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Debate: Estate tax in the United States

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Should the estate tax be permanently repealed?

Background and context

The estate tax in the United States is a progressive tax on the estate of a deceased person before their property (real estate, stocks and bonds, business interests, etc.) is transferred to their heirs. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proposed a federal estate tax, saying, "The man of great wealth owes a particular obligation to the State because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government." The estate tax was passed in the Emergency Revenue Act of 1916 in preparation for WWI. The first estate tax was imposed on the value of an estate over $50,000 (roughly $850,000 in today’s dollars) at a graduated rate of one to five percent. In 2009, the estate tax was imposed on estates valued above $3.5 million at 45%.
The debate surrounding the estate tax has existed in many forms since Teddy Roosevelt's proposal. It has become especially heated in recent years with the rise of an anti-estate tax movement. This movement really began in 1993 when a group of wealthy families, under the lead of the Mars family, began a Washington lobbying campaign against what they would soon term the "death tax" because of its political advantages. According to the Washington Post in 2006, "The effort caught fire when small-business groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business and agriculture groups led by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association joined in." While the debate is often framed only as a class-war debate (with the wealthy being seen as the potential benefactors of a ban and the poor the losers), it also encompasses other questions that are unrelated to class and wealth. The effect on the US fiscal budget is one consideration that is particularly heavily debated with some estimating the costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars and other estimating much lower costs. This question is particularly sensitive in the context of another debate on the extent of any fiscal problems in the US (See the Fiscal Crisis? debate) which would also effect thinking on the ability of the US to absorb tax revenue losses of any kind. Another question surrounds the extent of economic impacts. One particularly extensively debated topic among scholars and politicians alike is how estate taxes affect wealthy savings rates and corresponding levels of consumption and economic generation. These and other pros and cons are outlined below.

See the Wikipedia - Estate tax (United States) article for a more extensive introduction to the Estate Tax.

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Fair to wealthy?: Is the estate tax unfair to the wealthy?

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Yes

  • Exemptions, credits, deductions lower effective estate tax rate Center on Budget and Policy Priorities 3/16/05: "The following example illustrates how exemptions and deductions lower marginal rates. Consider an estate tax with a $2 million exemption and a top rate of 45 percent in 2011, as shown in Table 5. Now, consider the case of a $7 million taxable estate. First, the exemption amount is subtracted from the value of the gross estate, which reduces the taxable estate to $5 million. Next, estates are permitted to deduct any estate taxes paid at the state level; for a $7 million estate, state taxes would typically amount to about $635,000. Further, such large estates generally leave a portion to charity. The average charitable contribution for estates of this size, plus other smaller deductions and credits, are estimated to total about $1.1 million in 2011. All of these deductions together reduce the taxable estate to $3.3 million. Applying the 45 percent rate to this amount yields a tax liability of $1.5 million. The effective tax rate is thus 21 percent ($1.5 million divided by $7 million), or less than half the 45 percent top rate."
  • Double taxation hardly occurs with the estate tax This is due to the appreciation of assets (stocks, bonds, mutual funds) makes up between 1/3 and 1/2 of all estates, and these are never taxed before the estate tax. Also, inherited assets (a significant portion of many estates) aren't taxed until the estate tax.
  • "Step-up" eliminates capital gains tax from estate tax Liz Weston "5 big myths about the estate tax" MSN (no date): "Say your parents paid $20,000 for stocks that were worth $200,000 on the day they died and bequeathed them to you. Without the step up, you'd have to pay capital-gains taxes on that $180,000 increase in value if you sold the investments. Thanks to the step-up, however, the stocks get a new basis of $200,000. If you sold them for $200,000, you wouldn't owe any capital gains tax. Estates get this special tax bonus whether or not they pay any estate tax. For the vast majority of people that means the increase in value of their estates never gets taxed, either when they die or when the property they bequeath to others is ultimately sold."
  • Small businesses and farms are unaffected by estate tax Washington Post "Estate Tax Myths" 7/24/05: "A new study by the Congressional Budget Office examined estate tax returns filed by farmers and owners of small businesses in 1999 and 2000. The numbers that owed estate tax, the CBO found, were paltry, and the number without enough cash on hand to pay the bill even punier: In 2000, for example, just 1,659 farm estates had taxes due, of which 138 didn't report enough liquid assets to cover their tax liability...With the current exemption level of $1.5 million, the CBO analysis found, only 300 farm estates in 2000 would have owed any tax at all -- and of those, just 27 would have a tax bill in excess of their liquid assets. At the even more generous exemption scheduled to take effect in 2009, $3.5 million, the ranks of those potentially hit hard by the tax would have dwindled even further; 65 farm estates would owe taxes and 13 would not have enough cash to cover the bill."
  • Wealthy Americans owe a special debt captured by estate tax This is because their wealth would not be possible without the government systems, benefits, and regulations that have particularly benefited the wealthy. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt made this the fundamental argument in his proposal to institute a federal estate tax - "The man of great wealth owes a particular obligation to the State because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government."[1]


