estate tax planning schemes invented by legions of estate tax attorneys and accountants is a dumb tax. Several years ago, the Joint Economic Committee found that the IRS would collect more money over time by getting rid of the death tax.
By the way, if you hope to get at the tens of billions of dollars owned by Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Charles Koch through the death tax, forget about it. They have massive foundations and other complicated trust arrangements to sidestep paying a penny of this tax. Sorry. You don’t get rich by being stupid.
Some billionaires like Warren Buffet are urging Congress to keep the death tax to level incomes in America. But of course, if these super wealthy taxpayers want to leave their fortunes to the government when they die, they can put it in their will. What they are really saying is they want other chumps who are a lot less rich than they are to pay the death tax. Self-made men like my father. Where’s the fairness in that?