As the battle in Washington State over ballot initiative 1098 comes to a head this week, the Tax Fairness Organizing Collaborative (TFOC) is running an innovative cross-training for its network of state tax fairness groups. This unique program is providing on-the-ground organizing and capacity-building resources for TFOC member Washington Community Action Network (CAN) while providing training in the strategy, messaging, and logistics of running a campaign to staff of TFOC groups.
Brooks Winner, an organizer with Opportunity Maine, is in Washington State this week lending a hand to the campaign. Below, he reports back from his first day in action.
Today was our first day of action and we spent most of the afternoon getting acquainted with the Washington CAN! office and staff. It seems like a really great group of talented and dedicated people. We made phone calls to local media outlets to notify them about a cool action that we're doing tomorrow at a local branch of one of the big evil corporate banks. We will basically be rounding up a group of Washington CAN! members to demand that the bank halt all foreclosures on homes in Washington and nationwide while they get their paperwork situation straightened out. Should be fun.
This evening we helped set up and run a Get Out the Vote Party at a local community center, definitely the highlight of the day. As a young, and relatively inexperienced organizer, it was great to see this type of big community event in action. There was a pretty big crowd and people were excited, engaged and passionate about their community. There was food provided, and live entertainment including the musical stylings of Bob, a homeless man with aspirations of running for a seat in the state legislature, and a special guest performance by the Seattle Raging Grannies! We went over the November 2nd ballot, reviewing the critical races and initiatives; discussed reasons for voting and running for office; and encouraged the group to take action by phone banking, talking to their friends, participating in other Washington CAN! events. It was a wonderful evening.
Lessons from the field for today: Tonight's Get Out the Vote Party was a great example of a well-run event that gets people fired up and excited about making their communities better places to live. It was a little bit thrown together, but the essential pieces were all there. First, the turnout was really solid. Second, and related to the good turnout, the free food and entertainment were key to keeping people happy and engaged. The grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup were a hit and a cheap way to feed lots of people. The Raging Grannies were a great finale, and Bob's musical interludes held the whole event together really nicely.
Finally, the event was a PARTY. It may seem silly to call a community meeting like this a party, but that's what it was. Making these events fun and celebratory is so essential, especially at a time when people are frustrated, scared, and worried about the future. People need to believe that there is reason to be excited, fired up and optimistic right now because so many people in the media, the political world and even their own communities are telling them that the hope is gone. The hope is still alive and tonight's event was evidence of that.
I'm a Genetic Lottery Winner--Tax Me!
The Estate Tax: A Critical Source of Revenue at a Time When Our Nation Needs it Most
By Judy Pigott
Distributed by OtherWords, Oct. 25, 2010
I am one of those lucky Americans who won the genetic lottery. That is, I was born rich. And believe it or not, my family's business success happened because of--not in spite of--our country's progressive tax system.
My great-grandfather, William Pigott, founded the Seattle Car Manufacturing Company in 1905. It has evolved into PACCAR, one of the largest heavy-duty truck manufacturers in the world. Although my great-grandfather's ingenuity and ambition was key to his success, in many ways you could say Uncle Sam was his business partner.
Around the mid-20th century, PACCAR (then Pacific Car and Foundry Company) acquired the Peterbilt Motors and Kenworth Motor Trucks companies. The trucks PACCAR manufactures would have nowhere to travel without the roadways, highways, bridges, and tunnels that the government builds and maintains. Not to mention the plows, streetlights, and police that keep these streets safe and passable--all paid for with tax revenue.
In essence, public structures supported by our tax revenue paved the way--literally--for my family's business success.
That's why I find anti-estate tax rhetoric so mind-boggling, especially coming from those who achieve business success because of government-created policies and structures. My great-grandfather and many others like him managed to accumulate enough wealth to pass on to younger generations during a time when taxes on the wealthy were far higher than they are now. I get more than a little frustrated listening to all of the misinformation that seems to cloud the debate surrounding the estate tax. So let's set a few things straight about the estate tax.
