Law in Contemporary Society

Community, Class and the Estate Tax

Economically Perverse Opposite to the Estate Tax: A Conventional Account

  • I think you meant "Opposition," but it's hard for me to believe you could have failed to proofread so completely. So maybe I'm missing something?

The estate tax is a tool that combats the dynastic concentration of wealth within a small subset of society while raising revenues that fund important government social services. It has always been levied only upon the estates of the highest-income individuals, and yet the majority of middle and low-income Americans have in the past opposed it, thus undermining their own economic self-interest.

  • I think you mean "have recently opposed it." And I don't think you mean the majority of low-income Americans oppose the estate tax; I've seen no data that suggests that. Whether "middle-income" Americans "oppose the estate tax" depends on how you define middle-income and how you ask the question. So maybe this is an essay about polling variance?

One conventional explanation for this opposition has been a variant of the “pure mystical idealism” that Arnold attributes to subjects in a capitalist society: the rags-to-riches American Dream narrative that supposedly drives every Americans to view the structure of society through the eyes of a millionaire. Others point to a more practical problem of imperfect information; Larry Bartels cites a 2003 survey in which over 50% of respondents drastically overestimated the number of Americans subject to the estate tax, while David Brooks cites a figure of 19% of Americans who believe themselves to be in the wealthiest 1% of the population. Yet neither forsaking the notion of the American Dream nor acquiring more complete information seems to eliminate economically perverse opposition to the tax. Bartels found that even people with a proper understanding of the scope of the estate tax and an accurate perception of the current trend toward increasing economic stratification were nevertheless “no less likely than less-informed citizens to support repealing the estate tax.”

Another View: America-as-Community

Brooks presents an alternative account: Americans have resisted thinking about wealth redistribution because they prefer to imagine the nation as a community of individuals rather than a hierarchy of economic classes, a unifying outlook that is “incredibly inhospitable to class-based politics.” Brooks’ lens of community is a powerful explanatory resource for one of the more puzzling elements of Bartels’ data: even controlling for fiscal ideology, individuals who feel as if they pay too much in federal income tax, but who would not be subject to the estate tax, are particularly likely to support the repeal of the tax. Brooks’ notion of America-as-community provides for a middle-income taxpayer whose burdensome taxes, far from making him wish that this liability could be transferred to someone more economically advantaged, instead make him empathize with the well-heeled neighbor who is analogously afflicted by the estate tax. In the context of this folksy vision (within which the rhetorical label of “death tax” has particular power), it is difficult to present the estate tax in favorable light even to those whom, considered as individuals, it would strictly benefit.

Toward a Contemporary Frame

Upon such a field proponents of the estate tax have fought a losing battle for the last decade. But the very different perspectives on society that have suddenly been (re)discovered by the American people in the contemporary moment offer an opportunity radically to reframe the issue of the estate tax. The finance crisis has revealed a mysterious, monolithic Other – big finance and its bosses – that can be positioned at the root of troubles that have touched most Americans, many severely. Even more conceptually powerful is the most prevalent locus of these troubles: one’s own home, the very symbol of membership in the “community” of mainstream America. Thus have Americans been provided grounds to exclude from their community the financial elite (an exclusion which has become extreme indeed in the case of some AIG executives). In effect, the finance crisis has created at least a subset of the wealthy class toward which the middle- and lower-classes might consider themselves opposed.

The implications for the estate tax are clear: with the notion of a distinct class of wealthy individual reconstituted as a set of outcasts from an American community, the estate tax may now be reframed as a tax by this community on a group outside of it. Such a framing is particularly important if, as Brooks argues, Americans continue to find the uniting notion of community more palatable than the divisive ideology of intra-national class struggle. Put another way, this is a moment at which a tax on the wealthiest might be framed not as a tax upon another community member but as a tax upon an Other.

Subsidiary methods of articulating the benefits of the estate tax within the context of an American community suggest themselves. The dearth of charitable giving in 2008 has led to funding crises for many organizations of clear benefit to the American community. No income for the rich and their corporations means no income taxes and no deductible contributions, so the current financial climate has created a relative disincentive for once-a-year charitable gifts. While people might not impose a tax on itself strictly in the hope that charitable giving will flow from it, the non-cyclical burden of the estate tax may nevertheless be framed within the collection of taxes in general as a bulwark against acute hard times (such as today) for organizations that depend on tax-deductible philanthropy.


Secondary arguments aside, however, the partial resurrection of American class-consciousness that has accompanied the finance crisis provides the most favorable conditions in recent memory for the positive reception of the estate tax. Within such a frame, the political perspective of those who will strictly benefit from the funds generated by the estate tax may become aligned with their economic interests without demanding that they relinquish a community vision of America.

  • This isn't really a paper about why Americans tell pollsters they believe things that it would be to their class advantage not to believe. But it isn't really an essay about anything else. I don't know whether some people believe what David Brooks believes most Americans believe, but if I were a Republican I would want to believe what David Brooks believes about Americans in pretty much the way that if I were poor I would want to believe in the possibility of growing rich. Either way the issue isn't what people tell pollsters about the estate tax, it's what the tax law says about what happens to your money when you die. And the story of the estate tax, in that regard, is pretty much the same as what happened to income
    we abandoned progressivity in the last generation, and gave immense advantages to the very rich about which everyone other than the very rich was ill-informed. That will now change. Rhetoric on the subject isn't very interesting, and the essay, much as it needs further revising, has to cope with that rather serious problem.


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r9 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:03:37 - IanSullivan
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