In many respects, Dan L. Duncan was the embodiment of the American dream, the self-made man incarnate. He transformed $10,000 and two propane trucks into a natural gas empire and a personal net worth of $9 billion—making him the richest person in Houston, and the 74th wealthiest individual in the world.
Even though Duncan died last March, his story provides the “only in America” narrative that seems to be lacking in this brave new era of big government and dwindling faith in the individual.
And yet, incredibly, Duncan was recently profiled in The New York Times, not for his entrepreneurial spirit, but his ability to avoid paying taxes—by dying. In fact, the Times managed to parlay Duncan’s story into a none-too-subtle hustle for passage of the death tax. In an amazing uncomfortable piece of prose, the article actually makes the point that, because Duncan died when he did, his “four children and four grandchildren stand to collect billions that in any other year would have gone to the Treasury.”
The Times’ subtext is clear: Had Duncan had the decency to die three months earlier, the state would have received its rightful tithe. Sure, such insinuation ignores the fact that Duncan's heirs don't get away tax-free. In fact, enormous amounts of tax, including capital gains tax on all the assets they receive, is almost as much, if not equal to, the amount they would have paid under the death tax. But why let facts drag down the sexier narrative of capitalist greed?
The article also includes a quote from Chuck Collins, an “income inequity” specialist and pro-death tax advocate who has worked with Warren Buffett as well as Bill Gates to advance the death tax agenda: “The ultra-wealthy in this country will still be able to pass on enormous wealth to the next generation.” After all, argues Collins, the death tax is merely “a recycling program for economic opportunity.”
It’s misleading, however, to cite Buffett’s support for the death tax as evidence that the “oracle from Omaha” is some rare breed of enlightened capitalist who has no problem with giving a huge chunk of his fortune back to the state.
Buffett’s support for the death tax is hardly altruistic. Dick Patten, executive director of the American Family Business Institute, writes: “In the process of building his company, Berkshire Hathaway, Mr. Buffett benefited tremendously from death tax. In fact, the tax is critical to two of the three legs that make up Mr. Buffett’s financial stool.”
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that; just because the death tax is poor public policy doesn’t mean that entrepreneurs shouldn’t be able to take advantage of the opportunities it presents. What is problematic, however, is when death-tax advocates cite Warren Buffett’s support for the death tax as evidence vindicating their crusade against income inequality.
Buffett doesn’t worry about the death tax’s effect on the deficit or income inequality; he cares about the fact that, as Grover Norquist pointed out, if “the death tax goes away for good, so does much of Buffett’s wealth. He’s doing everything he can to make sure the death tax comes back in full force.”
Besides, Buffett is already planning to transfer a large majority of his considerable wealth to a charitable foundation (The Bill and Melinda Gates Fund) upon his death, thereby ensuring Treasury never gets a hold of his fortune. Buffett also plans to give a portion of his remaining fortune to other foundations run by his three children—a savvy method of avoiding the death tax while ensuring his heirs’ financial well-being. Not a bad set-up and one that must make it pretty easy to assume the public role of mogul-cum-martyr.
All and all, the death tax has treated Warren Buffett pretty well—no wonder he is so excited about its potential resurrection.
As for Collins’ defense of the death tax, it’s hard to even know where to begin. He trots out the tired “ultra-wealthy” adjective, which is clearly intended to be, if not pejorative, at least less-than-flattering—men like Duncan aren’t simply successful, they are something else, therefore making it acceptable to subject them to higher tax rates. And because these “ultra-wealthy elites” will still be able to pass on “enormous wealth,” they shouldn’t care that they are being treated unfairly.
Of course, the definition of enormous wealth is subjective anyway. One suspects that, were Collins ever to achieve the levels of prosperity earned by Duncan, his view on the amount of that wealth that should revert to the federal government might change.
The most troubling aspect of the left’s entire approach toward not only the death tax, but taxes in general, is surmised in Collins’ assertion that the death tax is, at its core, “a recycling program for economic opportunity”—and the implicit suggestion that such a program justifies income redistribution. It’s not Duncan’s money; it’s the Treasury’s to take back and spread around the rest of society as the federal government sees fit.
Its awkward treatment of Duncan aside, the Times’ piece serves primarily to remind readers that the left’s obsession with income distribution and class warfare continues to obscure the truth about the death tax: it slows economic growth, destroys jobs, and suppresses wages because it is a tax on capital and entrepreneurship.
In order to ensure that this nation continues to produce success stories like that of Dan Duncan, it’s time for Congress to permanently repeal the death tax.
Ryan O'Donnell is a reporter for the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Human Events