In his recent Nation web piece, “Profiles in Cowardice,” William Greider rightly took aim at Democrats who may be “preparing to take a dive on the issue they have righteously hammered for four years–repeal of the estate tax.”
If any more evidence was needed that Dems need to hang tough on this defining issue, they should read David Cay Johnston’s stunning, and inexplicably buried New York Times article “Few Wealthy Farmers Owe Estate Taxes, Report Says.” (In my edition it was published on page A 30.)
Johnston is America’s premier journalist on the inequities of Bush’s tax policies. His clear reporting has consistently exposed how the working class is getting screwed by an Administration which gives hundreds of billions in tax breaks to the wealthiest one percent, while cutting back on health care, education, affordable housing, veterans’ needs and programs for everyone else.
Remember back in June 2001, Bush said he’d talked to farmers who told him the estate tax (or in GOP doublespeak, “the death tax”) had destroyed their family farms? And you know all those Republican spinners like Grover Norquist and Frank Luntz who prattle on about how the estate tax is destroying family farming? Well, according to a Congressional Budget Office report released last week, they’re not telling us the truth. Listen to Neil E. Harl, an economics professor at Iowa State University whose expertise in estate tax planning for famers has made him a household name in the farm belt: The Congressional study, Harl tells Johnston, “adds to the weight of the evidence that this is a myth that has been well-spun.”
According to Johnston, the CBO study contradicts assertions that the estate tax burdens family farms. Its findings show that “the number of farms on which estate tax is owed when the owners die has fallen by 82 percent since 2000, to just 300 farms, as Congress has more than doubled the threshold at which the tax applies.”
And here’s a stunning rebuke to those GOP hypocrites who preach fiscal responsibility while increasing our debt burden for future generations to bear: “All but 27 farmers left enough liquid assets to pay taxes owed, and the CBO hinted that the actual number might be zero.” That means we may well be looking at zero farmers affected by an estate tax whose abolition is incessantly justified by the purported threat it represents to the very existence of family farming in America.
More facts, according to Johnston: “The estate tax raised an estimated $23.4 billion last year. Repeal would shift part of the burden of taxes off the fortunes left by the richest one percent of Americans, some of whose fortunes were never taxed, onto the general population.” And according to Michael Graetz, a professor of Yale Law School who was a tax policy official in the Bush Administration, repeal would primarily benefit people with large estates held in stocks and other securities—very few farmers among them.
Here’s another crucial fact that those who are assaulting the very foundations of our country don’t want you to know: “Because of details in the repeal bill,” Johnston reports, “it would also force a large majority of farms and small businesses to pay larger tax bills in the future.” John Buckley, the chief tax lawyer for the Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, told Johnston that he was critical of “farm and small business groups [for] not explaining to their members that the repeal as written would cost them money while primarily benefiting those with vast fortunes.
For those who believe Democrats pay a huge long-term price for failing to serve as credible defenders of the economic interests of ordinary Americans, here is a chance to take a stand. Don’t compromise on the estate tax’s provisions. Build a moral social contract with those who want a fair shake–the 99 percent of Americans who will get screwed, again, by an Administration that isn’t telling the truth to its farmers.