Much of the wealth subject to the estate tax has never been taxed. For wealthy Americans like me, the paycheck earned from the jobs we work is only a tiny portion of our wealth. Most of our income comes from watching our stock portfolios grow. Indeed, the majority of the one-quarter of one percent of American households who even qualify to pay the estate tax--that's one out of every 500 families--earn the majority of their wealth from accumulated assets, not earned income. If not for the estate tax, in many cases this wealth would avoid taxation entirely.
The estate tax is a critical source of revenue at a time when our nation needs it most. The one-year lapse in the estate tax this year will cost the U.S. Treasury roughly $25 billion in uncollected estate tax revenue. That's money that could be directed towards the significant challenges facing our country: an economy in shambles, structural and social needs going unmet, and a mounting federal deficit. Instead, $25 billion dollars is sitting in the bank accounts of wealthy heirs who didn't lift a finger to earn it. I, for one, am not interested in hoarding money that I didn't work to earn when it could be put to work to make our communities stronger.
The estate tax is an incentive for very wealthy individuals to engage in charitable giving and use their wealth for the greater good. As the recent "billionaire's pledge" demonstrated, the estate tax encourages people with wealth to support nonprofit services that are meeting critical needs in our communities. Repealing the estate tax entirely would provide no incentive for wealthy families to donate their wealth to the greater good, and could put the nonprofit sector in serious jeopardy.
Many pundits say the estate tax is shaping up to be one of the hottest debates of the year. That may be true, but to me the issue is very simple. Our tax code should reflect our collective values.
Preserving the estate tax will allow our government to support the public structures that keep our communities strong. It will provide revenue needed to pay down our federal deficit so our nation can return to secure financial footing. It will pave the way for future generations to access the same opportunities to succeed in business that my great-grandfather had more than 100 years ago.
And--most importantly--it will help us focus on what sort of a nation we wish to be.
- Would cut over $1 BILLION of local funding for public schools by cutting local property taxes in HALF! The state would be required to replace the lost revenue, but because it doesn’t have the funds, it would have to cut all others state services (e.g., health care, higher education, human services, and public safety) by 60%!
- Would create a new tax on water districts, utilities, and colleges. In order to pay for this new tax, these public service will have to dramatically increase their fees for service – your water bill, electricity bill and college tuition will go up!
- Would effectively halt construction in Colorado by prohibiting the state from borrowing and severely restricting local government borrowing.
- Would drastically cut specific state and local taxes and fees, thereby eliminating $2 billion for Colorado’s schools, roads, bridges, and other critical needs.
By Ajamu Dillahunt & Brian
Originally published in The Black Commentator, Oct. 20, 2010
Some may wonder what the federal estate tax has to do with the struggles of African-Americans and other people of color. By curbing the transfer of unlimited wealth from generation to generation, a strong estate tax is an important tool in closing the racial wealth divide and ensuring every generation, regardless of race and family background, has a fair chance at creating a decent life for themselves.
Communities of color have fought hard and made positive strides in closing the income gap, but we still have a long way to go. African-Americans now earn 62 cents for every dollar of white income. Latinos earn 68 cents. Amidst the Great Recession, the unemployment rate for African-Americans continues to hold above 15% compared to an unemployment rate of under 9% for whites. Poverty rates also vary widely.
Dismal as these numbers are, the disparities of real net wealth are even more shocking. African-Americans have only 10 cents of net wealth for every dollar of white net wealth. Latinos have 12 cents. The gap widens at the top where whites are 34 times as likely than African-Americans to have enough wealth – $3.5 million or more – to pay the federal estate tax under 2009 law. While the vast majority of whites have nowhere near enough wealth to pay the estate tax, those that do are part of a very white club.
It’s fairly clear why wealth disparities are so much greater than disparities of income. Unlike income, wealth transfers from generation to generation. As a result, when we look at wealth disparities, we’re not only looking at the injustices and inequalities of today, but we’re also looking at the injustices and inequalities of previous generations carried forward with interest.