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No

  • The Estate Tax is double taxation Heritage Foundation 3/5/03: "Given that assets are typically purchased with after-tax income, the death tax clearly qualifies as double taxation. Indeed, because many financial assets in a taxpayer's estate may already have been subjected to other layers of taxes, the death tax often is a form of triple, or even quadruple, taxation."
  • Estate Tax unfairly harms farmers and small businesses Washington Post 7/23/05: "One of the chief arguments of those seeking permanent repeal of the estate tax is that it cruelly penalizes farmers and owners of small businesses whose heirs are forced to sell off their holdings to pay the tax. 'In order to make sure our farms stay within our farming families, we need to get rid of the death tax once and for all,' President Bush proclaimed in a speech last month to the Future Farmers of America."
  • The Estate Tax is too progressive. William Gale of the Brookings Institute and Maria Perosek of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, "Do Estate Taxes Reduce Savings?" November, 2000: "The estate tax directly affects only the wealthiest households. For example, in 1997 only about 2 percent of decedents had taxable estates, but federal estate and gift tax revenues were almost $20 billion, averaging over $240,000 per taxable estate. Even within the group of estate tax payers, payments are highly concentrated among very large estates. Taxable estates larger than $20 million accounted for less than 1 percent of all taxable returns, but 23 percent of revenues. Taxable estates in excess of $5 million accounted for 5.5 percent of all taxable returns, but 51 percent of revenues (Gale and Slemrod, 2000, tables 6 and 7.)"
  • Unfair to over-tax individuals for building nest egg Harvard Economist Greg Mankiw. November 4th, 2003: "Consider the story of twin brothers – Spendthrift Sam and Frugal Frank. Each starts a dot-com after college and sells the business a few years later, accumulating a $10 million nest egg. Sam then lives the high life, enjoying expensive vacations and throwing lavish parties. Frank, meanwhile, lives more modestly. He keeps his fortune invested in the economy, where it finances capital accumulation, new technologies, and economic growth. He wants to leave most of his money to his children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces. Now ask yourself: Which millionaire should pay higher taxes?... What principle of social justice says that Frank should be penalized for his frugality? None that I know of."
  • US estate tax is large compared to other countries. American Council For Capital Formation 2000: "Many countries tax estates (or inheritances) more lightly than does the United States, according to a recent survey of 24 industrialized and developing countries compiled by Arthur Andersen LLP for the ACCF Center for Policy Research (see Figure 1). In fact, the U.S. marginal estate tax rate is higher than that of all other countries surveyed except Japan. This conclusion lends support to the views of many academic scholars and policy experts that the estate tax should be repealed or reduced because it adds to the already-heavy U.S. tax burden on saving and investment and, by raising the cost of capital, impedes investment."


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Economics: Would banning the estate tax be economically responsible?

