Category Archives: Politics

The Death Tax

I had an interesting conversation recently with a conservative figure who took aim at the estate tax. I try not to be too dismissive of folks I’m not normally inclined to agree with. Occasionally, I encounter a point of view that I hadn’t considered before and my position becomes a little less entrenched, or perhaps more nuanced as a result. This really wasn’t one of those times.

The goal of the estate tax is not even veiled in fake rationale. The idea is to break up the trend of accumulated wealth from generation to generation. As we have seen, the amassed fortunes over time are trending toward a concentration of wealth. This is not really consistent with what we assume to be an economy that is effective at broadly distributing economic opportunities and rewards for hard work and success.

The kind of opposition we usually see to the estate tax stems from a few key arguments. There is a strong feeling among opponents that taxes have already been paid on the money that is in the estate and that taxing them again would be immoral regardless of how much wealth we are talking about. This “already taxed” concept is reinforced by the fact that the estate is responsible for paying the tax and not the heirs. The net effect is that there is less to distribute after taxes of about 40% are paid on the value over the $5.34 million threshold. This happens regardless of how many heirs there are.

Another common argument is about family farms. The story goes that if a farm that is worth more than the threshold, it will more likely go under because the heirs can’t afford to pay off the tax bill on the farm.

The reality is that there are some modulating controls in place. When you die, up to $5.34 million of net value of your estate after exemptions is protected from the tax. Family farms are also eligible for value reductions in order to make it less likely that the estate tax would be a problem. Married couples are usually able to protect twice the net value from the tax man by allowing the surviving husband or wife to bring forward the exemption of their deceased spouse.

As for the money having already been taxed. The simple fact is that there are very few ways that significant amounts of cash may be transferred from one person to another that don’t involve some of that money going to the government as taxes. If someone buys a carton of milk, they are buying it with money that’s already been taxed.

The economy is a system. It’s a system that has been modulated over the years for various reasons. Some of the changes have had negative effects and some have made things work better. What is the purpose of the economy? Should the system create economic prosperity for the broadest number of people? Should it allow wealth go grow and concentrate in order to sustain enormous private investments in technology and automation? I won’t attempt to answer that here. Rather than stop writing though, let’s say that however we choose to optimize things, the result should ensure that prosperity is at least an option for every person.

Traditional video games provide a useful model of how prestige and success are acquired in a gamified world. Things get harder as you work your way through levels and more powerful bosses. Forward progress is hampered by greater challenges

The baseline package for middle-class to upper-middle-class life is similar to this gaming model. You have to hustle to make a living. Success is fostered by a good education, a stable home environment, some aptitude at interpersonal skill, and it doesn’t hurt to be attractive or a bit taller than your peers. Generally though, you rise up through the ranks, competing with everyone else to get noticed. You obtain credentials, experience and, if you stay out of trouble, you can earn a comfortable living and even retire at a fairly young age. It can get much worse than that, but it can also get much, much better.

Some individuals truly excel at earning a living, even with modest beginnings. The self-made story is the example we turn to when we visualize the ultimate success in our economy. These people epitomize the righteous intersection of opportunity and preparation and the result can be impressive financial rewards. Artists, business leaders, inventors, surgeons, lawyers, models, actors, comedians and writers can all excel at their craft in countless ways, rising to the top of their field and making a fortune. Reaching this potential may require significant personal sacrifice and discipline.

An interesting thing happens with money though. There is an inflection point at which your savings can earn enough dividends and interest to support you more-or-less in perpetuity. Finding that point is a personal journey because expenses can go as high as you want, and so it is also possible to live a life burning through more cash every month than most people earn in a year.

In the 1990’s Donald Trump famously had to dig himself out of near financial ruin. His creditors allowed him a $65 million line of credit but under the agreement his personal expenses were limited to $450,000 per month. This burn rate is from more than 20 years ago and is more than 100 times the income of the average household today.

We do have a name for a financial status called “independently wealthy” even though we don’t have a number to assign to it.  What it means, is that you have enough money to live comfortably without working. Let’s try to put a stake in the ground and define that term using some common ideas that may be flawed an arbitrary, but perhaps useful.

The average household income in 2013 was $51,939. Having a million dollars in securities that track the S&P 500 should be able to generate that kind of income passively from dividends and interest with no personal labor required. This comes with the added benefit of having a lower tax rate than a typical worker would incur from their paychecks. This passive income is based on a conservative return on investment as opposed to the average return which has been higher in recent years.

The point is that if you can scrape together a million dollars, the money, with a few caveats, can be expected to produce as much income every year as the average family earns and will allow for a modest rise in inflation. If you don’t retire, but remain at work, you can reinvest all that income and it will grow quite rapidly. All you need to do, is leave it alone. Better yet, you can keep saving.

One million dollars is in securities is not an easy thing to get hold of. For most people, it would be a lifelong pursuit. In fact, According to the Wall Street Journal, the combined value of all household assets in the US isn’t more than about $85 trillion – and that isn’t all cash. For every family to have a million-dollar nest egg working for them, it would have a total value of 50% more than all of the personal assets that exist in the US today.

The estate tax is an example of our system attempting to make a correction. If you accumulate enough wealth in your lifetime, that is great, but you can’t take it with you, and you can’t shuffle your heirs to the front of the line without sacrificing a significant chunk of your estate to pay for services like education, infrastructure, the military and the other obligations of the federal government.

Even where the estate tax comes into play, the heirs of the very wealthy may well sit down at a game that has already been won on their behalf. They can, more or less, play with the credits earned by their parents. And, while nothing is perfectly fair in life, this is pretty clearly weighted in favor of the rich. Would the world be a better place if every single one of us had to start life doing the hardest, most backbreaking jobs, earning promotions and working our own way to economic independence? Maybe so, but we will never know.

