IT IS A NATIONAL DAY OF ACCOUNTS: Tax Day. In bygone years, lots of us had our returns stamped at the post office after dark, taking to the last hour to reaffirm our citizenship. Long before Turbotax, I participated in that late-night trip and found my neighbors in a happy mood; at least we had removed that burden from our back, and in our relief acknowledged a shared duty.
The purpose of the income tax is, of course, to fund our government, to pay the bills for the things that we collectively have demanded that it do. We disagree over the particulars, but we understand that Congress imposes taxes as part of the contract with America. Even as we understand that, Congress chronically shortchanges the bill, handing it off to our children and grandchildren.
Where we pass on the debt incurred in capital investment, that makes sense. Installment payments are rational if the investment is in a highway or education, because the greater returns can be used to pay the debt. It also is wise if the debt is counter-cyclical spending in a depressed economy, when in our fear and scarcity we close our diminished wallets.
Our predilection to have our children pay for our consumption has run in cycles and is long in our character. In June 1782, as victory in the Revolution was imminent, the French diplomat François Barbé-Marbois, with co-author James Madison, then a delegate to the Continental Congress, wrote a letter to a Philadelphia newspaper about the state of the war. In conclusion, Barbé-Marbois extolled the virtues of his adopted people:
I am now more proud of the title of American than I have ever been: the enemy have, without intermission, represented us as a timid and dastardly people, without faith and without honour: they are now undeceived at their own expence. But there is one point in which our national honour has too long suffered: we have sufficient firmness to abandon our houses and our habitations to an incendiary foe; we have seen without terror our houses and our farms in flames; we have seen our effects, our horses and our cattle swept away, and our sentiments have remained unshaken; we have received with contempt overtures of peace which would have covered us with shame; we have suffered all the calamities and wants which afflict exiled citizens, obliged to seek an asylum at a great distance from their own country. Our wives have shewn the same firmness of soul, and sometimes their firmness and patriotism have invigorated our own. We have shed our blood in the glorious cause in which we are engaged; we are ready to shed the last drop in its defence. Nothing is above our courage, except only (with shame I speak it) the courage to TAX ourselves.
Our lack of fiscal courage was okay when we were pushing frontiers, expanding markets, raising our productivity. But resistance to taxation in recent decades has coincided with a destructive resistance to government itself, as if government were not us, as if we did not create the context for its acts in our name.
IN HONOR OF TAX DAY 2015, the House of Representatives will pass a bill, on a party-line vote, that would eliminate the estate tax (I’ve seen this movie many times, so I’m not waiting for the final scene before posting). The 40-percent tax generally applies to the gross value of a decedent’s estate, except that the first $5.43 million – or twice that in the case of married couples – is exempt. In other words, the beneficiaries of the House’s largess are multimillionaires, perhaps 5,500 families a year. It would save the heirs of those fortunes $269 billion over 10 years, or $4.9 million per decedent. Who gets to make up the difference? We do.
The estate tax is an idea as old as the republic, a mechanism to level massive fortunes and reduce the possibility of a permanent aristocracy. As recently as 2001, the $5 million exemption was $675,000. After a temporary elimination of the tax enacted as a part of President Bush’s 2001 tax cuts, President Obama two years ago agreed to the current rate and indexed exemption. That’s not generous enough for House Republicans.
The House also will pass a “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” that includes a right to “quality service” from the IRS. The press release of the House majority leader was headlined: “House Will Protect Taxpayers and Rein in the IRS.” But as the IRS Taxpayer Advocate reported to Congress last year, and as newspapers across the country have reported this month, Congress has pretty well “reined in” the service.
Nina Olson, who has been the IRS’s independent taxpayer advocate since 2001, told Congress last year that that the agency’s inflation-adjusted budget has declined 17 percent since 2010, while the number of taxpayers and complexity of the code has grown (not news to Congress – it cut the budget and increased the complexity). What’s that meant for taxpayers needing assistance?
- 36 percent of phone calls went unanswered
- Half of letters from taxpayers were not handled timely
- IRS walk-in offices prepared “virtually zero” returns
- Face-to-face outreach and education, intended to help 126 million individuals understand and comply with tax obligations, has “nearly disappeared”
The approach of House Republicans is, “We don’t like this tax (on millionaires), so we’ll get rid of it.” But we should not set tax policy without context. The question is, “What is the fairest means of financing the government we have and want?” We can disagree on “fairness,” and we do. That’s where the debate should start, not on whether to give heirs tax-free, multi-million-dollar windfalls.