02 Apr Spend It in Vegas or Die Paying Taxes
A 0% tax on carousing, but 55% on thrift.
April 2, 2009
By ARTHUR B. LAFFER
In most cases, people who inherit wealth are lucky by an accident of birth and really don’t “deserve” their inheritance any more than people who don’t inherit wealth. After all, few of us get to choose our parents. It’s also arguable that inherited wealth sometimes induces slothfulness and overindulgence. But the facts that beneficiaries of inheritances are just lucky and that the actual inheritance may make beneficiaries less productive don’t justify having an estate tax.
These same observations about serendipitous birth can be made for intelligence, education, attractiveness, health, size, gender, disposition, race, etc. And yet no one would suggest that the government should remove any portion of these attributes from people simply because they came from their parents. Surely we have not moved into Kurt Vonnegut’s world of Harrison Bergeron.
President Barack Obama has proposed prolonging the federal estate tax rather than ending it in 2010, as is scheduled under current law. The president’s plan would extend this year’s $3.5 million exemption level and the 45% top rate. But will this really help America recover from recession and reduce our growing deficits? In order to assess the pros and cons of the estate tax, we should focus on its impact on those who bequeath wealth, not on those who receive wealth.
Advocates of the estate tax argue that such a tax will reduce the concentrations of wealth in a few families, but there is little evidence to suggest that the estate tax has much, if any, impact on the distribution of wealth. To see the silliness of using the estate tax as a tool to redistribute wealth, realize that those who die and leave estates would be taxed just as much if they bequeathed their money to poor people as they would if they left their money to rich people. If the objective were to redistribute, surely, an inheritance tax (a tax on the recipients) would make far more sense than an estate tax.
Indeed, from a societal standpoint, inheritance is an unmitigated good. Passing on to successive generations greater health, wealth, and wisdom is what society in general, and America specifically, is all about. Imagine what America would look like today if our forefathers had been selfish and had left us nothing. We have all benefited greatly from a history of intergenerational American generosity. But just being an American is as much an accident of birth as being the child of wealthy parents. If you are an American, it’s likely because ancestors of yours chose to become Americans and also chose to have children.
In its most basic form, it’s about as silly an idea as can be imagined that America in the aggregate can increase the standards of living of future generations by taxing individual Americans for passing on higher standards of living to future generations of Americans of their choice. Clearly, taxing estates at death will induce people who wish to leave estates to future generations to leave smaller estates and to find ways to avoid estate taxes. On a conceptual level, it makes no sense to tax estates at death.
Study after study find that the estate tax significantly reduces the size of estates and, as an added consequence, reduces the nation’s capital stock and income. This common sense finding is documented ad nauseam in the 200 U.S. Joint Economic Committee Report on the Costs and Consequences of the Federal Estate Tax. The Joint Economic Committee estimates that the estate tax has reduced the capital stock by approximately $850 billion because it reduces incentives to save and invest, has excessively high compliance costs, and results in significant economic inefficiencies.
Today in America you can take your after-tax income and go to Las Vegas and carouse, gamble, drink and smoke, and as far as our government is concerned that’s just fine. But if you take that same after-tax income and leave it to your children and grandchildren, the government will tax that that after-tax income one additional time at rates up to 55%. I especially like an oft-quoted line from Joseph Stiglitz and David L. Bevan, who wrote in the Greek Economic Review, “Of course, prohibitively high inheritance tax rates generate no revenue; they simply force the individual to consume his income during his lifetime.” Hurray for Vegas.
If you’re rich enough, however, you can hire professionals who can, for a price, show you how to avoid estate taxes. Many of the very largest estates are so tax-sheltered that the inheritances go to their beneficiaries having paid little or no taxes at all. And all the costs associated with these tax shelters and tax avoidance schemes are pure wastes for the country as a whole and exist solely to circumvent the estate tax. The estate tax in and of itself causes people to waste resources.
Again, a number of studies suggest that the costs of sheltering estates from the tax man actually are about as high as the total tax revenues collected from the estate tax. And these estimates don’t even take into account lost output, employment and production resulting from perverse incentives. This makes the estate tax one of the least efficient taxes. And yet for all the hardship and expense associated with the estate tax, the total monies collected in any one year account for only about 1% of federal tax receipts.
It is important to realize that less than half of the estates that must go through the burden of complying with the paperwork and reporting requirement of the tax actually pay even a nickel of the tax. And the largest estates that actually do pay taxes generally pay lower marginal tax rates than smaller estates because of tax shelters. The inmates really are running the asylum.
In 1982, Californians overwhelmingly voted to eliminate the state’s estate tax. It seems that even in the highest taxed state in the nation there are some taxes voters cannot abide. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that ultra-wealthy liberal Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, supporter of the estate tax and lifetime resident of Ohio, where there is a state estate tax, chose to die as a resident of Florida, where there is no state estate tax. Differential state estate-tax rates incentivize people to move from state to state. Global estate tax rates do the same thing, only the moves are from country to country. In 2005 the U.S., at a 47% marginal tax rate, had the third highest estate tax rate of the 50 countries covered in a 2005 report by Price Waterhouse Coopers, LLP. A full 26 countries had no “Inheritance/Death” tax rate at all.
In the summary of its 2006 report, the Joint Economic Committee wrote, “The detrimental effects of the estate tax are grossly disproportionate to the modest amount federal revenues it raises (if it raises any net revenue at all.) “Even economists in favor of the estate tax concede that its current structure does not work. Henry Aaron and Alicia Munnell concluded, “In short, the estate and gift taxes in the United States have failed to achieve their intended purposes. They raise little revenue. They impose large excess burdens. They are unfair.”
For all of these reasons, the estate tax needs to go, along with the step-up basis at death of capital gains (which values an asset not at the purchase price but at the price at the buyer’s death). On purely a static basis, the Joint Tax Committee estimates that over the period 2011 through 2015, the static revenue losses from eliminating the estate tax would be $281 billion, while the additional capital gains tax receipts from repeal of the step-up basis would be $293 billion.
To counter the fact that economists such as I obsess about the deleterious effects of the estate tax, advocates of the estate tax note with some pride that 98% of Americans will never pay this tax. Let’s make it 100%, and I’ll get off my soapbox.
Mr. Laffer is the chairman of Laffer Associates and co-author of “The End of Prosperity: How Higher Taxes Will Doom the Economy – If We Let It Happen” (Threshold, 2008)