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October 1, 2014


Estate Taxes Continue to Cause Controversy

Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent and apparent presidential candidate, made the case for a progressive estate tax in a recent piece for The Huffington Post.

“Unless we reduce skyrocketing wealth and income inequality,” he declared, “unless we end the ability of the super-rich to buy elections, the United States will be well on its way toward becoming an oligarchic form of society where almost all power rests with the billionaire class.”

Sanders suggests a new, stronger estate tax could serve to close the gap between the rich and the poor as well as put an end to other problems. “A progressive estate tax on multi-millionaires and billionaires is the fairest way to reduce wealth inequality, lower our $17 trillion national debt and raise the resources we need for investments in infrastructure, education and other neglected national priorities,” he argued.

Sanders may or may not be right, but he’ll likely have more success advancing his cause if he avoids rhetoric that involves the redistribution of wealth and, instead, focuses on shifting the tax burden.

“More than a century ago,” he wrote, “President Theodore Roosevelt recognized the danger of massive wealth and income inequality and what it meant to the economic and political well-being of the country. In addition to busting up the big trusts of his time, he fought for the creation of a progressive estate tax to reduce the enormous concentration of wealth that existed during the Gilded Age.”

The federal estate tax, enacted by Congress in 1916, signaled an achievement of the Progressive movement as well as a landmark in progressive taxation. Although the tax was designed to redistribute wealth, it was also intended to redistribute the tax burden.

While asking a wealthy American to shoulder more of the tax burden is similar to using a tax to make those Americans less wealthy, the political distinction is vital. If history has taught us anything in regards to this endangered tax, it’s that smaller arguments tend to do better than grand ones.

Source: Thorndike, Joseph, “Should We Tax Away Huge Fortunes?” Forbes, September 22nd, 2014