Millionaires for the estate tax

Posted: Feb 15, 2001 12:00 AM
In the category "Man Bites Dog," the winner of this week's weird news story: Millionaires Against Estate Tax Repeal. The headline in The New York Times is particularly amusing: "Dozens of Rich Americans Join in Fight to Retain the Estate Tax."

Normally when "dozens" of Americans join in a political cause, it is not particularly noteworthy, but in this case the dozens include gazillionaires Warren E. Buffett, George Soros, a couple of Rockefellers, and Bill Gates' dad, who have banded together to denounce Bush's plan to repeal the death tax. A petition in the Sunday Times op-ed section warns apocalyptically that "repealing the estate tax would enrich the heirs of America's millionaires and billionaires while hurting families who struggle to make ends meet," as well as having a "devastating impact" on tax-free charities who benefit from the rich guys' effort to evade the current tax.

Warren Buffett, the fourth richest American, refused to sign the petition only because he felt it did not go far enough in defending "the critical role" the death tax plays in promoting economic growth. Repealing the tax, he claimed, "would be a terrible mistake," the equivalent of "choosing the 2020 Olympic team by picking the eldest sons of gold-medal winners in the 2000 Olympics."

What are we to make of this interesting sociological development? Billionaires who demand, "Tax me, before I leave it all to my kids!!!"

Isn't America grand? Even our rich are devoted to the bourgeoisie work ethic. As Dinesh D'Souza points out in his new book, "The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence," economic theorists who predicted that greater wealth would lead to more leisure have been by and large correct: We work eight-hour days, not 12; we start work later and retire younger than Americans did 100 years ago. This is true for every group of Americans except the rich, who, research shows, work even longer hours than the average American, long after they have more money than they know what to do with, in terms of their personal wants. "My retirement plan is to be carried out of here," Rupert Murdoch put it. Buffett seems truly morally horrified by the idea that without a 55 percent confiscatory death tax, America will be condemned to a hereditary aristocracy.

But a work ethic is precisely what the rich have difficulty passing on to their children. The reason the Forbes list of the richest 400 Americans shifts each year has nothing to do with a government money grab, but with the truth that in a highly competitive market, only the hardest-driving highest performers will stay on top for long. I may occasionally envy the wealthy their wealth, but I do not envy the so-called advantage of inherited wealth. More than enough to provide a middle-class life and a decent education does not seem to this mother any advantage to children.

"Will you tell me how to prevent riches from producing luxury? Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from producing effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance, vice and folly?" John Adams asked Thomas Jefferson. Today he might well ask the Kennedys.

Never fear, Warren, the reason there are few rich men's sons among the heads of major corporations or founders of vast new techno-enterprises has nothing to do with the death tax and everything to do with the reality that in order to obtain such a position you have to work hard and perform well. The team is safe.