Mickey Mouse, the Estate Tax and Me
But the character's name might surprise you: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The Disney brothers' first success wasn't all that lucky for the company. The cartoon's distributor wrested the rights to Oswald away from Walt and Roy almost as soon as he had become popular. This loss was a huge setback for both men, and my grandfather vowed never to let himself be taken advantage of again. He soon registered a copyright on a new character named Mickey Mouse. It was 1928, and it was neither the first nor the last time the Walt Disney Co. benefited from a federal system of protections, laws and taxes that created fertile ground for building a business empire.
In addition to the copyright protections for Mickey, the Federal Communications Commission regulated the airwaves that carried the Disneyland television series and, of course, the Mickey Mouse Club. The transportation and federal highway system built in the wake of World War II took millions of visitors to Disneyland. The Marshall Plan helped rebuild devastated European markets into which Disney poured its products, turning a quaint American company into a global brand.
Taxes are on everyone's mind lately for good reason. Not only will Congress have to make some tough decisions about the Bush tax cuts soon, but if lawmakers do nothing, the estate tax will automatically be reinstated after a year's hiatus — in its 2001 form. A great deal of misinformation is flying around out there about this, but most agree that the tax is flawed and needs to be modified.
One thing I do know is this: In a far stricter tax environment, my grandfather still managed to accumulate and pass on ample funds to make three subsequent generations very comfortable indeed. And as an inheritor I am here to tell you, the estate tax is not as much of a bogeyman as you've been led to believe.
The truth in numbers
Let's start with the facts:
• First, the estate tax is not a double tax. Have you met a multimillionaire who earned that much money pulling down a weekly paycheck? People who make enough to be affected by the estate tax — fewer than 1% of Americans who die in any given year — amass their fortunes by investing. Investment income is taxed differently from earned income, often not at all until it's sold. People like me, who inherit assets such as Disney stock, can spend our lives watching those assets grow, and when we pass them along to our children, they have not been touched or diminished at all by the tax system. The only thing I have paid taxes on is the interest from these assets, not their increased value.
• Second, opponents of the estate tax claim family farms will have to be broken up to pay the tax, but good luck finding an example of this. Further, if the exemption is kept at $3.5 million (where it stood last year) and indexed for inflation, the likelihood of this ever happening is reduced to nil.
• Third, the estate tax incentivizes people like me to do good with our wealth because there is no estate tax on donations to charity. My filmmaking and foundations rely on a tax code that supports a vigorous non-profit sector, a vital part of our society that is bigger and stronger because of the many millions of dollars that flow into it as a result of the estate tax and other tax provisions.
To those who believe the estate tax is unfair, I say that there is no tax more fair than this one. I recently signed the Call to Preserve the Estate Tax organized by United for a Fair Economy because the estate tax is an expression of our deepest American values: that we live in a meritocracy, not an aristocracy; that every generation is a fresh start; and that we choose to build a society in which wealth and opportunity do not accrue to people simply for being born wealthy.
Walt and Roy embody those values: They started without two cents to rub together and made a million wishes come true.
I have seen the business environment in Liberia, for example, a country with no tax revenues. I suspect even my brilliant grandfather would not have been able to build a successful business there. I have been to places like Sudan and Congo and know what it looks like when there is no 911 to call, no schools and where governments are disinterested in working toward the collective good.
Here at home, I have watched the gap between rich and poor driven to historic highs by a tax policy that has exacerbated our deficit and eviscerated our basic capacity to provide schooling, emergency services, and clean water and air for one and all. The estate tax is the cornerstone of a progressive system that leaves wealthy heirs with ample funds while providing the government with the resources it needs to build an environment for the common good. By preserving it, we not only restore billions in revenue to the national treasury — we also restore our most cherished collective ideals as a nation.
"Tax me" may be the least popular sentence in America, but it's what I am asking, and I hope that our leaders are listening.
Abigail Disney is a filmmaker and philanthropist. Her series Women, War & Peace will air on PBS Wide Angle in 2011.