Obama’s budget quietly resurrects the Death Tax in 2010.Â The President’s budget calls for the largest increase in the death tax in U.S. history!
The announcement of this tax increase is buried in footnote 1 on page 127 of the President’s budget. That note reads: “The estate tax is maintained at its 2009 parameters.” This means the death tax won’t fall to zero next year as scheduled under current law, but estates will be taxed instead at up to 45%, with an exemption level of $3.5 million (or $7 million for a couple). Better not plan on dying next year after all.
This controversy dates back to George W. Bush’s first tax cut in 2001 that phased down the estate tax from 55% to 45% this year and then to zero next year. Although that 10-year tax law was to expire in 2011, meaning that the death tax rate would go all the way back to 55%, the political expectation was that once the estate tax was gone for even one year, it would never return.
And that is no doubt why the Obama Administration wants to make sure it never hits zero. It doesn’t seem to matter that the vast majority of the money in an estate was already taxed when the money was earned. Liberals counter that the estate tax is “fair” because it is only paid by the richest 2% of American families. This ignores that much of the long-term saving and small business investment in America is motivated by the ability to pass on wealth to the next generation.
The importance of intergenerational wealth transfers was first measured in a National Bureau of Economic Research study in 1980. That study looked at wealth and savings over the first three-quarters of the 20th century and found that “intergenerational transfers account for the vast majority of aggregate U.S. capital formation.” The co-author of that study was . . . Lawrence Summers.
Many economists had previously believed in “the life-cycle theory” of savings, which postulates that workers are motivated to save with a goal of spending it down to zero in retirement. Mr. Summers and coauthor Laurence Kotlikoff showed that patterns of savings don’t validate that model; they found that between 41% and 66% of capital stock was transferred either by bequests at death or through trusts and lifetime gifts. A major motivation for saving and building businesses is to pass assets on so children and grandchildren have a better life.
What all this means is that the higher the estate tax, the lower the incentive to reinvest in family businesses. Former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin recently used the Summers study as a springboard to compare the economic cost of a 45% estate tax versus a zero rate. He finds that the long-term impact of eliminating the death tax would be to increase small business capital investment by $1.6 trillion. This additional investment would create 1.5 million new jobs.
In other words, by raising the estate tax in the name of fairness, Mr. Obama won’t merely bring back from the dead one of the most despised of all federal taxes, and not merely splinter many family-owned enterprises. He will also forfeit half the jobs he hopes to gain from his $787 billion stimulus bill. Maybe that’s why the news of this unwise tax increase was hidden in a footnote.