From all available data, there seems to be no compelling reason — other than the billions in savings that the ultra-rich would pocket — for repealing a tax that affects very few Americans.
The day after “tax day” (April16th), the House of Representatives passed the “Death Tax Repeal Act of 2015,” which would repeal all estate taxes, no matter the size of the estate. The prospects for the bill are uncertain, but the rationale for why it’s been proposed is crystal clear — as are the consequences.
There’s no compelling reason why the tax needs to be eliminated.
First of all, adjustments in the regulations reduced the maximum tax rate to 40 percent and the exclusion levels to $10.86 million per married couple. Since any actual tax is only levied on amounts above that $10.86, the actual average tax rate on those few estates that qualify for the tax is now only about 16.6 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
That’s not going to break any millionaire’s bank.
More importantly, the center’s data estimate that total number of estates annually subject to taxation is only about 5,000. That’s 0.2 percent of all U.S. estates. Repealing the estate tax wouldn’t benefit the top 1 percent, it would put multi-millions into the coffers of the top two-tenths of one percent of the wealthiest Americans.
Equally eye-opening, in 2013, only 20 small businesses and farms actually paid any estate taxes at all, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. Despite the talking points of repeal proponents, the reality is that there just aren’t that many farms, ranches or sole proprietorships that exceed the monetary limits on estate taxation, or that haven’t been incorporated, so that the death of the principals doesn’t trigger the imposition of estate taxes.
Additionally, the tax code provides for a variety of strategies that allow business or land owners to set up trusts or annuities to pass along equity while still alive, and thus sidestep estate taxes. There is an entire industry of wealth advisors, business consultants and tax attorneys who earn a living helping business and/or landowners to utilize tactics that will protect their heirs from onerous taxation when they die.
And here’s an overlooked yet critical point regarding the estate tax repeal, as explained by Stephanie Hunter McMahon, a University of Cincinnati College of Law professor, in The Hill online. McMahon noted that an independent study estimated that as much as 50 percent of the value of high net worth estates (exceeding $100 million) represent capital gains that have never been taxed, since the capital gains tax only applies to transactions.
If assets aren’t sold during the lifetime of the estate owner(s), the appreciation accumulates tax-free, McMahon noted. And upon the person’s death, the laws provide for a “fair market valuation” that re-appraises the value of assets, allowing the increased value of stocks, securities or real estate to escape taxation.
An agricultural exemption
Now let’s get to the argument advanced by many in animal agriculture: That the estate tax forces the wholesale break-up and destruction of farms and ranches.
Truthfully, the estate tax is hardly a huge burden on either agriculture or small business. As previously noted, it only affects a tiny handful of people, those who are not only among the nation’s wealthiest but are have not bothered to avail themselves of any of a number of vehicles that would allow them to avoid or significantly mitigate the tax burden.
The bottom line is that repealing the estate tax would cost taxpayers $14.6 billion in fiscal 2016 and more than $269 billion over the next decade, according to the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.
That money would have to be replaced from somewhere else, or Congress would have to significantly slash funding for either national defense or entitlements, both of them a political third rail, or health care subsidies, which would kick millions off of their newly obtained health insurance policies, or any of a half dozen other programs that directly impact voters.
None of those options benefits the majority of citizens, while repealing the estate tax would put billions right back into the pockets of multi-millionaires and billionaires who already control vast amounts of wealth. Our Founding Fathers intended to create a democracy that would be different from the European monarchies from which they had departed, and allowing unlimited inheritance of wealth without taxation perpetuates the equivalent of a landed aristocracy.
That said, estate tax policy needs to contain a clear, definitive exemption for family-owned farms and ranches. With rare exceptions, most agricultural operations are land-rich and cash-poor. For operations large enough to trigger the tax, the heirs generally have to sell off property to raise the necessary cash, resulting in some or all of the farm or ranchland being taken out of production.
That’s not good for national security, and food self-sufficiency is a critical part of that mandate. Not to mention that agricultural exports have a huge impact in mitigating our ongoing trade imbalance. To maintain tax laws that foster the break-up of even a handful of farms or ranches is decidedly bad policy and needs to be addressed.
Unfortunately, the estate tax debate has become an all-of-nothing proposition. Nobody on either side of the aisle in Congress seems interested in a “fix.” Instead, there is a partisan divide over those who insist the tax be maintained as is, and those who want it eliminated entirely.
Neither position is ideal, but given the facts on the ground — that very few agricultural operations or small businesses are affected, and that the loss of revenue would be significant — on balance, there is no compelling reason to eliminate this tax must be, and no discernible good that would come of its repeal.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator