The Inheritance Tax: Envy Institutionalized

June 15, 2009

For release June 17 and thereafter (635 words)

The cartoon in the New Yorker shows a well-heeled couple on a busy city street sitting behind a sign. “Save the Hamptons,” it says.

Cash-strapped Indiana legislators are in special session this week eyeing the most obvious sources of additional tax revenue. They should know, though, that although the poor will always be with us, not so the rich.

The wealthy come and go on the whim of tax law. And whether they live on Long Island or in Zionsville, they are rarely fools. We risk losing thousands of jobs treating them as if they were.

Adam Nicholson, director of research for the American Family Business Foundation, estimates that state and federal inheritance taxes may cost this generation of Hoosiers more than 32,000 jobs. That figure does not reflect the holes left in the social and economic fabric of small- and mid-sized Hoosier towns as family businesses stretching back generations are replaced by corporate management teams.

And Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal places Indiana’s inheritance-tax law among the worst on his state-by-state ranking of competitive economic indicators. The reason in part is that Indiana maintains a low tax threshold (kicking in at $100,000) making it one of the most punishing in the nation.

Finally, we are a state that decided not to formally decouple its local inheritance tax from a ruinous federal tax, one that Congress is likely to reinstate in 2011 at a smothering rate of 45 or even 55 percent on estates valued over $1 million.

Earlier this month, economists Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Cameron Smith released their study, “Changing Views of the Estate Tax: Implications for Legislative Options.” They estimate that elimination of the tax could by itself make up for half of the jobs that the Obama administration hopes to “save or create” in its 2009-2010 budget.

Connecticut serves as a sorry example of what it means to ignore such advice. Its department of revenue found that wealthy emigrants took more than $1.2 billion net out of the state over the four-year period beginning in 2002. The single largest loss was to Florida, which levies neither an income tax nor an estate tax. A companion opinion survey found that the top two reasons why individuals changed their Connecticut address were estate tax concerns and income tax concerns. Climate or recreational opportunities were only third.

So why would a state do that to itself? Or more to the point here, who would do that to those of us left behind to make up the lost tax revenue?

The first group is made up of those who depend on government for their power, influence or income. Put most charitably, they treat the wealthy not as dynamic job-creators but as actuarially defined targets. Put less charitably, they prey on the dead.

The second group is even more worrisome. It is made up of those who insist despite all economic evidence that when one person gains, another person loses. These are the envy zealots and they are moved from issue to issue by politicians who find success in pandering to resentment — and you should know that we live in an age dominated by such men and women.

The third group is where our hopes lie. It is made up of people who don’t yet know better, who lack sufficient life experience or who have not had time or motivation to think through how wealth is created, how investment is attracted or how jobs are made.

These are being sent back to school by a depressed economy. Some will grow bitter and drop out. Others, though, will come to understand that it is not a joke to  “save the Hamptons” or, in Indiana, to save the Boone County estates, the Zionsville restorations, the Wawasee lake shore, the Porter County subdivisions or the Whitley County farms.

Their grandchildren may want to inherit something more substantial than a tax code that merely institutionalizes envy, that values the lowest common denominator rather than employment or investment.

They may want the opportunity to build a life of their own — one “rich” however they define it and one free of a covetous state.

Craig Ladwig is editor of The Indiana Policy Review. Contact him at cladwig@inpolicy.org

Resources and Acknowledgments

Warren Miller, cartoonist. “Save the Hamptons.” The New Yorker, Aug. 22, 1988,

Arthur Laffer, Stephen Moore & Jonathan Williams. Rich States, Poor States: ALEC-Laffer State Economic Competitive Index (2nd Edition). The American Legislative Exchange Council. 2009 ALEC-Laffer Economic Competitiveness Index, Spring 2009.

2009 State Death Tax Chart. The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. www.acetec.org.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Cameron Smith. Changing Views of the Estate Tax: Implications for Legislative Options. The American Family Business Foundation, February 2009.

Estate Tax Study. Connecticut Department of Revenue Services, Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, February 2008.



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