Much of the wealth held in white communities is wealth that was accumulated over several generations, including periods of time when African-Americans were still owned as slaves, segregated under Jim Crow laws, redlined into poor neighborhoods, or otherwise denied the opportunities that whites have. Though many of these unjust structures and policies are gone, the economic inequalities they helped create are carried forward through the power of inheritance.
In struggles against oppression around the globe, people have long recognized that political liberation is only a part of the struggle. Political liberation must be accompanied by economic liberation and the correcting of past injustices. In nations across the Global South, land redistribution and nationalization were used in the years following colonial rule. When the Civil War came to an end here in America, there was a promise of 40 acres and a mule – a promise that was, of course, not kept. Many advocates continue the struggle for African American Reparations.
African-Americans are not the only communities of color suffering. Native Americans have had their land taken from them, their populations decimated, and worse. Latinos and new immigrants are driven across borders by the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank, that have enriched global corporations while creating massive poverty across Latin America and other developing nations.
Before the end of the year, Congress will be voting on whether or not to make the federal estate tax permanent, and if so, how strong it will be. A strong estate tax is essential to closing the persistent racial wealth divide. It is the only thing curbing the transfer of yesterday’s inequality to the next generation.
While a strong estate tax helps to curb the extreme wealth at the top, we must also fight to ensure that federal funds are used in a way that lifts up struggling communities, especially communities of color. Federal job creation programs should be targeted to communities hardest hit by the Great Recession. Adequate funding must be made available for foreclosure prevention programs and assistance. These are essential ingredients of a public policy program that will enable communities of color, along with working class white allies, to acquire and keep wealth.
Let us not miss the opportunity before us. Congress is coming back into session soon, and near the top of their agenda is action on the expiring Bush tax cuts and the estate tax. We should ensure that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy are ended and that we have the strongest estate tax we can get going forward. The time to act is now.
Ajamu Dillahunt is a board
member of United for a Fair Economy (UFE) and an organizer with the North
Carolina Justice Center. Brian Miller
is executive director of UFE. Dillahunt and Miller are co-authors of UFE’s
State of the Dream 2010 report entitled, “Drained – Jobless and Foreclosed in
Communities of Color.”
Farmers Watch Estate Tax Deadline
By Bill Teeter
This column was published in the Waco Tribune-Herald on Sunday, October 17, 2010
Farmers are growing apprehensive as New Year’s Day aproaches. At midnight on Jan. 1, 2011, a 10-year-old suspension of 2001
federal estate tax rules runs out.
Congress is discussing its options on the estate tax, which include a new tax with an increased exemption and lower percentage rate.
Farmers hope legislators find an answer that will either eliminate or hold down the estate tax before the deadline.
Family farms are at ground zero of the debate, farmers and others involved in agriculture said. Such farms would be greatly affected in the inheritance process after the death of an owner who has willed the property to descendants or others, they contend.
Farms often have values in the multi-millions and descendants would be forced to sell all or part of the property to take care of the estate tax bill, said Steve Pringle, legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau.
“You are left in the position of having to sell assets to pay the government the tax that’s due,” Pringle said.
Tax law passed under President George W. Bush in 2001 provided for a number of significant tax cuts and decreased estate taxes for large estates until the estate tax was repealed for 2010.
Affecting other cuts
The other tax cuts, including reductions for households making less than $250,000 a year, also were enacted under Bush and will expire at year’s end without action by Congress.
If Congress does not act before the Jan. 1 deadline, the estate tax will return to its 2001 status, with an exemption for all estates valued at $1 million or less and a 55 percent tax rate for all value above that, Pringle said.
Congress is looking at options that include an amendment to tax legislation that would allow for an exemption up to $3.5 million of value and a 45 percent tax rate for value above that. Over 10 years, the exemption would gradually increase to $5 million and the tax rate would drop to 35 percent.
