by | Jun 11, 2000 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

First you earn a dollar.

Then it gets taxed.

It gets taxed by the federal government, the state government, city government and Social Security.

It has pennies shaved off for a property tax or a school tax. Then a water tax, a gas tax, a sewage tax or a tax that helps some rich guy build a stadium.

Your dollar is peeled, sliced, diced, chopped, cubed, minced and shredded by taxes until whatever shards remain finally fall into your pocket.

And you put them away. You save them. You tell your children: “One day, those pieces will be yours.”

And then you die.

And the government wants to tax them again.

At up to 55 percent!

Welcome to the estate tax — or the “death tax” — the cruelest tax of all. There is a move to abolish this tax. The House voted on proposals last week.

Yet most experts believe the idea will die in the Senate. And President Clinton has vowed a veto, claiming the government would miss the money too much. The thinking by those who want to keep the death tax is the same as it has been for decades: The rich can afford it.

Yes. Well. To paraphrase Tina Tuner: What’s rich got to do with it?

The American dream

Something isn’t right simply because it benefits poor people. And something isn’t wrong simply because it benefits the rich.

But something is definitely wrong if it keeps parents from passing on the fruit of their life’s work to their children.

And this, by the way, is what the death tax does — and not just to the Bill Gateses and Donald Trumps of the world.

When you die, the value of your estate is what gets taxed. That means everything in it, from house to car to cheap costume jewelry. And if you own a business, or a farm, or an apartment building, the value of that whole thing counts toward the tax.

The current law allows a $675,000 exemption before the taxes kick in — more for farms — and at first blush that sounds like a ton of money. But when you consider the values of homes these days, or the values of stocks and automobiles — let alone what a business is worth — you see how quickly that exemption is eaten up.

And next thing you know, you owe 55 percent.

Now imagine a small business, which may be worth a lot on paper, but doesn’t kick out a lot of cash each year. Suddenly, the owner dies, and his grieving children have to pay 55 percent tax on the non-exempt value. Where do they come up with that money?

They don’t. So they have to sell the business to pay the tax. And the idea that so many immigrants had when they came to this country — “I’ll start a business, build it up and leave it to my children, so that they will be taken care of” — turns into a nightmare. A liability. A burden.

For what? Another new pork project for a senator or congressman? When a politician claims that people with estates of more than $675,000 already have enough money, this is my response:

“Oh. And the government doesn’t?”

A bipartisan debate

Now, part of the push behind this latest rally to kill the death tax is because minority-owned businesses –such as farms in the South — are suddenly affected. As minority groups have gained economic power, they face the same problems of their richer white predecessors: Their children have to sell the farm to pay the tax.

This allows some more left-wing Democrats to support killing the tax, which has always been perceived as a right-wing Republican idea.

But that’s where we’ve gotten lost. This isn’t about left or right, rich or poor, white or black. This is about a tax that is left over from World War I, which accounts for only 2 percent of federal revenue and which didn’t become wrong when it started affecting certain people.

It was always wrong. The act of passing on your already-taxed earnings to your children should be encouraged. It is a reason to work. A reason to save.

Besides, it’s bad enough that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. Having one atop the other is really pushing it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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