One example of modern day corruption is the estate tax repeal that the republican house recently passed.
I’m working on another post that digs into the whole topic of corruption in more detail, but here’s a quick overview to provide some historical context to this discussion.
The framers of the constitution felt that corruption was the single largest threat to democracy.
If you remember your history, the United States was not the first democracy. That was Athens. But democracy was still a novel idea when the colonies decided that they had to be independent of the King. One of the arguments against democracy was the natural instinct of self-interest. The other argument was that the rich and powerful in Europe had been able to undermine democracy. The livelihoods of so many people depended on the good graces of royalty, for example, that few opposed their rule.
The framers, however, believed that individuals would value liberty so highly that civic virtue would trump self-interest. They were not so naïve, however, as to assume that this willingness to sacrifice for the greater good would continue once those who experienced the revolution passed on. So they regarded anything that would subvert civic virtue, or even have the appearance of self-interest, as corruption.
It’s through that lens that I’d like to look at the repeal of the estate tax. This isn’t to suggest that this is the only example of modern corruption. It’s just an obvious one.
The estate tax charges the wealthiest .2% of American households when they pass on amounts in excess of $5.4M in the case of individuals and $10.9M in the case of couples to their heirs.
This estate tax has been part of the US infrastructure since 1797. Its explicit purpose is to prevent the sort of corruption that the founders associated with a permanent aristocracy. By making it difficult for one generation to share their wealth with another, it discourages the formation of families with enough money to damage civic virtue. Specifically the concern was that our representative democracy could erode to an oligarchy if the government didn’t specifically take steps to prevent the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. James Madison warned that inequality in property ownership would subvert liberty, either through opposition to wealth (a war of labor against capital) or “by an oligarchy founded on corruption” through which the wealthy dominate political decision-making (a war of capital against labor).
Here are some of the justifications leading Republicans have used for eliminating the estate tax.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. claimed that the estate tax is “absolutely devastating” to family farms, and further he claimed the repeal would remove “an additional layer of taxation” from assets that had already been taxed.
“It sounds to me like there’s a lot of wealth envy in this country,” Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. The bill abolishing the estate tax, she said, “will draw a line in the sand.”
The facts are that only 120 small businesses and farms (100 of them large farms) were hit by the estate tax in 2013. And for that tiny number affected, there are all sorts of provisions already in place to soften the blow: low valuation rules, delayed tax payments and other breaks and discounts. In fact some have characterized the estate tax and a fine for those who failed to pay their accountant, since careful planning can generally avoid this tax.
Also 55% of the value of estates worth more than $100M, according to Americans for Tax Fairness, are unrealized capital gains that have never been taxed. If the issue were double taxation, there is a much better way of addressing the issue than simply eliminating the estate tax.
Besides the obvious risks of increased concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, there are real budget implications of repealing this tax. The tax will bring in $269B over the next ten years. Republicans are going to say that putting this money back into the hands of the wealthy will increase other tax revenue by causing economic growth, but there are no facts to support this claim. What the data shows is that tax cuts to the rich only reduce the middle class, increase the ranks of the poor, weaken our economy, and increase our debt.
To put this gift to the wealthy in perspective, here are some of the other things that could be done with that amount of money.
- Making community college free for everyone for ten years cost $60B
- Making four year college free for all that qualify would cost an additional $15B
- Plugging the current highway trust fund deficit which would support infrastructure improvement costs $164B over the same time period
If at this point you are asking what does all of this have to do with corruption, the house members who voted for this bill received a combined $56M in campaign contributions during the last election cycle from special interest groups specifically advocating the repeal of this tax.
This may not meet the narrow standard of corruption that the Supreme Court used to justify the Citizen’s United case, but it does justify the fears that our framers had regarding the corrupting influence that money has on our democracy.