Congress will resume legislative work Nov. 15. U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, has been trying to reduce the estate tax impact, said Josh Taylor, an Edwards aide.
A written statement from Edwards’ office this week said the congressman has backed permanent repeal of the estate tax, as well as exclusions for family farms and businesses with value of as much as $10 million.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, opposes any estate tax, said Cornyn spokesman Charles Chamberlayne.
Cornyn could still vote in favor of an estate tax that had bipartisan support and minimized the impact on farms and businesses, Chamberlayne said.
Closer to home, Justin Young co-owns an eastern McLennan County farm with his father, Paul Young. Farmers pay taxes on farm income produced by the land and to tax it upon an owner’s death is wrong, Justin Young said.
“It really needs to be completely done away with,” he said. “It’s not a good deal for farmers. We’re taxed on it and then we die and they turn around and tax us again.”
But support for high estate taxes, Pringle said, can be found among wealthy and low-income groups.
One organization, United for a Fair Economy, argues that steep taxes on inherited wealth is important for the economic health of the country.
Wealth is increasingly concentrated with a tiny percentage of individuals and estate taxes help combat that concentration, said Mazher Ali, the group’s communications director.
The Boston-based organization backs legislation calling for larger exemptions of $3.5 million for single people and $7 million for couples, with tax rates set on a sliding scale from  to 55 percent, he said.
Single people’s fortunes of more than $500 million and couples’ fortunes of more than $1 billion would be taxed at rates of 65 percent, Ali said.
The taxes are an investment that helps employees and entrepreneurs, Ali said. They help pay for administrative and physical infrastructure, such as the U.S. Patent Office and highways, so they ease the way for business, he said. [emphasis added]
The National Farmers Union backs estate taxes, but also wants them moderated from what existed in 2001.
The group hopes for a tax rate of 45 percent that increases on a sliding scale as value of the estate increases. The tax would have an exemption of $4 million for individuals and $8 million for couples.
Reducing the deficit
The Farmers Union statement said 1.6 percent of farms would have been affected by the pre-2010 version of the tax. The group contends that revenue from estate taxes would reduce the national deficit, cut the harmful effects of a weak economy and invest in future prosperity for the middle class.
Bill Reichenstein, a Baylor University professor of finance, said he doesn’t think estate taxes work well as government revenue sources.
Wealthy families often legally protect their money from estate tax collection through special trusts, Reichenstein said. The only ones making any money are attorneys who set up trusts, which typically cost around $30,000 to create, he said.
“What do we get for the estate tax? Is it really worthwhile when we’re getting next to nothing for it?” he said.
Justin Young’s father, Paul Young, put the worth of his farm at around $3 million. That means if nothing is done by Jan. 1 and it were passed on through an inheritance, taxes of more than $1 million would be placed on the estate.
Paul Young said he doesn’t believe the idea of redistributing wealth by such means works.
“If you took all the wealth in the country and divided it up evenly between everybody, it would just go back to where it is today,” he said.
In an atmosphere of 24/7 government-bashing and Tea Party cries of shrinking government, too seldom do we acknowledge the successes that we as a nation have accomplished when we take collective action, through our democratic process, to address great and pressing challenges.
As I sat down Sunday morning to read the Boston Globe, there on the front page was a powerful story about the success of the Clean Air Act. The article, entitled “A Clear Water Revival,” told the story of the Clean Air Act passed in 1989, and how it succeeded in dramatically reducing acid rain over the past 20 years since its passage.
In short, we saw a challenge, we took decisive action as one nation, and we turned a bad situation around! There's still more work to do, but it was a clear success. There was a great map on the front of the print edition of the Globe, but I couldn't find it online. I found a comparable map from the EPA which is copied below. It tracks "sulfate deposition" over time, one of the key measures of acid rainfall.
The Clean Air Act is one of the great examples of succesful collective action and government intervention, but it’s not the only one. A similar story has told about how we stopped the hole in the ozone from growing, through both national and international action.
