Tag: estate tax

Paul Krugman’s Nostalgia for Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism

Paul Krugman managed to discover “America’s Taxation Tradition” in an unlikely spot – a fiery old political speech by an unsuccessful presidential candidate who called for a “graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes.” Dripping with irony, Krugman asks “Who this left-winger? Theodore Roosevelt, in his famous 1910 New Nationalism Speech.”

Readers are supposed to assume that because Roosevelt had been a Republican, his New Nationalism speech could not possibly have been remotely left of center. Yet the phrase “new nationalism” and the advocacy of an inheritance tax were both borrowed from Herbert Croly’s highly influential 1909 manifesto of the Progressive Era, The Promise of American Life.

As Christopher Lasch noted, “Theodore Roosevelt read The Promise, found it highly flattering to himself, publicly praised it, and used it as an argument for his ‘new nationalism.’ Croly did not so much influence Roosevelt as read into his career an intellectual coherence which Roosevelt then adopted as his own view of things.” Croly, who later launched The New Republic magazine, supported Roosevelt in the 1912 Presidential race and Robert La Follette’s Progressive Party campaign in 1924, before becoming disenchanted and (as Lasch put it) “flirting with socialism.”

In his 1909 book, Croly said, “In economic warfare … it is the business of the state to see that its own friends are victorious. It holds … a hand in the game.” The state, said Croly, must look out for “the national interest,” and help those to win “who are most capable of using their winnings for the benefit of society.” To the properly cynical, that sounds like an open invitation to crony capitalism and corruption, if not kleptocracy.

In the New Nationalism speech Roosevelt said, “We should permit [a fortune] to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country …  No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered — not gambling in stocks, but service rendered” (Roosevelt gambled-away his own inheritance on a ranching venture, not stocks).

Not quite socialist in 1909, Croly tolerated, “preservation of the institution of private property in some form, [but only with] the … radical transformation of its existing nature and influence.” Similarly, Roosevelt allowed that he would prefer to stop short of government ownership of business (socialism), if government control (fascism) would suffice. “I do not wish to see the nation forced into the ownership of the railways,” said Roosevelt, “if it can possibly be avoided.”

In short, the Roosevelt/Croly New Nationalism certainly did lean in a “leftist” (statist and collectivist) direction with respect to state supremacy over private property.

As afterword, here is something I wrote in a 1995 anthology revisiting Croly’s The Promise of American Life:

Herbert Croly’s quaint 1909 vision of the merits of increased centralization was founded on the notion that ‘American state governments have been corrupt and inefficient largely because they have been organized for the benefit of corrupt and inefficient men.’ The federal government, by contrast, was apparently organized for the benefit of saints and angels. Still, Croly’s idea of ‘big government’ in Washington looks like a bargain by today’s standards. He reasoned that a much stronger federal government could be financed out of a graduated inheritance tax: ‘The tax at its highest level,’ Croly wrote, ‘could be placed without danger of evasion at as much as 20 percent.’ Some recent estimates suggest that Croly may have been correct about how high the estate tax could be pushed without losing money. In any case, if a 20 percent inheritance tax were the only federal tax we had to worry about, as Croly proposed, the states would have little difficulty in raising money for the services that are still almost entirely a state or local responsibility, such as police protection, public schools, and roads. (The federal government, by contrast, is almost entirely involved in taking money from some people and giving it to others).

Should We Blame Obama, Rangel, and Baucus if People Die to Escape the Death Tax?

The death tax is a punitive levy that discourages saving and investment and causes substantial economic inefficiency. But it’s also an immoral tax that seizes assets from grieving families solely because someone dies. The good news is that this odious tax no longer exists. It disappeared on January 1, 2010, thanks to the 2001 tax cut legislation. The bad news is that the death tax comes back with a vengeance on January 1, 2011, ready to confiscate as much as 55 percent of the assets of unfortunate families.

I’ve criticized the death tax on many occasions, including one column in USA Today explaining the economic damage caused by this perverse form of double taxation, and I highlighted a few of the nations around the world that have eliminated this odious tax in another column for the same paper.

Politicians don’t seem persuaded by these arguments, in part because they feel class warfare is a winning political formula. President Obama, House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus have been successful in thwarting efforts to permanently kill the death tax. But I wonder what they’ll say if their obstinate approach results in death?

Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming is getting a bit of attention (including a link on the Drudge Report) for her recent comments that some people may choose to die in the next two months in order to protect family assets from the death tax. For successful entrepreneurs, investors, and small business owners who might already be old (especially if they have a serious illness), there is a perverse incentive to die quickly. 

