Posts Tagged ‘estate tax’


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This one is for my students—and everyone else who is unaware of exactly how the current estate tax works and who is affected.

As it is now, the estate tax affects a tiny group of very wealthy Americans, applying only when someone leaves assets worth more than $5.49 million to their heirs. Together, parents can leave $11 million to their children without paying a penny in estate taxes. Thus, according to 2016 data from the Internal Revenue Service, only 5,219—or 0.2 percent of the total—left estates large enough to qualify for the tax.

The total assets in those estates (the left column of the chart above) amounted to $107.8 billion, consisting mostly of stock, bonds, and other business assets. (The rest was cash, real estate, and art.) Of that total, only $2.7 billion—or 2.5 percent—consisted of “farm assets,” that is farm land and other assets used in conjunction with a farm or agricultural business.

After all the adjustments were made (including debts and fees), the taxable estates (the center column) were reduced to $65 billion.

And the taxes on those estates (the right-hand column) amounted to only $18.3 billion.

So, we’re talking about a gross tax rate of only 17 percent on the estates of only 5,219 people, which represents only 0.2 percent of the Americans who died in 2016.

The heirs of the very small group of wealthy people like them are the only ones who in future years will benefit from current Republican plans to repeal the estate tax. The rest of us will pay the bill.

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Back in 1939, John Steibeck wrote (in chapter 14 of The Grapes of Wrath):

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—”We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing: “I have a little food” plus “I have none.” If from this problem the sum is “We have a little food,” the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket—take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from “I” to “we.”

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.”

Today, we have the spectacle of a major U.S. political party that puts forward a series of budgetary proposals that couldn’t be more obvious in attempting to freeze the “I” and cut themselves (and, if the proposals pass, the rest of us) off from the “we.”

As Teresa Tritch explains,

This week, House and Senate Republicans will be working on a final budget plan. They are operating from templates that call for cuts of about 40 percent on average by 2025 in programs for low and moderate income households — things like food assistance, college aid and tax credits for the working poor.

The damage would be severe. For starters, sixteen million people would be pushed into poverty, or deeper into poverty, after 2017.

At the same time, the Republican plans leave untouched nearly $1 trillion worth of annual tax breaks that overwhelmingly benefit the top 20 percent of households.

If that’s not flabbergasting enough, there’s this:

Separate from the budget plans, nearly all House Republicans and seven Democrats passed a bill last week to repeal the federal estate tax on inherited wealth. Repeal would benefit the 5,500 wealthiest families in America each year and would do nothing for everyone else, because the estate tax applies only to those at the very top of the wealth ladder. For estates valued at $50 million and up, for example, repeal would save the heirs about $20 million per estate, on average, in 2016.


For more on the estate tax, see this piece by Edward Rodrigue and Isabel V. Sawhill, in which they take up and challenge the usual claims for repeal. Their conclusion (against the “I” and in favor of the “we”):

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.


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