A Sign That the Death Tax May Live to See Another Day

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HERBERT KNOSOWSKI/AP

Bill Gates: Wants to pay his estate taxes

William H. Gates, father of Bill, says he would have started a club called "Millionaires for the Estate Tax," if he'd had the time.

Instead, some of the nation's stinkingest stinking rich men are banding together a little more informally — in a petition that will run as a full-page ad in Sunday's New York Times, for starters — to explain to George W. Bush and congressional Republicans why their proposed repeal of the so-called "death tax" is not a good idea.

"Repealing the estate tax," the petition reads, "would enrich the heirs of America's millionaires and billionaires while hurting families who struggle to make ends meet... would have a devastating impact on public charities... would be bad for our democracy, our economy and our society." The petitoners add that adjustments may be needed to help families passing down farms and small businesses. "Let's fix the estate tax, not repeal it."

Sounds, quite frankly, like something Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt would say, and indeed some of the signatories have given some of their big bucks to the Democratic party. But Gates, who organized the drive (and assures us his son agrees in spirit but preferred not to get involved), insists that partisanship had nothing to do with it. Just some civic-minded billionaires who think legislated financial dynasties are bad for America.

Which may not be surprising coming from hippie ice-cream magnate Ben Cohen, or even the politically liberal George Soros. But there are two Rockefellers on the list as well — philanthropist David Rockefeller Jr., former chairman of Rockefeller & Company, and Steven C. Rockefeller, chairman of the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. Not to mention Agnes Gund, a philanthropist whose family owns stakes in many companies. Warren Buffett, the zillionaire investor who's newly revered these days for weathering the tech bubble-bust with his zillions intact, didn't sign — but only because the petition didn't go far enough.

"We have come closer to a true meritocracy than anywhere else around the world," Buffett told the Times. "You have mobility so people with talents can be put to the best use. Without the estate tax, you in effect will have an aristocracy of wealth, which means you pass down the ability to command the resources of the nation based on heredity rather than merit."

It's a distinctly American idea, that the best kind of rich man is the self-made, Horatio Alger kind — and that goes for the rich man's heirs too. "Old money" no longer has much hold on the American imagination, and "nouveau riche" is no longer an insult (especially among the nouveau not-so-riche). Nobody wants to be like the Europeans anymore, especially since we got so much richer than them. Nobody likes a rich kid. And the dot-com gold rush, however short-lived, only reinforced the idea that America is supposed to be the land of opportunity.

Certainly these guys are impressively populist for rich old white men — it's enough to make you miss the robber barons — but the Monopoly men have certainly homed in on the repeal's political weak spots.

The estate tax puts a cap on non-taxable inheritances — currently $675,000, and already scheduled to be raised to an even million by 2006. (Farms and family businesses already enjoy the $1 million exemption.) Amounts above that threshold are taxed at rates that begin at 37 percent and rise to 55 percent for anything greater than $3 million.

The estates of fewer than 48,000 Americans a year — 2 percent of annual deaths — pay the tax now. And it remains a powerful incentive for the aging rich to give some of their millions to charity before the government gets its bite. Opponents of the plan — including the petitioners, who should know — also say that the cost of a repeal will be far greater than the $236 billion price tag Bush puts on it.

And so the estate-tax repeal is looking more and more like the perfect bone for Bush to throw the Democrats when the negotiating gets started in earnest. Despite Denny Hastert's impressive p.r. sell of the cut last year — he had the bill delivered to the White House on a tractor, playing up the family-farmer angle — it remains the most obviously rich-skewed of Bush's cuts. Turning over that paper $236 billion to the Democrats for some lower-income cuts — or pulling it from the plan altogether — could speed up the negotiations significantly.

Will Bush listen? What the superrich think the American Way ought to be may fall on deaf ears in this White House. His constituency in this case isn't really the Buffets and Gateses of the world, more the middle-class rich, the single-digits multimillionaires who just want to have big houses and two Land Rovers and send their kids and grandkids to the Ivy Leagues for generations and generations.

Like, say, the Bushes.