Having said that, in a system that makes the accumulation of wealth easier, not harder as you acquire more, some controls should probably be established. If for no other reason, then let’s at least consider that we don’t want to face the consequences of a society that appears to be permanently and hopelessly bifurcated by wealth inequality. This would be a recipe for a revolution.

Tap Dancing with the Donald

Thing happening only at Trump Rallies, not Trump’s Fault.

I watch CNN fairly regularly, and I sometimes think about the election season and what a sweet deal it must be to be on a “panel.” These panelists are recycled daily and often make rounds on several shows during a given week.

Throughout this presidential primary season, Kayleigh McEnany has been on CNN as a regular member of these panels. I’ve read some of her columns here and, while she is frustratingly predictable in her partisanship, she makes a point now and then that is definitely worth contemplating. She often challenges me on my own biases.

What she has been doing lately, has got to be wearing on her. The routine is that the group watches a video of a protester being punched and kicked at a Trump rally and it is her job to explain how the protester is at fault – every time. Whenever it occurs, she is saddled with the job of explaining that even if a supporter might possibly be wrong, it has nothing to do with Donald Trump.

The pitch is that these protesters come into Trump rallies to be disruptive; that somehow they are either dangerous to the Trump supporters who are present and must be dealt with severely, or at the very least, they provoked the crowd to become violent against them.

As an individual with two eyes, I can see that these protesters are attempting to make the news, or at least get some attention, but should it really be a predictable outcome that doing so will get you beat up? Doesn’t it say anything about Trump, or the people who love him?

Making excuses for violent Trump supporters just seems to be a bit unnecessary and is kind of harmful to our culture.

Arm Wrestling Over the Supreme Court

Chuck Grassley

I can’t help doing a little back of the napkin calculation about why the republicans have decided to dismiss any notion of a hearing on Barack Obama’s supreme court nominee. At first, I thought that this would surely come back to bite them at some point in the future, but then I thought about it a little more.

There hasn’t ever really been a situation when a president who had an opportunity to nominate a supreme court justice during the first few months of their 8th year in office has not done so. So the question arises, how long before such a situation would likely emerge again?

We’ve had 112 justices since 1789 and that ends up being roughly one vacancy every couple of years. In other words, on average, every eight years, random chance might cause a vacancy during an election year. For one to happen during a president’s 8th year in office, that is going to be less frequent.

So even if the Republicans take control of the white house in 2017, it’ll be at least 8 years, if the candidate gets a second term, but there is only a 50% chance of a vacancy happening in that year, so if they won two successive 8-year terms, they would stand a better chance of seeing the situation, but this seems unlikely for a variety of reasons.

The reality is that we are looking at a whole generation before the shoe would be on the other foot and they might face the same scenario that they see today being thrown back at them. The cold facts are in their favor. They can block the nomination on the grounds of it being the last year of the president’s 8-years in office and they will likely never have to face the music we are now dancing to.

A Chat with an anti-ACA Republican.

I was fortunate enough to recently have a brief exchange with a Republican candidate for US Senate in Oregon. For being so busy, she spent some time with me discussing the problems she sees with the ACA. She is only one person, but she touched on a number of themes that may help me to understand why it is so hard to find common ground.

Let’s say for argument’s sake, that nobody wants to see the poor or children go without needed health care. Let’s also assume that nobody wants to see emergency medical care or chronic illness bankrupt anyone. Pleasantly, this seemed to hold true for the would-be Senator. The biggest rift between our points of view appeared to be the extent to which we believe this actually happens.

She seemed to believe that being uninsured is a simple economic trade off. From her vantage point, being uninsured is a matter to be resolved between you and your doctor and would not accept the notion that substantive differences in outcomes are likely or even possible based on the question of insurance. In her mind, If an uninsured person accidentally shoots himself, and requires life-saving treatment, a few things will occur:

1) That individual will get all the care they need
2) If they can’t afford treatment, it may just take a long time to pay off
3) If the person is really poor, then the hospital will most likely just waive their fees or negotiate a discount and care for them anyway

She also kept telling me that organizations like Christian Health Ministries do a much better job than either the government, or traditional insurance companies.

She did acknowledge that there is a bankruptcy risk imposed by healthcare costs, but only hypothetically. She doesn’t approve of skipping out on your bill unless you are really poor and even then she felt strongly that there are plenty of options.

So what’s the problem? I think from her vantage point, there is no problem except maybe the cost of healthcare. Furthermore, the only thing that should be appropriate to control costs would be the free market; the government would have no business being involved in the solution.

The assumptions she makes are at least partially, if anecdotally, true.

I had a question about this though. Assuming the system operates in this way, why is it that our friend who shoots himself gets admitted into the hospital even if he has no means to pay for his care? Compassion and good will? Actually, it is called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act. It was put in place by the government actually to address a specific problem which was that hospitals were dumping uninsured patients to other facilities when they suspected or learned that the patient had no means to pay for care.

What is really interesting about this, is that the statistics showed that many patients who were moved or rerouted based on economic concerns were about 2 times as likely to die than those who were cared for and not transferred or re-routed.

Isn’t this government overreach as well? Many claimed so. Yet without this legislation, treating the poor was a losing proposition. If this is really about rejecting socialism, why should hospitals be forced to deliver care to people who can’t pay? If you don’t think hospitals should turn out non paying customers, you are actually a little bit of a socialist. You simply prefer the costs to be hidden in your doctor bill and not your tax bill.