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Yes

  • Repealing estate tax would negatively affect social programs. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Greenstein and Kogan "Combined Effect of Bills Moving in the Senate Would be to Finance Near-Repeal of the Estate Tax with Cuts in Medicare, Veterans Benefits, School Lunches, and Other Programs." June 26th, 2006: "The Thomas estate-tax bill and the Gregg budget-enforcement bill would result in multi-million dollar tax cuts for the estates of the wealthiest Americans who die, with these lavish tax cuts being financed by large reductions in health care, retirement, and other benefits on which millions of ordinary Americans rely...Congressional Budget Office projections show that if the President’s tax cuts are extended...and relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax is continued, the projected budget deficit in 2012 and every year thereafter will be close to or more than $200 billion above the level needed to hit the Gregg bill’s deficit targets... Under ... the Gregg bill, every dollar that a tax-cut bill loses in revenue must eventually be made up by cutting a dollar out of entitlement or other mandatory programs (unless discretionary programs are cut more deeply, other tax cuts are terminated or scaled back, or other revenue-raising measures are adopted)...Enactment of the Thomas bill would trigger $283 billion in entitlement cuts over the 2007-2016 period, with $262 billion of these cuts coming in the second five years (2012-2016)...Table 1 (go to article to see Table 1) displays the cuts that would have to be made in various entitlement programs to offset the increases in deficits the Thomas bill would cause. The Table is based on the official cost estimate that the Joint Committee on Taxation has issued of the Thomas bill..."
  • Estate Tax has negligible effect on wealthy savings rate. William Gale and Maria G. Perozek "Do estate taxes reduce savings?" November 17th, 2000: "First, the effects of estate taxes on saving depend on the donor’s motives for bequests and for wealth accumulation. This suggests important links between transfer motives and the impact of estate taxes that might be exploited in future theoretical and empirical work. Second, the response of the potential transfer recipient can materially affect the overall impact of estate taxes on saving. Thus, analysis of the estate tax should consider the saving behavior of both the donor and the recipient. Third, under every transfer motive examined, estate taxes can actually raise net saving by the donor and recipient. This raises doubts about the robustness of what appears to be conventional wisdom that estate taxes always reduce wealth. Fourth, recycling estate tax revenues generally reduces the effect of the tax on saving, but does not necessarily make the effect negative."
  • Estate tax encourages hard work and income generation. Wikipedia's Estate Tax Article: "Another argument in favor of the estate tax relates to comparative incentives. Proponents argue that the estate tax is a better source of revenue than the income tax, which is said to directly disincentivize work. While all taxes have this effect to a degree, some argue that the Estate Tax is less of a disincentive since it does not tax money that the earner spends, but merely that which he or she wishes to give away for non-charitable purposes. Moreover, some argue that allowing the rich to bequeath unlimited wealth on future generations will disincentivize hard work in those future generations."



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No

  • Repealing Estate Tax offers significant stimulus. William Beach, Heritage Foundation "The Case for Repealing the Estate Tax" 8/21/96: "If the estate tax were repealed, the effect on the economy would be significant. According to an econometric study conducted by Professor Richard Wagner of George Mason University, the effect of the estate tax on the cost of capital is so great that within eight years, a U.S. economy without an estate tax would be producing $80 billion more in annual output and would have created 250,000 additional jobs and a $640 billion larger capital stock. An analysis by The Heritage Foundation using two leading econometric models also found that repealing the estate tax would have a large and beneficial effect on the economy. Specifically, the Heritage analysis found that if the tax were repealed this year, over the next nine years: The nation's economy would average as much as $11 billion per year in extra output; An average of 145,000 additional new jobs could be created; Personal income could rise by an average of $8 billion per year above current projections; and the deficit actually would decline, since revenues generated by extra growth would more than compensate for the meager revenues currently raised by the inefficient estate tax. The estate tax has few friends, other than tax attorneys, and raises very little revenue at a heavy cost to the economy. It generates complex tax avoidance schemes. The hardest hit by the tax are small businesspeople who work hard to pass on an enterprise of value to their children. And its bias against saving and wealth generation is the antithesis of the American dream."
  • Estate tax reduces personal savings and economic health According to the Brookings Institute 11/17/00, William G. Gale Maria G. Perozek contend that there was "a general presumption that higher estate taxes will reduce saving and aggregate capital accumulation. If correct, this presumption implies that estate taxation reduces the long-run growth prospects for the economy. Reductions in saving could also affect the distribution of income by reducing the capital-labor ratio, thereby raising the return to capital and reducing wages. (Kotlikoff and Summers 1981, McCaffery 1994, Stiglitz 1978.) There are a number of reasons to suspect that estate taxes have an important effect on saving. Most importantly, the estate tax places a one-time levy on wealth that is not bequeathed to a spouse or given to charity. There is at least a prima facie case that a wealth tax reduces saving. Because it is a tax on capital value and because of interactions with other taxes, the estate tax can impose very high effective tax rates on capital income (Shoven and Wise 1996, Poterba 2000, Gale 2000). In addition, bequests and inter vivos transfers plausibly account for half or more of all wealth accumulation in the United States and other countries (Gale and Scholz 1994, Kotlikoff and Summers 1981, Masson and Pestieau 1997, Modigliani 1988). Finally, although the estate tax only directly affects the very wealthiest households, large inter vivos transfers, bequests, and wealth are also concentrated among wealthy households (Aaron and Munnell 1992, Carroll 2000, Gale and Scholz 1994, Menchik and David 1983)."
  • Costs of repealing estate tax would be minimal. An American Family Business Institute Study by Daniel Clifton 7/05: "The Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) scores to permanently repeal of the federal Estate Tax have wildly overestimated the cost of repeal in the past just as they have overestimated the cost of other tax cuts. JCT’s new score of estate tax repeats their past mistakes and inflates the cost of repeal by at least $140 billion."
  • Cost of compliance with estate tax greater than revenue MSN Liz Weston: "There are some who argue that the total cost of complying with the law may exceed the tax generated. The IRS assessed $23.5 billion in net estate taxes in 2001, which compares with a total IRS budget of $8.7 billion. But the estate-tax system's costs go well beyond the amount the IRS collects. People spend money on estate-planning services to reduce the tax's impact, for example, and on life-insurance policies to help their heirs pay any tax that's owed. Just filing an estate tax return can be expensive, since the form can be complicated and a high number of returns get audited, requiring professional help. Alicia H. Munnell, a former Federal Reserve economist who served on President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisors, estimated that the federal estate-tax system generates $1 in compliance costs for every $1 in tax revenue that's raised. The bottom line: It's pretty clear that collecting the estate tax is cost-effective for the government. Whether it's cost-effective for the rest of society is what's up for debate."
  • Estate tax raises interest rates on home loans. Estate Tax "Keeps interest rates on home loans and other major purchases higher than they should be."Heritage Foundation '96


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Charity: Would eliminating estate tax reduce charitable giving?

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Yes

  • Charitable givings would fall if estate tax banned Because deductions from the estate tax are offered for receipts of charitable donations, the estate tax is known to incentivize charitable givings during life and at death. As a result, some fear that the elimination of the Estate Tax would result in a reduction of charitable givings. A 2004 Congressional Budget Office report concluded that eliminating the estate tax would reduce overall charitable giving by 6-12 percent.[2]


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No

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Politics: Who supports estate tax or its repeal?

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Yes

  • Republicans generally favor banning the Estate Tax. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Republicans began calling it the "Death Tax" because it proved more politically effective for their opposition to it."[3]
  • Key Republican Senators supporting repealing estate tax:
    • Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Senate Finance Committee Chairman, was actively involved in the negotiations for Republicans on this issue as the debate proceeded through 2005 and 2006.[4]
    • Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, "has been trying for more than a year to woo Democrats from conservative states [into opposition to the estate tax]", according to the NYTimes 6/7/06. In May of 2006, he brought to the floor a bill calling for the permanant repeal of the estate tax.[5]
  • Key Democratic Senators supporting repealing the estate tax:
    • Max Baucus (D-MT), ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, had tried in early 2006 to forge a compromise deal with Senator Jon Kyle that "would deplete revenue by only $500 billion to $600 billion during that decade [instead of the $1 trillion that the Washington Post cited as the 2011-2021 cost of a repeal]"[6]
  • 2004 mid-term elections gave rise to Republicans supporting ban. While in 2002 senators defeated similar legislation 54 to 44 (passage requires 60 votes), the chances in the Senate may have improved after the 2004 mid-terms because four new Senate Republicans had arrived and supported permanent repeal. It is unclear how the 2006 mid-terms will affect this calculation.[7]



