I don’t think I’m politically naive, so I do understand why most Republicans and TeaBaggers label the US inheritance tax the “death tax.” It isn’t the politics per se that fries me. Of course as anyone who knows me probably already knew, I am strongly in favor of an inheritance tax–there is no point in denying that. Children are wonderful and parents can and should provide as well for their children as they can. But what about all the children of our society? What about those kids who will be ill nourished, ill housed, poorly educated and just plain ill? Should we not, as a society, try to find ways to ensure a minimum level of decency for all children? Where will the funds come from if we are not allowed to tap into resources that become available when someone passes from the earth?
So I am all for an inheritance tax. I hope some day to be rich enough that my estate will have to pay that tax, but alas I think I will have to hit the lottery for that to happen no matter where the current decision goes. But if I do I will gladly pay it, or rather my heirs will. And I hope I will have taught them to be happy about it.
But what concerns me far more than the particular issue at hand is the death of our American English language at the hands of the Teabaggers and like-thinkers. I’ve been many things over my life, but I like to think of myself most as a language teacher. I love, in fact treasure, language. Language is a fundamental way for we humans to communicate with one another. I don’t mind colloquialisms and I do hope I have a sense of humor. But there is nothing funny about the butchery committed on the English language by a notion such as “death tax.”
Here is what’s bothering me: If there is such a thing as a “death tax” then it should be a tax paid by the heirs to anyone who dies. When there is a sales tax, it is not charged on just a few people for just a few items. Everyone pays it and on just about everything. Sure there are exemptions in most states for things like food. But everyone pays sales tax, and on most things. In the United States we have an Income Tax. Everyone who earns income pays it. Yes, there are once again exemptions that prevent the poorest people from paying the tax, and other exemptions that ensure that rich people don’t pay their fair share, but the overwhelming majority of people pay some income tax. Most states have a property tax. In most states there are exemptions so that places of worship, schools and other institutions for the public good do not have to pay. But every person who purchases property pays the tax which is necessary for police and fire protection, etc and even renters pay the tax even if indirectly. So it is reasonable to call these things sales or income or property tax.
For most of its history, hardly anyone has paid much of anything in inheritance taxes in the United States. Current proposals in Congress call for the restoration of a tax on the top 1% of estates. If it passes, approximately 500 estates per year will face a significant inheritance tax. The children of all those families will be rich despite the fact that they themselves did absolutely nothing to earn that wealth. Over 99 per cent of the estates created each year will pay not a cent. So calling such a thing a “death tax” is an outrageous distortion. It is, in fact, a lie. It’s not even really an estate tax. What it really is is a tax paid only by very rich dead people. So if you want the word “dead” in there, feel free to call it that.