The Death Tax and Barney Frank

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by Stephen Cox: Finding
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Yesterday I
watched one of my favorite movies, The
Bishop's Wife
(1947). It's the story of . . . well, never
mind; I don't want to reveal the plot. Anyway, at the end of the
movie, the bishop (David Niven) gives a brief Christmas sermon,
in which he says that the best presents are "loving kindness,
warm hearts, and the stretched out hand of tolerance — all the shining
gifts that make peace on earth."

It's a noble
sentiment, nobly expressed. But this year, when I heard it, some
curious, speculative questions occurred to me. It's good to be a
giver of gifts — but what about the receivers of gifts? Is it morally
right for the receivers to get and keep what others bestow on them?
If not, should they be forced to surrender their gifts to others?

If you have
any common sense, I'm sure you're thinking, "This is crazy.
Gifts are gifts. By definition, they are freely given, to people
whom the givers want to have them. Why worry about that?"

The reason
I started to worry was something that Barney Frank said.

In a Dec. 17
interview with CNBC, Frank, who is the outgoing chairman of the
House Financial Services Committee, went into a tirade about the
moral justification of the death tax — the tax that people pay for
the wealth they receive in the estates of friends and family members.
Looking and speaking like Elmer Fudd in a fit of hysterical anger,
Frank shrieked the following: "Heirs, who now inherit, they
haven't done this on their own, they haven't worked hard; that's
a pure gift to someone who is lucky enough to be related to someone
or very friendly with someone, who's [inaudible, perhaps lending]
them the money."

Frank has enjoyed
great political power. He is famous for his intelligence. He is,
perhaps, a person who deserves to be taken seriously. So I did take
him seriously. I didn't just think, "Here's a politician who's
trying to extract more money, even if he has to get it by robbing
the dead." I started thinking about this idea of working
hard for things and earning them, and thereby coming
to deserve them.

Granted, Frank
was wrong on some of the facts. He denied that any heirs have "worked
hard" for what they get. Tell that to the heirs of some crotchety
old person who tortured them for decades, demanding their service,
repressing their criticism, and ignoring their wishes, but who finally
forked over some wretchedly small bequest to them. These people
worked. Or, to go to the opposite end of the spectrum, tell
that to the people who devoted themselves to the care of a beloved
friend or relative, expecting no reward, and were then surprised
by a kindly remembrance in their loved one's will. There are indeed
heirs who work and deserve.

So Frank was
mistaken about a lot of things that really happen, that often happen,
that usually happen in human life. You would think that an intelligent
person would be well acquainted with these things. But it's easy
to confuse being verbal with being intelligent. Rep. Frank is certainly
verbal; intelligence is another matter.

At any rate,
you would expect a conscientious person, of whatever degree of intelligence,
to reflect on the strange contradiction involved in denying people
the right to unearned wealth, while supporting programs that give
people unearned wealth. Congressman Frank is a great proponent of
welfare. His insistence that people should be enabled to buy a house
even if they don't earn enough to afford it was partly responsible
for the disastrous bust in the housing market. Of course, he's not
the nation's only would-be redistributor of wealth. Modern liberalism
(and a great deal of modern conservatism) would not exist if it
weren't for the idea that people who haven't actually earned something
should get it from the government.

But putting
Frank's intellectual contradictions aside, what about the general
principle, the principle that he suggested in his interview — the
idea that if you haven't worked hard for something, you ought
to be prepared to give it up?

I'll ignore
one obvious issue, an issue that libertarians often bring up (and
it's a good thing they do): the question of why the government
should be the entity that takes people's "unearned" wealth
away. Surely the government didn't work hard for anything
I inherit from a friend or relative, or even from someone I never
heard of. If working and earning are the justifications for the
possession of wealth, what justification does the government
have?

As I say, however,
let's put this particular issue aside, and return to the basic problem:
What is the moral status of my unearned wealth? Should I feel guilty
about possessing it?

I'll be honest
with you: I have a lot of this stuff. When it comes to unearned
wealth, I am rich beyond the dreams of avarice. I didn't work
to gain the jewel of life, love and friendship. Friendship is
a gift. True, it's not a gift that is randomly bestowed. Few gifts
are. My friends presumably have some reason, however eccentric,
for giving it to me. Nevertheless, it is a gift.

I did work
to get my job, and succeed in it. But my work has never been
equal to the enormous pleasure my job provides. And I certainly
never worked to create such things as electric lights, motion
pictures, books, computers, the paintings of Andrea del Sarto, the
glory of the summer constellations, or a human history rich with
interesting events and inspiring personalities. I didn't work
hard to be born in America. I didn't earn the constitution
of the United States.

Virtually all
of my life has been a gift, a shining gift. If I have no right to
such gifts as I've received, I have no right to life.

