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Archive for July 14th, 2010

Australia got rid of its death tax in 1979. A couple of Aussie academics investigated whether the elimination of the tax had any impact on death rates. They found the ultimate example of supply-side economics, as reported in the abstract of their study.
In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that our results are driven by misreporting, our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

It looks like this experiment will be repeated in the United States, but in the other direction. There was a rather unsettling article in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. The story begins with a description of how the death tax rate dropped from 45 percent in 2009 to zero in 2010, and then notes the huge implications of a scheduled increase to 55 percent in 2011.

Congress, quite by accident, is incentivizing death. When the Senate allowed the estate tax to lapse at the end of last year, it encouraged wealthy people near death’s door to stay alive until Jan. 1 so they could spare their heirs a 45% tax hit. Now the situation has reversed: If Congress doesn’t change the law soon—and many experts think it won’t—the estate tax will come roaring back in 2011. …The math is ugly: On a $5 million estate, the tax consequence of dying a minute after midnight on Jan. 1, 2011 rather than two minutes earlier could be more than $2 million; on a $15 million estate, the difference could be about $8 million.
The story then features several anecdotes from successful people, along with observations from those who deal with wealthy taxpayers. The obvious lesson is that taxpayers don’t want the IRS to confiscate huge portions of what has been saved and invested over lifetimes of hard work.
“You don’t know whether to commit suicide or just go on living and working,” says Eugene Sukup, an outspoken critic of the estate tax and the founder of Sukup Manufacturing, a maker of grain bins that employs 450 people in Sheffield, Iowa. Born in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl, the 81-year-old Mr. Sukup is a National Guard veteran and high school graduate who founded his firm, which now owns more than 70 patents, with $15,000 in 1963. He says his estate taxes, which would be zero this year, could be more that $15 million if he were to die next year. …Estate planners and doctors caution against making life-and-death decisions based on money. Yet many people ignore that advice. Robert Teague, a pulmonologist who ran a chronic ventilator facility at a Houston hospital for two decades, found that money regularly figured in end-of-life decisions. “In about 10% of the cases I handled at any one time, financial considerations came into play,” he says. In 2009, more than a few dying people struggled to live into 2010 in hopes of preserving assets for their heirs. Clara Laub, a widow who helped her husband build a Fresno, Calif., grape farm from 20 acres into more than 900 acres worth several million dollars, was diagnosed with advanced cancer in October, 2009. Her daughter Debbie Jacobsen, who helps run the farm, says her mother struggled to live past December and died on New Year’s morning: “She made my son promise to tell her the date and time every day, even if we wouldn’t,” Mrs. Jacobsen says. …Mr. Aucutt, who has practiced estate-tax law for 35 years, expects to see “truly gruesome” cases toward the end of the year, given the huge difference between 2010 and 2011 rates.
The obvious question, of course, is whether politicians will allow the tax to be reinstated. The answer is almost certainly yes, but it’s also going to be interesting to see if they try to impose the tax retroactively on people who died this year.
So far in 2010, an estimated 25,000 taxpayers have died whose estates are affected by current law, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. That group includes least two billionaires, real-estate magnate Walter Shorenstein and energy titan Dan Duncan. …”Enough very wealthy people have died whose estates have the means to challenge a retroactive tax, and that could tie the issue up in the courts for years,” says tax-law professor Michael Graetz of Columbia University.
It should go without saying, by the way, that the correct rate for the death tax is zero. It’s also worth noting that this is an issue that shows that incentives do matter.

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I have the “opposing view” column in USA Today this morning, and my job was to explain why the politicians who voted for the Wall Street bailout deserve the scorn of voters. I made two points. First, there was no need to bail out specific firms – even if one thought the government needed to inject capital in the system. Second, it is grotesquely immoral to use the coercive power of the state to take money from poor people and give it to rich people.
Beltway insiders and members of the political establishment are mourning these developments, asserting that the TARP martyrs are noble and courageous officials who did the right thing despite the risk to their careers. The obvious implication is that ordinary voters are a bunch of yokels who did not understand the steps that were needed to rescue the financial system and the economy from collapse. This self-serving narrative is wrong. The anger at TARP is not because it injected money into the financial system. Voters are upset because funds were used to bail out specific companies. Defenders of the status quo claim this was a necessary feature of rescuing the entire system, but that is false. Politicians had the option of choosing the “FDIC resolution” approach, which also injects capital into the banking system but only as part of liquidating insolvent institutions. This means that existing management and shareholders get wiped out. Indeed, this is precisely what happened with Washington Mutual and IndyMac. And it was the approach that was used during the savings-and-loan bailout 20 years ago. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. resolution approach should have been used with all insolvent institutions, regardless of how many lobbyists they employed or how much campaign cash they had funneled to Washington. TARP was also a terrible piece of legislation because it meant that politicians, rather than market forces, determined which companies survived. It also was a moral abomination. Government-coerced redistribution is never a good idea, but the worst type of welfare is when poor people are forced to subsidize rich people.

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