As he raised estate tax rates to fund work programs during the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “The transmission from generation to generation of vast fortunes by will, inheritance or gift is not consistent with the ideals and sentiments of the American people.”
It’s plenty consistent with the ideals and sentiments of President Trump, who began lying about the merits of an estate tax repeal on the day he began the tax overhaul effort.
“To protect millions of small businesses and the American farmer, we are finally ending the crushing, the horrible, the unfair estate tax, or as it is often referred to, the death tax,” Mr. Trump said in late September.
Congressional Republicans echoed Mr. Trump’s whoppers.
“You actually create jobs by getting rid of this death tax,” said the House speaker, Paul Ryan. “Because you know what kills one family business from passing their business on to the next generation? The estate tax.”
“For too long, this tax has threatened family-owned businesses — including women- and minority-owned businesses — from being passed down to their children and grandchildren,” said Representative Kevin Brady, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which produced the tax legislation.
Wrong, wrong and wrong. So who actually does pay estate tax?
1. The top 0.2 percent. Some 11,300 American estates — about 0.2 percent — are estimated to be subject to the estate tax this year. The top tenth of income earners pay nearly 90 percent of estate taxes collected, and about one fourth of that total is paid by the richest 0.1 percent. The tax itself has been whittled down significantly. Until 2001, it applied to inheritances starting at $650,000 for an individual. Today, an inheritance must be larger than $5.49 million for an individual or $10.98 million for a couple for their heirs to be liable for any estate tax at all. Opponents of the tax say it taxes earnings twice. But more than half of the biggest estates consist of unrealized capital gains — like stocks that have appreciated without being sold — that have never been previously taxed.
2. A few dozen farmers, and even fewer minority business owners. About 80 family farmers or small-business people would be subject to the estate tax this year, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center — a far cry from the “millions” Mr. Trump wrongly claims. The biggest winners in an estate tax repeal wouldn’t be struggling ranchers, minority contractors or mom-and-pop grocers. They’d be people like Mr. Trump’s kids, unless they’re.
3. Morons. “Only morons pay the estate tax,” Gary Cohn, Mr. Trump’s chief economic adviser, told Senate Democrats, meaning, it was later explained, “rich people with really bad tax planning.” Many of the very wealthy use loopholes, like trusts, to avoid paying inheritance tax. We don’t know where Mr. Trump’s kids would stand because Mr. Trump has never fulfilled his promise to publicly release his tax information.
An estate tax repeal would provide a tax windfall of more than $3 million apiece for the top 0.2 percent of earners, and more than $20 million for the wealthiest Americans. It would cost $239 billion in revenue over a decade. It offers nothing for middle-class people, except more evidence of Mr. Trump’s and Republicans’ bad faith.
This editorial was published in the New York Times on Nov. 20.