Of course, the successes are not limited to environmental issues. Growing up in South Louisiana, I benefitted from many of the public structures that were created and funded through our tax dollars. One of the most direct reminders I had of this was when I was in college at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). The heart of the campus was built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the New Deal job creation programs, with WPA plaques on every building to remind us of this fact.
When my wife and I got married 12 years ago, we did so in Norris Dam State Park, just north of Knoxville, Tennessee. The lodge we held our reception in, and all the cabins we rented for our visiting family, were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), yet another New Deal program that put Americans to work producing lasting public spaces and structures that are still with us today. We stayed in another CCC cabin for our honeymoon in the mountains of Virginia.
Of course, the list goes on with notable public successes like the GI Bill that helped returning veterans buy homes and attend college, the Social Security program that ended the devastating poverty many faced in their senior years, and public research that effectively ended debilitating diseases that once ravaged this nation. Though none of these programs are perfect, and some such as the GI Bill were tainted by the racial injustices of their time, they demonstrate the positive change we can make when we act collectively.
Amidst all these public responses, there has often been a role for market solutions, but that role should be kept in context. In the Boston Globe story, part of the success of the Clean Water Act was attributed to the cap and trade program that allowed market forces to find the most cost effective and efficient way to comply with the new standards. However, the standards and rules were still set through government action. Without that leadership and the high standards we as a people set, market forces would have had little incentive to solve the problem.
Despite all the hype about market solutions to public problems, and the cries for smaller government (coming from Tea Partiers and the like), we cannot afford to abdicate the role of a strong public sector when facing big problems. It is when we act collectively, through a democratic and accountable government, that we are best equipped to solve the big challenges of our time.
Black Unemployment Rate Slower to Recover
By Ann Belser
Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oct. 10, 2010
Photo h/t Pan-African News Wire via Flickr
Think it's hard to get a job?
Try being a young black man with an electronic monitoring bracelet on his ankle for a felony conviction. That's Brian Scott.
But Mr. Scott, 24, of the West End, has some things other young black men with a resume that includes a stint in the Allegheny County Jail don't: He has two suits for interviews, he wears a tie and he has the support of Leroy Hayes and Michael Rogers, co-coordinators of the Young Fathers Program at the Hill House Association in the Hill District.
The two men have taught Mr. Scott a truism he had not heard before: Clothes may not make the man, but they can unmake him.
In this Great Recession, black men have been hit particularly hard. On Friday when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released the unemployment numbers for September, the overall population was suffering an unemployment rate of 9.6 percent.
Unemployment in the black community was 16.1 percent. And while unemployment for black women dropped from 13.2 percent to 12.6 percent, the rate for black men rose from 17.3 percent in August to 17.6 percent in September. There are now 1.4 million black men out of work nationally.
The numbers look even worse for black teenagers. While the overall teen population had an unemployment rate of 26 percent, the white teen population had 23.4 percent unemployment and black teens had 49 percent, up from 45.4 percent in August. Unemployment rates based on race are not broken out for the Pittsburgh region.
To call economic conditions in the African-American community a crisis is to understate the problem because the situation black men are finding themselves in could follow them for the rest of their careers.
"This high unemployment that blacks are facing is going to go on for years based on the current economic projections," said Algernon Austin, a sociologist with the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research center in Washington, D.C. "Blacks are going to have double digit unemployment until 2014."
Even as the recovery slowly takes hold, Mr. Austin said none of the projections call for unemployment among blacks to fall much below 10 percent. "It's a dire situation and unfortunately not many people are treating this as a crisis. ... Even college-educated blacks are facing high unemployment."
Some of the reasons for the intractable problems are a function of economics as much as they are the product of generations of discrimination.
For example, Mr. Austin said those living in a black community with high unemployment may have more problems finding new jobs because the people to whom they would naturally turn -- friends, families and neighbors -- are also experiencing high unemployment.
