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Americans wanting to inherit it all

Posted: Thursday, July 20, 2000

OK, once more with feeling.

Just a few weeks ago, we - that's the editorial ``we'' - wrote about those perennial soul mates: death and taxes. We opposed the total repeal of the estate tax on the grounds that it would benefit the top 2 percent of Americans at a cost of $140 billion in the first decade and $750 billion the next.

The power of the press being much overrated, the Senate dismissed(!) our view and voted to eliminate death taxes. Only the presidential veto keeps the repeal from becoming law.

Today a sadder and wiser editorial ``we'' are fully aware of the hostility to estate taxes. Our e-mail ran, and we do mean ran (although cascaded is also an appropriate verb), about 230 to 16 against us and in favor of repeal.

Some of our e-correspondents were basic foamers, like the man from Livingston, Mont., who wrote, ``You are obviously a liberal socialist and support the communist philosophy.'' Calmer folks accused us of ``envy,'' and, as the Squim, Wash., reader said, fomenting ``sick, typical liberal class warfare.'' (It is, we must note, only progressives these days who are accused of ``class warfare.'')

Interestingly, very few hid behind the Republican cover story about protecting family farms and businesses. In fact, anyone following this issue would know that the Democratic alternative would have exempted 95 percent of farmers.

However, e-mailers, like the reader from Columbus, Ohio, were mostly outraged about ``double taxation'': ``What gives anyone the right to take money which I have earned and fully paid taxes on?'' Or just plain hostile to ``grave-robbing.''

Well, our grandfather, who left an estate of wisdom, used to remind us: ``If everybody says you're drunk, lie down.'' We should know better than to jump back in to this issue.

But what intrigued us was not just how many people sided with heirs and heiresses, but how many identified with their issues. Take the West Virginian who favored repeal, even while admitting that ``unless a bag stuffed with money falls from the sky, I will never have a million dollars to pass along to my daughter when I die.''

A recent Gallup poll showed that he was among the 60 percent of Americans favoring a tax repeal to benefit that 2 percent. Indeed 17 percent of those polled were under the illusion that the tax would affect them.

Is the subject class warfare? Or class denial?

The beat goes on. Tuesday, the Senate voted another tax cut, this one for married Americans. The marriage tax break will also disproportionately help the better-off families and cost some $248 billion over 10 years.

Meanwhile, in the wings is a bill to remove the tax on Social Security. Not only would this give most of the benefits to the wealthier elderly but it would cost $8.8 billion next year alone in money that was earmarked for Medicare.

Politics has become a tug of war between incrementalists. While the Republicans are offering targeted tax cuts, the Democrats are offering piecemeal programs. In this small-picture politics, citizens seem to think they have more to lose than gain in a progressive tax system.

Over the past eight years of economic growth, a whole segment of Americans has learned to identify more with their portfolios than their Social Security numbers. They think of themselves as shareholders and entrepreneurs more than members of a community.

The most sympathetic letters came to us from parents trying to set up funds for disabled family members. But there was no sense that this should be a more collective responsibility.

Well, we are not immune to the appeal of tax cuts. As a woman from Lawrenceville, N.J., wrote: ``The better question may be: Who would I prefer to squander our estate - the Feds or our children?'' The very idea of sending some $60 billion down or, rather, up into a Star Wars fiasco is enough to make us seek our estate planner.

But the truth is that Democrats, the same folks who repealed welfare and pared expectations of government right to the bone, have failed to make the political connection between what's collected and what's distributed. Tax cuts hold sway.

Deep into this election, there's bound to be a debate about the government surplus and the public need. At some point, Americans have to decide whether they think of their legacy in wider and more equitably shared terms.

In the meantime for those who disagree with us over estate taxes, we can only say: to heir is human.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.



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