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July 10, 2005
Aggravated (and on a Sunday!)

I like to spend my Sundays casually. A bit of writing, a bit of reading, a bit of cooking, a bit of cleaning. I generally prefer not to get myself in a tizzy over something. (I should stay away from the news and my blogroll, shouldn't I?)

Still. Here I am. Ranting. Common Ills started it.

I'll wait while you go read their post, and the original article....*

Okay? I sent Common Ills an e-mail, but I decided to copy my response here with a few additional thoughts:

1) The article quoted refers repeatedly to "wealthy farmers." This creates a false picture. It ignores the farmers who aren't wealthy. Nor does it offer us any statistics on the percentage of farmers who are considered "wealthy." How many farmers are "wealthy"? How do they define "wealthy" for a farmer? How many farmers didn't qualify as "wealthy"? What about those farmers not "wealthy" enough to be able to afford large life insurance policies to handle their "liquidity" problems?

2) In order to provide a decent context for the impact of estate taxes on family farms, we should also have been given numbers on the families who have sold all or a controlling interest in their farms to corporate farmers in order to stay in business. (I don't know if there are any, you understand, but the picture of them having to is a common tool used by the Right to point out how we're 'killing' family farms.) What percentage of our food supply is still in the hands of "family" farmers and what percentage has been taken over by "corporate" farmers (and is thus not an issue in the estate tax debate)?

3) An exemption of $2 million isn't that unreasonable these days. When you consider the value of the land itself (which is where a lot of the "wealth" comes in), a farm can easily get close to that $2 million threshold while the family itself is living a very modest lifestyle.

4) Yes, non-farm families would also be able to avoid taxes on $2 million of their wealth, but two million dollars isn't what it used to be. I think many of us are allowing ourselves to be distracted by what seems to us to be a lot of money. When is comes to the really wealthy these days, $2 million is pocket change.

If we're talking about progressive taxation, let's look at the really rich. Those whose wealth is measured in the tens or hundreds of millions, or even in the billions. Those are the people with the sophisticated lawyers and the tax shelters in the Bahamas and the numbered accounts in Switzerland and the corporations "headquartered" off of USofA soil to avoid taxation and all of the other gimmicks available to the truly wealthy.

5) The Left, and other supporters of the estate tax aren't ever going to get anywhere with this as long as they keep allowing themselves to be painted by the Right as wanted to bankrupt family farms. Stop targeting the family farmers and target the super-rich. Stop making it possible for the Right to point to the Left as people who want to starve the farmers who feed us.

6) Yes, increasing the estate tax exemption will cut down on revenues for the government, but those funds could be easily made up by closing some of the unfair and undemocratic loopholes available only to the truly wealthy. Consider, instead, adopting those with "estates" of $2 million, or even $5 million, as part of the "middle class." As part of the constituency of the Left.

Our concern is, or should be, the rapidly vanishing middle class in this country. Our concern is, or should be, the accumulation of a disproportionate amount of our wealth in the hands of the super-rich. There is where our focus should be. A wealthy middle-class, even a wealthy upper-middle-class, is not unhealthy for our economy. Quadrupling the number of "estates" worth $2 million would be good for us. It's the concentration of wealth (and the consequent concentration of power) in a handful of families that's dangerous.

7) One family only needs so many yachts. Only a limited number of Rolls Royce's. Once they have a mansion with twenty bedrooms, it's ridiculous to pretend they worry about housing.

They can only eat so many meals, no matter how gourmet. Only wear so many pairs of shoes or buy so many ties. They can only take so many trips in so many private jets.

There comes a point at which more money is simply accumulated. There's no rational way to claim it's needed for survival. Any point beyond that and the money simply becomes a means to power. That's the point at which wealth accumulation becomes dangerous.

I don't advocate preventing wealth accumulation. I just warn that by allowing ourselves to be distracted by a fight over the $2 million family farm, we're in danger of losing a battle over how much money, and power the truly wealthy are able to pass along.

8) The Left is letting the Right set the terms of the debate again. We have to stop doing that. What's really at stake isn't the tax burden on a family farm. None of us want to run family farms out of business (except corporate farm conglomerates, but that's a different rant). We're letting the Right define who is "wealthy" in this debate, and that's just wrong.

While we fight bad PR over running Farmer Fred off of his family's long-held land, the Waltons and Cheneys and Bushes are sitting in the shadows, licking their lips over the proposed estate tax repeal.

This whole "family farmer" charade is the only thing the Right has left, don't you see? It's the only "real American" constituency they still pretend to represent. Outside of this, all of their efforts go to service multi-national corporations and that tiny group of super-rich individuals, whose fates are inextricably entwined with that of the mega-conglomerates. If we remove the Right's ability to pretend to represent the "family farmer" then we've removed one of their most valuable PR tools.

9) Leave small family businesses alone. Enlist the family farms in your ranks. That's where they belong, not on the Right, the side of corporate conglomerates.

Go after the places where wealth has accumulated to the point of danger. Close up the loopholes. Tighten up the tax code. Let the super-rich, those with real wealth and assets, not those whose assets are largely tied up in land their family has farmed for generations or business owners whose life-time of work has created a comparatively modest legacy to pass on to the next generation, pay their proportionate share.

10) The super-rich have certainly benefited from our government's services. They've had special legislation, special protection, and special attention for decades. They've gotten tax shelters and subsidies and loopholes written to their personal specs.

For a few modest (compared to their resources) donations to individual politicians' campaigns, they've reaped the benefits of tens of millions of dollars worth of tax breaks and subsidies.

These donations benefit no one but the people running the campaigns. The money pays staff salaries and pays for ads. That's about it. The government, the country, gets nothing but another bought-and-paid-for politician. (At the very least, that same amount of money, paid in taxes, would have provided us something besides a lot of really stupid and annoying ads.)

The super-rich, and their corporate conglomerates, get a lot of special attention from the government, and they only "pay" for it by "paying" individual politicians. (Call it campaign donations if you want to, but that doesn't change the facts. They give a politician $100,000, even through a 527, and they get a few million dollars in tax breaks. It's a pay-off, no matter how you spin it.) The government spends a lot of time and effort (which translates into our tax dollars) pampering the super-rich, people with six on-staff manicures to attend to their every hangnail. We are subsidizing their lifestsyles.

Government has to be paid for. It's time for this bunch to pay their share of the bill.

* Update: I should have read and included Kevin.


Necessary disclaimers:

#1 - Short of my elderly mother winning a big lottery jackpot, there's no way the estate tax question is going to impact me personally.

#2 - I am related to someone who works in the beef industry. This has had no impact on my belief that targeting family farms or "estates" worth $2 million, a battle we can't win, is a smokescreen on the part of the Right. They're servicing their ultra-rich constituency by pretending to care about "the little people."

Posted by AnneZook at 11:07 AM