View from the couch: Death, taxes, and Republicans



Death and taxes may always be with us, along with the poor, the rich (especially the rich), etc. But for the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress, which looks to lamely live up to its name, they will be pressing subjects.Because one of the taxes that will need to be "fixed" is the so-called Death Tax, the estate tax, which affects few Americans, but seems to be revered by the entire population. Everyone longs to pay a death tax, because it means you're from one of the richest of American families. Now, what hits the news usually involves someone just on the cusp of the fantastical amounts the death tax actually deals with (45 percent, with an exclusion of $3.5 million for households, until this year, when it "died"). If nothing is done, those amounts will rise from the grave and be 55 percent and a $1 million exemption.

Why I'm talking about the death tax is many-fold. One, Republican branding over a decade of the estate tax as the "death" tax has been very successful. Republicans know how to change language, if not behavior. And Americans, even though the current estate tax (before this year) only affected around five thousand households a year, are sympathetic to the idea that people shouldn't pay taxes just because someone dies. Of course, this is sentimental and the sentiment is wasted on the rich. We're so sorry for all those rich people. Look, they have to pay taxes when gramps dies. What can we do about that six million dollar Manhattan town house he left us!

This works, too, on just plain old regular taxes. It is the mantra of the Republicans – we shouldn't raise taxes on anyone! – in the current debate over extending the Bush tax cuts, which gave more to the rich and a relative pittance to everyone else. It doesn't matter that the new book, Winner-Take-All Politics, much discussed, about the Winner-Take-All Society we live in (the title of another book that came out in 2006 and an insight that's been around for over a decade), showing how the richer have gotten richer since the Reagan years and everyone else stayed the same or got worse.

The anti-tax movement has been one of the most successful protest groups ever assembled. Starve the beast!Shrink government!All the fierce dictums of the right have never been countered successfully by the left. But, just as we have the fat and salt content of foods listed on packaging, we should have a pie chart, a breakdown, of where our taxes go on our federal tax returns. Last year's, a decade's worth. But the lessons learned – that they go to the military and the debt, and what we pay to Social Security (the SSS already does this) and Medicare we actually get back, and such small amounts of our taxes go to "discretionary" spending, would be an eye opener for most Americans; additionally, what should be taught in high school is the actual amounts of money it takes to be "middle class", upper middle class, etc. In 2006 census figures, around 70% of Americans made $52,500 a year or less. The top 5% made more than $100,00 a year. These are figures for individuals.

But the culture of the country is aimed at the top 5 percent. Everyone is familiar with those folks. We all are much less familiar with the 70 percent, except, as Christine O'Donnell (the new Pogo) might have said, they are us. But we do not worship the poor in this country, or even the actual middle class (those earning even less than $52,500 a year). We worship the rich. We are taught to hate the poor, hate failure, prize success over all. Evangelicals preach success as a sign of God's favor, finding good old Calvinism a bit too complicated to explain. Why punish the elect with taxes? It's why Republicans love the current version of dumbed-down Christianity.

And when President Obama and the 111th Congress cave in and give the Republicans what they want, continuing the Bush tax cuts for the next year, or two, or three, the rich will continue to get richer and the rest of us will be left to continue to wonder why.


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