President Obama discusses the federal budget at the White House. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
At the start of his second term, events pushed President Obama to choose between the living and the dead. He chose dead millionaires over elderly people living on Social Security. The wealthy were given a most generous reduction in the estate taxes to be collected when they die. Social Security beneficiaries were told to live with smaller benefit checks. Instead of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, Obama went the other way.
I asked Robert McIntyre, the celebrated reformer at Citizens for Tax Justice, what he makes of this odd presidential twist. “The Obama administration has mixed feelings about old people,” McIntyre dryly observed. “Old people on Social Security deserve smaller benefits. Old people who own estates worth tens of millions deserve smaller tax bills for their children.”
How could this have happened with a Democratic president in the White House? In early January, under pressure to make a “fiscal cliff” deal with Republicans, the president signed a new estate tax law that delivered a gorgeous windfall for those with accumulated wealth—or, rather, for their children or others who inherit the family fortunes. All rich people are now entitled to an estate-tax exemption of $5 million. That is seven times larger than the exemption that existed in the last years of the Clinton administration ($670,000) and more than double George W. Bush’s ($2 million).
Furthermore, because this new estate-tax exemption is indexed to protect against inflation, the exemption will keep growing bigger year after year. For 2012, the exemption rose by $120,000 and another $130,000 for 2013. That’s an annual inflation-driven increase of about 2.5 percent, though Social Security recipients received an increase of only 1.7 percent at the same time.
The new cost-of-living index Obama has proposed for Social Security would work in the opposite direction. It is designed to reduce Social Security benefits in future years, less than what people would get from the present calculation. The White House describes its so-called “chained CPI” as a technical fix that is good government policy.
Yet, taken together, these changes are a revenue loser for the government. The generous reductions in the estate tax will cost around $400 billion in lost revenue by not reverting to terms before the Bush II presidency worked to undermine it. The “chained CPI” fix for Social Security and other programs, including the estate tax exemption, is expected to save only about half as much as the estate tax loses—and those savings come not from the rich, but the broad ranks of working people.