Back in his "Well excuuuuuuuse meeee" days, comedian Steve Martin had a brilliant little comedic riff he would use in between the larger set routines:
"People are always asking me 'Hey Steve, how can I make a million dollars and not pay any taxes on it?'" Having set up the riff's improbable premise, Martin would stare out at the audience, his face a mask of smirking mirth. Pause, pause, pause.
"Well," he would eventually deadpan, "once you've made your million, here's what you do." Pause, pause, pause until the few titters turn into chuckles, and the chuckles into guffaws. Finally, Martin would conclude with " . . . you simply tell the I.R.S. I FORGOT!!"
The routine always got polite, generally enthusiastic laughter. I always felt that had the audience really gotten the joke's underlying satirical premise, they would have been rolling in the aisles. For Martin's joke was not so much about taxes and amnesia, as it was about the American mania for instant riches . . our utter fascination with all things glittering and golden.
Is it any wonder? Whether it's People Magazine, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Architectural Digest, or I Want to Be a Hilton, our homes and lives are saturated with the power, possessions and peccadilloes of a tiny, tiny fraction of the American public. Indeed, for the average American, it has become far, far easier to relate to people of vast means than to those who lead lives of quiet desperation. Not only has this all-American mania turned us into a nation of keyhole peekers; it has caused us to feed the hand that bites us.
Even as I write this piece, Congress is on the verge of permanently eliminating the Inheritance Tax -- that which its proponents long ago renamed the "Death Tax." This proposal, which if enacted will cost the U.S. Treasury nearly $400 billion (yes, that "B" for "Billion) over the first ten years, will never affect 99.5% of the American public. Why? Because the current Inheritance Tax law (the most progressive of all taxes, it should be noted) currently exempts all estates, small businesses and family farms of $5 million or less. You got it: inherit $5 million or less, and you won't pay a cent in taxes. And, as a matter of fact, there is a proposal before Congress to raise the Floor from $5 to $8 million. Sounds great, no? Of course, as with the Steve Martin bit, avoiding the tax isn't the real issue; inheriting the $5 (or $8) million is.
Listening to repeal proponents like the mossbacked Grover Norquist (President of "Americans for Tax Reform"), one would think that everyone in America is either wealthy, or on the verge of inheriting a fortune. The Gospel, according to Norquist has it that the only reason some people don't inherit wealth is because their parents, grandparents or well-off friends and relatives have voluntarily chosen to spend their millions before dying. ("Once you've made your million . . ."). How dare they? Norquist and his buddies go so far as to proclaim that more than 70% of the American public supports repeal because "Americans of all means believe the government should not tax the same dollar of income twice, and in this case, three times." I guess that means that if we can't be fabulously wealthy, the least we can do is bend over backwards in support of those who are.
It is a fact that 99.5% of the American public (about 1 out of 200) has never and will never be affected by the Inheritance Tax. It is also a fact that should repeal be made permanent, in one year alone (2011), some 750 estates will share a windfall of over $13 billion -- that works out to about $17 million an estate. And yet, those of us who bring up these incontrovertible facts are met with Norquist & Company's venomous ire: "[Those] who point out that a minority of Americans pay this tax [are] playing to the politics of hatred and class division." Just where do we pesky liberals get off doing that?
I have to believe that a sizeable chunk of the 750 families who are going to collectively contribute $13 billion to an already unfathomable federal debt are on the Bush family Christmas list. I also have to believe that there is more to life and political philosophy than bankrupting an entire nation in the pursuit of enhancing personal wealth. I have to believe that the American people are not so utterly detached from reality as to blithely sit by and give away our entire treasury. Then again, as Dorothy Parker once quipped, "If you want to know what God thinks about money, just look at some of the people he gave it to." Kind of frightening, no?
Ironically, it was President Theodore Roosevelt -- one of those to whom God gave a great deal of money -- who originated the Inheritance Tax. By the time T.R. acceded to the Presidency in 1901 (following the assassination of William McKinley), the Roosevelt clan had been living off inherited money for more than 200 years. In comparison to the Roosevelts, the Bushes are mere parvenus. Unlike the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Theodore Roosevelt and his compatriots firmly understood the concept of noblesse oblige -- that "nobility hath obligation." True, the Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Saltinstalls, Claibornes, Astors, Vanderbilts, Harrimans and others of their ilk did manage to shelter their vast wealth through the creation of family trusts and foundations. Nonetheless, they did not, to the best of my knowledge, attempt to preside over a frontal assault on the American treasury. And, each of those families created foundations that have contributed greatly to the wealth of America. As the old saw goes, "the best way to do well is by doing good."
T.R.'s legacy was, among other things, a phenomenal system of national parks. FDR's legacy was Social Security, 30-year mortgages and victory over Fascism. The Kennedys have underwritten the Special Olympics, and the Claibornes and Pells substantial financial assistance to thousands of American graduate students. By contrast, the Bush's legacy will apparently be giving away the treasury to a handful of wildcat capitalists whose mantra is "more, more, more," and whose favorite poet is, no doubt, Charles Churchill. Who, you may well ask was Churchill? He was a mid-Eighteenth Century English poet and satirist who wrote:
What is't to us, if taxes rise or fall?
Thanks to our fortune, we pay none at al.
Let muckworms, who in dirty acres deal,
Lament those hardships which we cannot feel.