U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis says some of her Wyoming constituents are so worried about the reinstatement of federal estate taxes that they plan to discontinue dialysis and other life-extending medical treatments so they can die before Dec. 31. Lummis…said many ranchers and farmers in the state would rather pass along their businesses – “their life’s work” – to their children and grandchildren than see the federal government take a large chunk. “If you have spent your whole life building a ranch, and you wanted to pass your estate on to your children, and you were 88 years old and on dialysis, and the only thing that was keeping you alive was that dialysis, you might make that same decision,” Lummis told reporters.

The class-warfare crowd doubtlessly will dismiss these concerns, but they should set aside their ideology and do some research. Four years ago, two Australian scholars published an article on this issue in Topics in Economic Analysis & Policy, which is published by the Berkeley Electronic Press. Entitled “Did the Death of Australian Inheritance Taxes Affect Deaths?”, their paper looked at the roles of tax, incentives, and death rates. The abstract has an excellent summary.

In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. …our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

And here’s a graph from the article, which shows how many affected taxpayers managed to delay death until the tax went away.

Obama and other class-warfare politicians now want to run this experiment in reverse. I already noted in another blog post that there are Americans who are acutely aware of the hugely beneficial tax implications if they die in 2010. In other words, Congresswoman Lummis almost certainly is right.

I don’t actually think that Obama, Rangel, Baucus and the rest of the big-government crowd should be blamed for any premature deaths that occur. But I definitely think that they should be asked if they feel any sense of guilt, remorse, and/or indirect responsibility.

The Deadly Impact of the Death Tax

Australia got rid of its death tax in 1979. A couple of Aussie academics investigated whether the elimination of the tax had any impact on death rates. They found the ultimate example of supply-side economics, as reported in the abstract of their study.

In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that our results are driven by misreporting, our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

It looks like this experiment is going to be repeated in the United States, but in the opposite direction. There was a rather unsettling article in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. The story begins with a description of how the death tax rate dropped from 45 percent in 2009 to zero in 2010, and then notes the huge implications of a scheduled increase to 55 percent in 2011.

Congress, quite by accident, is incentivizing death. When the Senate allowed the estate tax to lapse at the end of last year, it encouraged wealthy people near death’s door to stay alive until Jan. 1 so they could spare their heirs a 45% tax hit. Now the situation has reversed: If Congress doesn’t change the law soon—and many experts think it won’t—the estate tax will come roaring back in 2011. …The math is ugly: On a $5 million estate, the tax consequence of dying a minute after midnight on Jan. 1, 2011 rather than two minutes earlier could be more than $2 million; on a $15 million estate, the difference could be about $8 million.

The story then features several anecdotes from successful people, along with observations from those who deal with wealthy taxpayers. The obvious lesson is that taxpayers don’t want the IRS to confiscate huge portions of what has been saved and invested over lifetimes of hard work.

“You don’t know whether to commit suicide or just go on living and working,” says Eugene Sukup, an outspoken critic of the estate tax and the founder of Sukup Manufacturing, a maker of grain bins that employs 450 people in Sheffield, Iowa. Born in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl, the 81-year-old Mr. Sukup is a National Guard veteran and high school graduate who founded his firm, which now owns more than 70 patents, with $15,000 in 1963. He says his estate taxes, which would be zero this year, could be more that $15 million if he were to die next year. …Estate planners and doctors caution against making life-and-death decisions based on money. Yet many people ignore that advice. Robert Teague, a pulmonologist who ran a chronic ventilator facility at a Houston hospital for two decades, found that money regularly figured in end-of-life decisions. “In about 10% of the cases I handled at any one time, financial considerations came into play,” he says. In 2009, more than a few dying people struggled to live into 2010 in hopes of preserving assets for their heirs. Clara Laub, a widow who helped her husband build a Fresno, Calif., grape farm from 20 acres into more than 900 acres worth several million dollars, was diagnosed with advanced cancer in October, 2009. Her daughter Debbie Jacobsen, who helps run the farm, says her mother struggled to live past December and died on New Year’s morning: “She made my son promise to tell her the date and time every day, even if we wouldn’t,” Mrs. Jacobsen says. …Mr. Aucutt, who has practiced estate-tax law for 35 years, expects to see “truly gruesome” cases toward the end of the year, given the huge difference between 2010 and 2011 rates.

The obvious question, of course, is whether politicians will allow the tax to be reinstated. The answer is almost certainly yes, but it’s also going to be interesting to see if they try to impose the tax retroactively on people who died this year.

So far in 2010, an estimated 25,000 taxpayers have died whose estates are affected by current law, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. That group includes least two billionaires, real-estate magnate Walter Shorenstein and energy titan Dan Duncan. …”Enough very wealthy people have died whose estates have the means to challenge a retroactive tax, and that could tie the issue up in the courts for years,” says tax-law professor Michael Graetz of Columbia University.

It should go without saying, by the way, that the correct rate for the death tax is zero. It’s also worth noting that this is an issue that shows that incentives do matter.