Why hate the estate tax?

The AP is reporting that not only will estate tax repeal pass in the House, but the new Republican majority may help push it through the Senate. If you want a good run down of why estate tax repeal is a terrible idea, especially in times of mass budget deficits, see the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Also, the Center for American Progress has the rundown on talking points.

That said, I want to put forward a brief note about the politics of all this. Yes, as Kevin Drum says, it’s fascinating that the public overwhelmingly supports estate tax repeal even though it affects a tiny, tiny percentage of the population. Furthermore, Democrats are trying to raise the exemption to some $7 million for couples, which would ensure that the estate tax affected no more than the top .3 percent of Americans. So why isn’t that enough? Why do Americans still favor repeal?

But here’s the thing: It’s never been a good argument to say that only the top percentage of Americans will be affected. Polls have often shown that over 20 percent of the population believes itself to be in the top 1 percent income bracket, and another 20 percent think they’ll get there soon. Americans sympathize with the highest of earners because most of them think that sort of wealth is attainable. Conservatives are aware of this fact, which is why their arguments in favor of “death tax” repeal have such validity. Heck, it’s why most of these “class warfare” arguments just don’t work. Americans don’t like to be told that they’ll never reach the very top, even though in reality, most of them won’t.

The “Paris Hilton” argument is a better moral case against the tax—namely, that the estate tax prevents the creation of a tiny and self-perpetuating overclass of lazy heirs and heiresses who have done nothing to earn their ludicrous sums of money. The estate tax, in other words, keeps America from degenerating into an aristocracy. Now that’s the sort of thing that can inspire some real resentment! Nevertheless, even that argument might not be enough. There’s a real asymmetry in the political forces at play here. Those who oppose the estate tax all feel very strongly about it, mainly since it affects them. Meanwhile, those who favor keeping the tax as a progressive form of revenue-creation have a hard time whipping up voter intensity about the matter. If the tax could be connected to some sort of popular program—if estate tax revenues were dedicated to Social Security funding—then voters would hesitate to approve that tradeoff. But it’s not.

Thus, we’re left with vague fiscal arguments against repeal—which don’t seem to sway voters—and moral arguments. On the latter, conservatives have long been making their moral case against the estate tax, while liberals have mostly responded erratically, flinging about figures and percentages that don’t persuade anyone.