Black members of the middle class and upper middle class may also be hurt by a lack of depth of wealth. A study by United for a Fair Economy, a Boston-based research organization, showed that for every dollar of net worth that white families have, black families have 10 cents. [link and emphasis added]
Dedrick Muhammad, one of the authors of the report and a research associate for The Institute for Policy Studies, said a number of factors go into those numbers.
College-educated African Americans typically have higher levels of student loan debt because their parents don't have as much money to finance their educations; black homeowners in African-American neighborhoods have homes worth 10 percent to 15 percent less than comparable homes in white neighborhoods; and blacks at all levels of the income spectrum were targeted with subprime loans at a higher rate than whites.
"Any type of bump in the road can be really serious just because there is no wealth to back that up," Mr. Muhammad said. "Most people use their social network in times of crisis, but when your whole social network is in crisis, there's no ladder to climb out."
The recovery is also not helping blacks as much as whites. Whites tend to have more of their money in the stock market, which has regained some of its value, while blacks have more of their money in their homes, and the housing market has been slow to rebound. [...]
- My name is (your name) and I’m a constituent from (your city). I’m calling to support a strong estate tax. I’d like the Senator to push for higher estate tax rates for multi-millionaires and billionaires, and vote against unlimited deductions for farms.
- I also urge the Senator to extend tax cuts for middle class families ONLY.
Instead of more tax breaks for the wealthy, Congress should use that
money to put Americans back to work, invest in our kids and pay down our
- Where does the Senator stand on the estate tax and the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy?
Stossel: If America is headed for bankruptcy, what can we do about it? Progressives say they have the answer: tax the rich – people like...me. And, joining us now from Boston is Mike Lapham, Director of...Responsible Wealth, an advocacy group that says, 'tax the rich more.' And, Mike, you include yourself?
Lapham: Indeed, indeed.
Stossel: You're rich?
Stossel: What do you mean by 'Responsible Wealth'? What's 'responsible'?
Lapham: Our members are people who are in the top 5% in terms of their wealth or income in the US. And, they are people who get that they don't need another tax break, that we should have an estate tax, that we need more corp. accountability, things like that.
Stossel: Alright, you don't think, though, that there is a risk that that will kill jobs? I think higher taxes make people work less. [...]
[video clip played]
Stossel: That's the risk...that more people will 'ride horses' instead of start businesses and create jobs.
Lapham: Well, that's the myth, anyway. That certainly sounds good, but the reality is – this has been proven over and over; United for a Fair Economy did a report on this a few years back – there is no real link between tax cuts and job growth. [...]
Meet the millionaire cofounder of Seventh Generation who is part of a growing movement of wealthy Americans urging Congress to let the Bush tax cuts expire.
Although Congress has decided to hold off on voting on the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts until after the November election, the delay has not slowed down the efforts of some wealthy millionaires. The 700 or so members of a Massachusetts-based group called the Responsible Wealth Project have spent the last several months courting politicians to make their case, arguing that the country simply cannot afford to keep tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and that, as billionaires and millionaires, they hardly need that cash. NEWSWEEK’s Nancy Cook recently spoke with one of the group’s members, the cofounder of Seventh Generation, Jeffrey Hollender. Hollender talked about his disdain for the current tax code, the need for more compassion among the wealthy, and the way being rich often seems relative.
NEWSWEEK: So why do you oppose extending the tax cuts for families that make more than $250,000 a year?
Hollender: This is a time when the wealthiest Americans need to give back to the country. I know this well, as someone who has been financially successful, the vast array of benefits available to me that are not available to other people. It’s a moral question, but it’s also equally economic, because I don’t necessarily need everyone to agree with my morals and my perspectives. We can agree that the country can’t afford the tax cuts. This is the absolute wrong time, because where is that money going to be made up from? It’s going to come from social services. The government will have to reduce expenses, probably by providing fewer benefits for less affluent Americans. I can’t remember the government dealing with economic problems in a way that has inflicted pain on me, but that’s the not the case if you’re living below the poverty level.
Photo h/t Business Innovation Factory via Flickr
Tax Me, Please
Originally posted in The Best Revenge blog, Forbes.com, Oct. 6, 2010
More than 2,000 wealthy Americans who have paid or expect to owe estate taxes have signed a call to preserve the estate tax that was put out by United for a Fair Economy’s Responsible Wealth project. The signers include professors, farmers, small business owners, and lawyers, says Lee Farris, the estate tax policy coordinator for UFE. Some signers have a few million dollars, others tens of millions, but they are united in the words of the call: “We believe that permanent repeal of the estate tax would be bad for our democracy, our economy, and our society.”
The signers of the Responsible Wealth estate tax call are not just outliers, and some are billionaires. They include Forbes 400 members David E. Shaw, Julian Robertson, Jr., George Soros, John Sperling, and Ted Turner. All six children of David Rockefeller, the oldest Forbes 400 member, have signed too.
For more about how billionaires are duking it out over taxes, check out the story, Billionaire Tax Battle, that Janet Novack and I co-wrote in the October 25th issue of Forbes.
A consequence of the Bush tax cuts, the estate tax has lapsed for 2010, and it’s set to come back on Jan. 1, 2011, with a $1 million per person exemption and a top rate of 55%. In 2009, the exemption was $3.5 million per person and the top rate was 45%.
The Responsible Wealth groupies want to see an estate tax reinstated at 2009 levels, or with an even lower exemption and higher top rate. It’s unclear whether Congress will come to a decision on the estate tax in the lame duck session following the elections.
For the Responsible Wealth folks, the estate tax is only one tax fairness fight. They advocate progressive taxation at the state level. In what they see as their most urgent business recently, they have been calling on members of Congress with local business people in tow, arguing that the Bush tax cuts shouldn’t get extended.
I chatted with 82-year-old Edward Anderson, a retired managing partner of Tweedy Brown, who lives in San Diego and pegs his wealth in the low 8 figures. He remembers when the top federal income tax rate was 90%. “Now we’re told the world will come to an end [if taxes go up to 40%],” he says. Anderson is in favor of letting the Bush tax cuts expire (the top income tax rate would increase from 35% to 39.6%). And he has signed the Responsible Wealth call to preserve the estate tax, although an estate tax would mean less for his two sons and five grandkids at his death.
Anderson’s message to his peers is this: “It’s an amazing thing when people say, ‘You support the estate tax! Won’t that affect you?’ and the answer is ‘Yes and Yes.’ I don’t understand where people’s heads are. There’s a moral obligation of returning your wealth to society.”
To read the “call” (and sign it if you’re so inclined), click here.
How Billionaires Are Fighting Over Taxes
By Janet Novack & Ashlea Ebeling
This column appeared on Forbes.com, Oct. 7, 2010; printed Oct. 25, 2010
Has there ever been a time when so many Forbes 400 members have been involved in so many tax fights--on both sides? And not just in Washington, D.C., where epic battles rage over the future of the federal estate tax, income tax rates for the rich and whether the earnings of private equity and hedge fund managers should be taxed at 15% or 35%.
In Washington State, for example, Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos have given $100,000 each to defeat ballot initiative 1098, which would slap a 5% tax on income over $400,000 per couple and a 9% levy on income over $1 million. On the other side is the nation's richest man, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates--not surprising, since his dad is promoting the new tax, which would fund education, health care and other tax cuts. Gates Sr., 84, has given $500,000 to the 1098 campaign and even filmed a comic "soak the rich" ad for it, which ends with him dropped into a dunk tank.
Gates Sr. readily concedes he's in the minority among the highly affluent. "It's quite natural for people who are well-to-do to resist paying more taxes. In fact, it's quite natural for every person, everywhere, of whatever means, to resist paying more taxes," he says. "The interesting side," he adds, "is the number of people who are well-to-do who feel that this is something that should happen and that taxation should be progressive." (Washington State now relies on real estate and sales taxes, which hit the less wealthy harder.)