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No

  • Senate has consistently denied floor-voting on bills to repeal estate tax. In 2006, though, the Senate came close to ending debate through a vote of 57 to 43 (three shy of what was needed to end debate). Following the November, 2006 election, it would seem that the Democratic gains in the Senate would either make it less likely that such a majority would be reached and/or that any legislation that eventually reached the floor that called for banning the estate tax would actually be passed.
  • Dems consistently oppose repealing the Estate Tax: Because Democrats won a majority in both the House and the Senate in the 2006 elections, most agree that the probability that Congress will pass a bill banning the Estate Tax has been significantly reduced. Washington Post 5/31/06 - "...Almost all Democrats support [estate tax revisions] raising the threshold for eligibility to $3.5 million for an individual and $7 million for a couple."
  • Key Democratic Senators backing estate tax:
    • Charles Schumer (D-NY) has led negotiations for the Democrats in the Senate through 2004 and 2005.[8]
  • Republicans that have supported the estate tax or opposed its repeal:
    • John McCain of Arizona[9]
    • George V. Voinovich of Ohio[10]
    • Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island[11]
    • Olympia Snowe of Maine[12]
    • Susan M. Collins from Maine[13]
    • Robert F. Bennett of Utah[14]
    • Mitch McConnell of Kentucky[15]

The effect of the ban on the deficit is cited as the primary concern among Senators.[16]


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Public opinion: Where does the American public stand?

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Yes

  • A March, 2005 BNA Poll - A total of 35 percent of those polled favor complete elimination of the tax, 50 percent said its rate should be reduced, and 13 percent said the tax should remain the same, the poll concluded. While the vast majority support reductions of some kind, it is important to note that only 35% supported a complete repealing of the tax.
  • A 1999 poll by Worthlin Worldwide found 70 percent of voters favoring a phase-out of the estate tax. NCPA
  • A 2000 poll by the Pew Research Center found 71 percent of voters supporting elimination of the inheritance tax.NCPA
  • A 2001 CBS News/New York Times poll also found 71 percent of people opposing imposition of an estate tax at death. NCPA
  • Frank Luntz poll 2005 - A Republican that has fought for a estate tax ban for over a decade, polled in 2005 that more than 80 percent of American respondents called the taxation of inheritances "extreme." Roughly 64 percent said they favored "death tax" repeal. Support fell to a still-strong 56 percent when asked whether they favored repeal.[17]


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No

  • Evidence that public opinion shifted by 2006 to support for the Estate Tax: - The Washington Times 4/12/06 - "The Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities released a poll yesterday that it said proves that opinions have shifted and more people oppose the tax's being repealed. The poll of 910 persons, conducted by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates Inc., found that when asked simply whether the estate tax should be repealed, reformed or left as is, 57 percent favored reform or leaving it alone, and 23 percent backed repealing it."


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Activists: Where do the key players and organizations stand?

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Yes

  • Farmers: Farmers began worrying about the effect of the estate tax on their passing on their wealth to their heirs in the mid-90s as the anti-Estate Tax movement picked up pace through that period.[18]
  • Small business owners: Samll business owners, like farmers, also began fretting about the Estate Tax in the mid-90s with the acceleration of the anti-Estate Tax movement.[19]
  • American Family Business Institute[20]
  • Prominent economists in support of banning the estate tax:
  • Heirs to the Mars Inc. fortune joined in 1992 with a number of other wealthy families, including Gallo wine and Campbell soup, to hire the law firm Patton Boggs LLP to lobby for estate tax repeal.[25]
  • Book "Death By A Thousand Cuts", by Michael Graetz and Yale political scientist Ian Shapiro chronicles the estate tax repeal movement. - "A law that constituted the blandest kind of common sense for most of the twentieth century was transformed, in the space of little more than a decade, into the supposed enemy of hardworking citizens all over this country."[26]


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No

  • Warren Buffet (6/26/06) - He called on lawmakers to retain the estate tax after announcing that he would give 37 billion of his wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation [27]
  • Bill Gates, Sr. supports the estate tax, calling it "fair tax" and saying that its repeal would concentrate power in the hands of the wealthy.[28]
  • OMB Watch opposes banning the Estate Tax, primarily on the basis of how much it projects it will costs (280 billion over through 2015, and "astronomically" more in the following decades).[29]


References:

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