Fix (Don't Flush) the Estate Tax
“The external glitter of wealth conceals a corrupt political core that reflects the growing gap between the very few rich and the very many poor.” – Mark Twain, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873)
The Estate Tax, or a tax on wealth passed onto heirs, is not unique to America, but many OECD countries have no such tax. Only Japan, South Korea, and France have statutory estate tax rates higher than the US rate of 40%, but in America, the first $11mm is exempt for couples. By definition, only the truly wealthy pay the wealth tax, although loopholes abound.
Enacted in 1916 in response to the excesses of the first Gilded Age and a search for revenues, the Estate Tax is on the chopping block in this second Gilded Age. Strangely, it’s getting less attention than the other components of the “tax plan” like a reduction in the corporate tax rate, apparently because it doesn’t raise much money (as if $20 billion is not much money). Defenders of the plan either (falsely) suggest it breaks up family farms and small business, or more cynically, they maintain that “anyone smart enough to amass a large fortune is smart enough to avoid paying it anyway.” That’s the spirit!
Yet there is probably no aspect of the U.S. tax code more aligned with the values that the Founding Fathers risked their lives for than the law taxing inherited wealth. After all, what the American Revolution was all about was emancipation from the corrupted power of the King and a general, well-considered aversion to Old World aristocratic rule.
Aristokratia (rule by the best) was originally conceived by the Greeks as a system where the best and brightest — the elite — would rule in the interest of society as a whole. But too often in the real world, aristokratia devolved into tyrannical plutocracy, both in Greece and later with the Roman Empire (followed by centuries of the Dark Ages I must add). Rather than wealth recirculating in a way that served the common good, it became increasingly concentrated within an elite class through marriage and policymaking, further enriching that class and ensuring its hold on power. The pattern has repeated itself throughout history, with disastrous consequences for the rich and the poor alike.
America was to be an experiment in something different, breaking from the European aristocratic tradition. America was “conceived in Liberty” (specifically liberty from the English Monarchy and from aristocracy more generally), and from that conception grew a unique entrepreneurial and opportunistic culture of discovery and personal fulfillment previously unseen in the Old World. America would go on to lead the world and become the envy of many nations. Some (dangerously) even believed it was America’s God-given “manifest destiny” to spread a system of liberty (by whatever means necessary) based on democratic self-governance (in sharp relief to the Old World’s aristocracies).
America also has a great philanthropic tradition that is aligned with this experiment and directly opposed to the extreme consolidation of dynastic wealth and power. Andrew Carnegie, perhaps the father of American Philanthropy wrote in his Gospel of Wealth that “the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry.” His position on the “duty of the man of Wealth” is clear:
"First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living . . . and to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon . . . and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community…"
Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth is not perfect and needs an update for the modern context of complexity. But even this “robber baron” of the first Gilded Age – and certainly Mark Twain and our Founding Fathers – would be rolling in their graves if they knew an American-billionaire-narcissist president (with the advice of two former Goldman Sachs partners in his cabinet and politicians corrupted by big money donors) was trying to ram through a tax plan that eliminates, rather than fixes, the Estate Tax.
It’s easy to rebut the critics of the Estate Tax. It is a tax triggered by death. So what. Would you prefer it be a wealth tax imposed annually? And it’s not double taxation on the creation of real wealth, rather it is largely a tax on hitherto untaxed unrealized gains—looking at you Jeff Bezos and Walton family. Let’s have a healthy debate on what level the exclusion should be. $1 million or $10 million? One can make the case for an even higher level. But the right number for a healthy civilization is not $1billion, much less no limit at the amount that the next Paris Hilton is born into. It turns out that some people need a little nudge to help them join the Giving Pledge, and the Estate Tax provides such an incentive. The question on the table is not whether the current tax collects enough revenue to be worth the effort. Rather, the question is: do we want to moderate the extreme wealth inequality in America’s second Gilded Age or exacerbate it further?
I’ve not read anywhere that the Founding Fathers believed in the freedom to amass ever larger concentrations of wealth and to create family dynasties. That’s not the “freedom” the founding fathers sought to protect. Given the long run stakes, it is terrifying to me how little intelligent debate on this topic is even taking place, with all the daily distractions, many around other forms of abuse of power.
Several years ago, my science colleague Dr. Sally Goerner observed that we are facing two immense challenges at this moment in history: The first is to transition to a new era; what many are calling the Integral Era. It requires us to transcend the mechanistic worldview on which the Scientific Revolution was grounded, and to embrace an integral or holistic understanding of how the world works, consistent with the universal principles and patterns of modern complexity science. This mirrors the necessary transition humanity made from the Medieval era to the Modern Era some four hundred years ago. It will be a monumental undertaking, certain to be filled with chaos and resistance from those in power.
But the second challenge is one humanity has experimented with and temporarily mastered but never succeeded at over the long term. That is how to organize and maintain a healthy hierarchy that provides the necessary coherence any complex society requires, while at the same time ensuring that those in positions of power act in such a way that serves, not merely their own self-interests, but the health of the whole system, or what we call the Common Good. Recirculating this wealth, either voluntarily or through taxation, is fundamental to a healthy metabolism, as we know from the study of all regenerative systems. It’s not ideological.
When in the history of this great nation have we witnessed, to such a degree, the soul- and civilization-destroying consequences of corruption and the sheer predatory abuse of power as we are experiencing at this moment in time?
This post was written by John Fullerton, founder and president of Capital Institute, a non-partisan collaborative working to create a more just and sustainable way of life on earth through the transformation of finance and creation of place-based regenerative economies. John is the architect of Regenerative Capitalism, and the author of "Regenerative Capitalism: How Universal Principles and Patterns Will Shape the New Economy" and the Future of Finance blog. Prior to Capital Institute, John was a Managing Director at JPMorgan, where he worked for 18 years before walking away from Wall Street in 2001. He is a member of the Club of Rome, a fellow of Toniic, and is a recognized impact investment leaders and practitioner as the principal of Level 3 Capital Advisors, LLC.