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Institute for Policy Studies

Blogging Our Grand Divide

Happy 100th Birthday, Estate Tax

Taxing inherited wealth is America’s second best idea, behind the national parks.

On August 25, the U.S marked the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. In the words of historian Wallace Stegner, the parks are “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

85Several weeks after President Woodrow Wilson penned the act creating national parks, he signed America’s second best idea into law, the federal estate tax, our nation’s only levy on the inherited wealth of multi-millionaires and billionaires.

Like the park system, the estate tax is a fundamentally American notion, an absolutely democratic intervention against a drift toward plutocracy and extreme wealth imbalances. Taxing inheritances set the U.S. apart from the monarchies and wealth dynasties of Europe.

A century ago, we were living a Gilded Age of ostentatious wealth and dizzying inequality. Before the Forbes 400, there was the First Four Hundred, the coveted list invited to New York socialite Caroline Astor’s annual cotillion ball.

It was “wealth against commonwealth,” as muckraker Henry Demarest Lloyd described it. Louis Brandeis, who later became a Supreme Court justice, presciently observed, “We can have concentrated wealth in the hands of a few or we can have democracy. But we cannot have both.”

The impetus for the estate tax was the threat that concentrated wealth and political power posed to our nation’s fragile experiment in self-governing democracy. And the movement pressing to tax inherited wealth ranged from rural populist farmers and urban reformers to enlightened industrialists and President Theodore Roosevelt. On estate taxation, Andrew Carnegie wrote in his essay Wealth, “Of all forms of taxation, this seems the wisest.”

Read the full article at US News and World Report.

  • Thomas A Dillon

    How do you propose to protect and enhance the “inherited wealth tax”? Is Chuck Schumer on board with this? Is there draft legislation ready if Hillary becomes President and the House and Senate are in Democratic hands? Do you know which Republican Senators who could vote with the Dems and not filibuster and what will be the price to pay them for their votes? Who are you and the rest of the Patriotic Millionaires lining up to support this legislation? What type of outreach are all of you doing to help create additional awareness on this issue? How strong is the opposition on this? Is ALEC involved and how are they and others mobilizing their surrogates and how are they framing the issue and how are you countering it?
    Yeah, i want to get this changed tomorrow but there is a lot of work ahead and our friends on the other side will be relentless in opposing any increase while actively pushing to repeal it in its entirety. Let me know if you would like some additional help in pursuing this important issue.

    • JP

      Placing the accumulated wealth of and individual and placing it in the hands of a government bureaucracy is going to accomplish exactly what? Bigger, more invasive government has never solved ANY problem either real or perceived.

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