Maybe Barney
Frank would acknowledge the same thing about himself, if he were
thinking calmly. I well remember my only sighting of Mr. Frank.
It was years ago, at Washington National Airport. At that time,
he wasn't as fat and self-satisfied as he is today, but he was self-satisfied
enough, and fat enough, and it was amusing to see him strutting
across the concourse, holding a triple-scoop ice cream cone in his
outstretched hand, watching it as admiringly as if it had been the
Hope Diamond. In every aspect of his being he projected the sense
that he deserved that tower of ice cream. And he did, in
the sense that he'd paid for it.

But in a larger
sense, according to his own theory, he didn't. He hadn't worked
to invent ice cream, or airports, or congressmen, or congressional
salaries. He hadn't earned his birth in a free and prosperous
America, a land flowing with ice and cream. Yet none of these considerations
prevented him from enjoying his dessert. There was no appearance
of guilt, no attempt to share the feast with others. I'm confident
that if an agent of the government had turned up to take some part
of Mr. Frank's ice cream cone, he would have fought like a tiger
to keep and devour it himself.

But wait, you
may say — in his interview on CNBC Frank intended to speak only
of money, not of the less abstract gifts, such as ice cream cones,
that we gladly receive from friends or relatives or providence (or
luck, as he would have it).

Well, here
again there are some facts that ought to be respected. The estate
taxes that Mr. Frank supports require more than just surrendering
some money that was bequeathed to you. People don't ordinarily inherit
huge chunks of cash; they inherit other forms of property. To pay
the taxes on this wealth, they have to sell the property, often
at the sacrifice of much of its value. So Frank wasn't talking just
about money; he was talking about farms and businesses and your
grandmother's china and everything else that may have to be liquidated
to produce the cash he thinks the government deserves.

But, for the
sake of argument, suppose that money is the only thing at issue.
Consider the following scenes from human life. Notice how strange
they become when you try to apply Frank's ideas about unearned wealth.

1. I want to
treat my friend to a trip to Europe — not because he worked hard
for it, but simply because I want him to enjoy the sights with
me. If I give him $5,000 to cover his expenses, does he have a moral
obligation to surrender, say, $1750 of it to the government? (We're
looking at a 35% estate tax for 2011, for heirs who happen to receive
more than such and such an amount. Incidentally, what other moral
imperative is measured in arbitrary terms, by a majority vote of
Congress — a 35% tax in 2011, a 55% tax in 2001, and who knows what
kind of tax in 2020? ) But if I charge the trip to my credit card,
will Barney Frank demand that my friend surrender $1750 of the money
value of my gift, even if it means selling off some of his property?
Or will he be allowed to claim that he is actually earning the
trip, because he'll have to put up with me as a fellow traveler?
Will he need to file an income tax schedule in which he itemizes
my faults? He'll need more than one accountant to complete that
form.

2. Your daughter
is getting married. You want to give her something that she can
use in her own way. So you write her a check for $10,000. She didn't
earn that money. Does that mean she has a moral imperative
to surrender $3500 of it to the government? If so, you'll need to
write her a check for $13,500, to make up the difference. Does she
then have a moral duty to surrender the same proportion of the $13,500
as she did of the $10,000? If so, you'll need to write her another
check, this time for $14,725 — and so on and so on, in a weird riff
on Zeno's paradox. Is this the way morality works?

3. You are
about to die. You are lying on your deathbed. You hurriedly make
out your will. Suddenly inspired by family values, you bequeath
$50,000 to your nephew Albert, whom you have never seen and know
nothing about. Is Albert morally obligated to give $17,500 to the
government, because he never earned the $50,000? Congressman
Frank would certainly answer in the affirmative. But suppose that
you have, like a sensible person, omitted the unknown Albert from
your will — yet five minutes before your death, he bursts through
the door, exclaiming, "Uncle! I'm here at last!" Impressed
by this display of love, you write him a check for $50,000. Then
you die. According to Frank's system of morality, was it only Albert's
presence in your will that would oblige him to pay anything, or
does he have a moral obligation to surrender the $17,500 that he
received a moment before your death, because the lucky boy
still did nothing to earn it? Or was his journey to your
deathbed — which admittedly may have been much more arduous than
any duties performed by a US congressman — enough like work to
leave him free and clear?

These questions,
though easy enough to come up with, have evidently not occurred
to the sagacious Mr. Frank. Maybe they will, now that his party
is out of power and he will no longer be the head of an important
congressional committee. He'll have time to think. And maybe — who
knows? — he will find some answers. It would be terrible to believe
that he had already surrendered to government service the best part
of his unearned gift of intelligence.

December
29, 2010

Stephen
Cox [send him mail] is Professor
of Literature at UC San Diego. His most recent books are The
New Testament and Literature

(Open Court Publishing) and The
Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison

(Yale University Press).

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