Michael Kinsley is mystified by ten Democratic senators:
Democrats for Rich Heirs?, by Michael Kinsley, Commentary, Washington Post: ...Meanwhile, the Senate is considering what to do about the estate tax. It is scheduled to be abolished next year, in one of several landmines the Bush administration set to go off after it left town. Obama proposes to reinstate the tax, at a 45 percent rate, on estates worth more than $3.5 million. Since there's no tax on what you leave to your spouse, married couples could pass on $7 million before needing to pay a dollar -- or needing to consult a lawyer who can use loopholes to save millions more.
The House has passed this measure as part of the budget. In the Senate, there's trouble. Ten Democrats have joined the Republicans in calling for a $10 million exclusion and a 35 percent rate. This is amazing. The number of people who leave estates of even $7 million is minuscule. The number leaving more than $10 million is smaller still. Yet to save these very few very wealthy people a small fraction of their estates, these senators are willing to hand their party's president an embarrassing defeat. Why on earth?
Oh, small business blah blah blah. ... To be affected by the estate tax, a business must be owned by someone of large means: at least $7 million. ...
But why the populist fury over those AIG bonuses of a few million dollars while no one seems to care much about billions being transferred through inherited wealth? The obvious answer -- that there's a difference between what people do with our hard-earned money and what they do with their own hard-earned money -- isn't actually as persuasive as it seems.
Perusing the Forbes 400 list of America's richest people, it's striking how few of them made the list by building the proverbial better mousetrap. The most common route to gargantuan wealth, like the route to smaller piles, remains inheritance. ...
Dozens of Forbes 400 fortunes derive from the rising value of land or other natural resources. These businesses are fundamentally different from mousetrap building. Land does not need to become "better" to increase in value, and that value increase doesn't produce more land. Yet other fortunes depend directly on the government. The large fortunes based on health care and pharmaceuticals would not exist if not for Medicare and Medicaid. The government hands out large fortunes even more directly in forms as varied as cable-TV franchises; cellphone licenses; drilling, mining and mineral rights; minority small-business loans; and other special treatment.
Most important, every American selling anything benefits from doing so in the world's richest market. An American doctor earns many times what the same doctor would earn in, say, India. This is not because he or she works many times harder. ... It's because we are a richer society, for reasons the American doctor had nothing to do with.
The debate over whether the estate tax should start at $7 million or $10 million is largely symbolic. That makes the push by those 10 Democratic senators for the higher amount even more mysterious.
Via Brad DeLong:
Think Progress: Lincoln’s $250 billion estate tax plan would cut taxes for only 60 ’small businesses.’: Last week, 10 Democrats in the Senate joined all 41 Republicans in voting for a $250 billion proposal to cut estate taxes... Touting the tax cut in a press release, Lincoln claimed that it was “aimed at farms and small businesses.” However, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, Lincoln’s $250 billion proposal would save just 60 small businesses or farms from the estate tax:
An always charged issue is how the estate tax affects small farms and family-owned businesses. We estimate that under the Obama proposal, 100 family farms and businesses [a year] would owe tax.... The Lincoln-Kyl proposal would cut the number to 40.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, “almost all such estates are able to pay the tax bill without having to sell business assets.”
To try to overcome the political opposition, and to try to meet a worthy goal, I would increase and broaden the tax, and then earmark the revenues specifically for programs designed to promote equal opportunity, e.g. Head Start programs, funds to allow anyone to attend the college of their choice without running up large debts, or alternatively to help to start a business, and so on. To further help with the political opposition, the collected funds, or more precisely the programs the funds support, would be made available to everyone on an equal basis.