Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Friends of Paris Hilton 

E.J. Dionne knows a thing or two about framing an issue:
The same people who insist that critics of Social Security privatization should offer reform proposals of their own are working feverishly to eliminate alternatives that might reduce the need for benefit cuts or payroll tax increases.

I refer to the fact that House Republican leaders have scheduled a vote this week to abolish the estate tax permanently. Under a wacky provision of the 2001 tax cut designed to disguise the law's full cost, Congress voted to make the estate tax go away in 2010, but come back in full force in 2011.

With so many other taxes around, it's hard to understand why this is the one Congress would repeal. It falls, in effect, on the heirs to the wealthiest Americans. Fewer than 1 percent of the people who died in 2004 paid an estate tax, and half the revenue from the tax came from estates valued at $10 million or more.

Yet, because the wealthy have gotten wealthier over the past three decades or so, the estate tax produces a lot of money. Counting both revenue losses and added interest costs, complete repeal of the estate tax would cost the government close to $1 trillion between 2012 and 2021, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities . . . .

This is big news for the Social Security debate. Michael J. Graetz and Ian Shapiro, authors of a new book on the estate tax, "Death by a Thousand Cuts," have referred to its repeal as the "Paris Hilton Benefit Act." To pick up on the metaphor, why should Congress be more concerned about protecting Paris Hilton's inheritance than grandma's Social Security check? How can a member of Congress even think about raising payroll taxes while throwing away so much other revenue? . . . .

Those who vote to repeal the estate tax this week will be sending a clear message: They see the "crisis" in Social Security as serious enough to justify benefit cuts and private accounts. But it's not serious enough to warrant a minor inconvenience to those who plan to live on their parents' wealth.

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