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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why the Estate Tax Can’t Get Traction

Despite all of the heated debate in the media and among the politicians about the current tax cut debate, count me among those who are puzzled by the general docility of the public, which supports the tax cut deal in polls, if not all of its key provisions. I chalked it off to the old “Oh whatever, as long as I get mine” impulse. But American Prospect’s Paul Waldman offers a more thoughtful explanation for one part of it in his Tapped post, “The Oddly Unpopular Estate Tax“:

As Kevin Drum says, “Polls routinely show that a substantial majority of people favor higher income taxes on the rich. But polls also show that a substantial majority of people favor repeal or reduction of the estate tax.” At the time (this was back in 2000), I thought it might have to do with a misconception, namely that lots of people assumed that everyone who inherits anything has to pay the estate tax. So we did an experiment in a survey where we asked two versions of the question, one of which asked whether people thought the tax should be repealed, and the other of which explained that the tax was only paid by people who inherited a million dollars or more (or whatever the exemption was back then), then asked whether people thought it should be repealed.
The results didn’t show much of an impact of the information: While support was lower among the group that got the explanation, it was only lower by about 10 points. As I recall, it was something like 65 percent supporting repeal without the information about the exemption, and 55 percent supporting repeal with the information (the data are in here somewhere, if you care to track them down)…

According to an ABC News/Washington Post Poll conducted 12/9-12, 29 percent of respondents “support strongly” a policy of “Increasing the exemption on inheritance taxes so that only estates worth more than five million dollars are taxed,” with another 23 percent saying they “support somewhat” such a policy. And 16 percent were in the “oppose somewhat” category, with 25 percent in the “oppose strongly” group.
Waldman quotes Drum attributing the phenomenon to “…a very deep, very primitive protective instinct that most people sympathize with no matter how rich you are” — leaving money to your kids. Waldman also cites the unrealistic belief of most people that one day they might be rich along with the shrewd propaganda of Republicans, who branded the estate tax the ‘death tax.” He also notes that opinions about estate taxes tend to be most strongly held by the rich and most others don’t care enough about it to take action.
As far as progressive messaging goes, Waldman recommends, “Why shouldn’t Paris Hilton have to pay taxes, just like people who work for a living?” Not bad. It does crystalize the issue succinctly. Not everyone will buy the Hilton stereotype whole hog, since many would understand that not all heirs are that undeserving. But Waldman’s suggestion does get the conversation started. Building support for a progressive estate tax, however, will also require a sustained education campaign so people have more of a sense of the scope of the issue and what seems fair. It’s too late for 2010, but next time a little more public education about the issue might serve Dems well.

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