Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Strong" Estate Tax Targets Middle Class And Ignores Super-Rich

Warren Buffett wants a strong estate tax.  This has a populist, common sense appeal in light of his advocacy for higher income taxes and generous charitable giving pledge.  Uncle Warren's argument is that plutocratic-enabling tax policies harm democracy.  Let's consider the circumstances of today's plutocracy to determine whether any changes in tax policy will really weaken their hold on power.

The estate tax plan from United for a Fair Economy, which Mr. Buffett has endorsed, reduces the estate tax exemption threshold from $10M to $4M.  This will harm the middle class and those who try to raise their status into the upper middle class more than it will harm billionaires.  The ultra-rich who signed up for Mr. Buffett's big giving pledge have already structured their estates to pass into tax-free foundations and giving vehicles they control through trust agreements.  George Lucas' designation of the proceeds from Lucasfilm's sale to a charity he favors is a classic example of how the ultra-rich can always avoid estate taxes.  Giving your own money to a non-profit you control is a legal way to continue paying your living expenses.  The aspirational middle class may not have access to the same kinds of estate-preservation strategies unless they can afford very competent wealth managers and tax attorneys.  This is why the proposed policy's endorsement of a strong graduated tax on larger estates is meaningless.

True estate tax reform would begin with the elimination of the tax deductibility of charitable contributions.  That won't happen, of course.  Non-profit executives who derive their funding from endowed foundations would lobby against it and so would wealthy donors who fund political campaigns.

I'll give you a plan for real, comprehensive tax reform.  Have the U.S. Treasury study the history of tax collection in the U.S. and identify the point on the Laffer Curve that maximizes gross revenue.  I suspect it's somewhere between 16% and 19%, which means Warren Buffett probably isn't undertaxed at all if he pays 17.4%.  Once we've identified that optimal point, make that the flat tax rate for all income with no deductions, exemptions, or carry-overs for any reason.  Taxing earned income, unearned income, capital gains, and estates at that one rate will enormously simplify the government's operations.  It will also render redundant the hordes of accountants and attorneys who perform little productive work.  Tax planners represent as much of an overhead burden for the economy as tax collectors.  I know the federal government will never adopt my plan because I can't bundle as many campaign contributions as Warren Buffett.