Friday, September 02, 2005

The latest rationale for estate tax repeal

I am ambivalent about the estate tax, if we look at it as a long-term element of tax system design rather than evaluating repeal with no other changes. Straight repeal today strikes me as insane given the long-term budget picture, and as unfortunate in distributional terms because of its effect on overall progressivity. But if I were given the choice of a comparably progressive fiscal system with or without the estate tax (e.g., getting more out of a progressive consumption tax if we dump the estate tax), I would regard it as a close call. My own take on it, not entirely the usual one, is that it is a tradeoff between (a) the bad aspect, which is its imposing higher taxes on multi-generational households that have gratuitous transfers to heirs than on those that don't, and (b) the good aspect, which is the possibility (requiring further empirical verification) that behavioral responses to it might be surprisingly low if people find it difficult to plan rationally for their own deaths. Evidence for (b), by the way, comes from the low level of inter vivos gifts, relative to the optimal amount in a tax planning sense, from people who are certain to leave large bequests and don't face obvious King Lear-type issues.

Plus on the bad side we might have the high ratio of tax planning and avoidance costs to revenue raised, if the tradeoff is indeed worse here than in the income tax or the hypothetical progressive consumption tax.

So much for my basic take on the estate tax. Then there is Grover Norquist's take. This guy really is a barrel of monkeys. Missing no opportunity to exploit whatever tragedy is at hand, he apparently sent today a memo to U.S. Senators explaining why, in the light of the New Orleans tragedy, it is more important than ever to repeal the estate tax. The title of the memo is "Death Tax Repeal/Katrina." The money quote from the memo, courtesy of the dailykos.com website (which posted the pdf file):

"The 2003 tax cut lifted economic growth far beyond what most people expected. We know repeal of the Death Tax will also have a similar effect. And higher levels of economic growth is [sic] exactly what the residents of the Gulf Region need at this time to start the rebuilding process for their neighborhoods and more importantly for their lives."

Thanks, Grover. Nice of you to take time out from selling photo ops to see the President to take on the Gulf Coast tragedy.

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