In California, too, The Forbes 400 vote is split. Rich lister and former eBay chief Meg Whitman is running for governor on a platform that includes killing the state's capital gains tax, now as high as 10.55%. That could save a bundle for those of her rich list backers who live in-state, including Scott Cook, Craig McCaw, Charles Munger, A. Jerrold Perenchio, Thomas Siebel and Jerry Yang. Yet California's richest man, Oracle Chief Larry Ellison, backs Democrat Jerry Brown, who supports the tax.
Then there's the epic battle over the future of the estate tax, which (thanks to the Bush tax cuts) is defunct for 2010 but comes roaring back in 2011. Some rich listers, including Charles and David Koch and the Mars family, have long bankrolled lobbyists and/or organizations advocating an end to the "death" tax.
Meanwhile, the list of rich folks openly supporting the tax has grown. Warren Buffett told Congress that a progressive estate tax is needed to keep the nation from moving "toward a plutocracy." Hedge fund billionaire Julian Robertson recently opined that the fairest way to get more deficit-closing revenue is "to tax the least deserving recipients of wealth, which are the inheritors." He and rich listers David Shaw, George Soros, John Sperling and Ted Turner have signed a "Responsible Wealth" project statement calling for the tax to be preserved. So have the six children of David Rockefeller, the oldest member of the 400. "If there weren't estate taxes, we might be in a position to inherit a great deal more, and I don't think any of us wishes that was the case," says daughter Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, a Tufts economist. "I recognize the danger of fortunes piling up and creating huge concentrations of wealth,'' she adds. [emphasis & links added]
Splits among the rich on taxing the rich aren't new. "Some rich folks have always advocated positions against their own economic interests,'' says Clint Stretch, managing principal for tax policy at Deloitte Tax. In an 1889 essay Andrew Carnegie argued estate taxes are needed to prevent spoiled heirs and to put wealth to use for the common good.
Still, Gates Sr. says, the redistributionists (though a small minority) are more organized and seem more numerous than when the current estate tax debate got rolling in the mid-1990s. He notes, too, the recent campaign by his son and Warren Buffett to persuade other billionaires to pledge half their wealth to charity. "That's brand-new, to have a halfway-organized effort,'' he adds.
Then, too, tax battles are center stage these days, raising the profiles of participants and the temperature of the rhetoric on both sides. In August Blackstone Group Chairman Stephen Schwarzman had to issue an apology for comparing the Obama Administration's attempts to increase taxes on private-equity managers with "a war . . . like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939."
Have the nation's dire fiscal situation, the current historically low tax rates on the rich and the growing concentration of wealth also influenced some rich folks? Perhaps.
Peter G. Peterson, another Blackstone billionaire, has been funding efforts to bring the federal deficit threat to the fore. Some liberal bloggers claim he's simply out to savage Social Security. But in a statement to FORBES Peterson said he believes tax hikes for the rich must be part of the solution, too. "Fortunate Americans like me have more than enough and should be willing to take on higher income tax rates, a progressive consumption tax and reduced benefits." He added that the "large and growing" disparity of wealth "threatens the basic ideals of fairness."
Then there's Tom Golisano, the billionaire founder of Paychex and antitax gadfly who ran for New York governor three times. After New York raised its top income tax rate last year, he moved his legal residence to income-tax-free Florida. He fought the tax assessment on his Mendon, N.Y. estate, won in court and last month held a seminar for 650 of his Rochester, N.Y.-area neighbors on how to challenge tax assessments.
Golisano doesn't think the estate tax is a good thing. "Philosophically, I don't believe in the concept of the estate tax. I call it the 'grave robbery tax,'" he says. Still, he seems weary of this particular war. "If we have to have it,'' he says, "I wish we'd come up with a set of rules and stay with it." He adds: "How do you do estate planning when you're constantly concerned about changing rules?"