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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Poor Little Billionaires 

The Senate reportedly plans to consider a permanent repeal of the estate tax before Memorial Day, and predictably, there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth over the crippling hardships visited upon those pitiable souls who have recently had the misfortune to come into multi-million-dollar legacies. Earlier today we happened across one such heart-rending plaint from Paul Wenger, Vice President of an outfit called the California Farm Bureau Federation:
Antonio Ghisletta, a Swiss immigrant, passed away quietly on his dairy farm surrounded by his family. He spent 70 years building a business in the Chileno Valley that could be passed on to his children and grandchildren. But his children and grandchildren lost two dairies in less than a year by having to sell them to meet IRS inheritance tax obligations.

How will we encourage new and aspiring farmers and ranchers to take up this honorable life if the hard work results in nothing more than crushed dreams? We must push for the permanent repeal of the "death tax" once and for all.
Mr. Wenger should photograph the Ghislettas, slap their faces on billboards and take them on a national whistlestop tour post haste. As our regular readers are certainly aware, the American Farm Bureau has never been able to cite a single case of a family losing its farm due to the estate tax, and they will no doubt be thrilled to learn of the Ghislettas' existence -- if the Ghislettas do, in fact, exist.

Our astute colleague Scorpio of Eccentricity directs us to a new report, just released by Public Citizen and UFE (United for a Fair Economy):
It reveals how 18 families worth a total of $185.5 billion have financed and coordinated a 10-year effort to repeal the estate tax, a move that would collectively net them a windfall of $71.6 billion.

The report profiles the families and their businesses, which include the families behind Wal-Mart, Gallo wine, Campbell’s soup, and Mars Inc., maker of M&Ms. Collectively, the list includes the first- and third-largest privately held companies in the United States, the richest family in Alabama and the world’s largest retailer.

These families have sought to keep their activities anonymous by using associations to represent them and by forming a massive coalition of business and trade associations dedicated to pushing for estate tax repeal. The report details the groups they have hidden behind – the trade associations they have used, the lobbyists they have hired, and the anti-estate tax political action committees, 527s and organizations to which they have donated heavily.

In a massive public relations campaign, the families have also misled the country by giving the mistaken impression that the estate tax affects most Americans. In particular, they have used small businesses and family farms as poster children for repeal, saying that the estate tax destroys both of these groups. But just more than one-fourth of one percent of all estates will owe any estate taxes in 2006 . . . .

While they extol the hard work of individual farmers and small businesses, most of the 18 families have been wealthy for generations; only five still include the people who first earned the family fortune. Members of the families are far less likely than most Americans to have paid taxes on their wealth; to a large extent, that wealth lies in assets that have appreciated but, unlike paychecks, have never been taxed.

These super-rich families have spent millions in personal wealth and used their companies’ resources and lobbying power in repeated attempts to influence members of Congress to repeal the tax. They have financed groups who have launched multimillion-dollar attack ads against Republican and Democratic senators alike, including former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Olympia Snow (R-Maine), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Lincoln Chaffee (R-R.I.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).

The stakes of the campaign are great, not only for the super-wealthy families, but for the public. If the families’ repeal bid succeeds, it will cost the U.S. Treasury a trillion dollars in the first decade – roughly what it would cost to provide health insurance for every uninsured person in the United States.
Other fabulously rich families in the gang of 18 include the Coxes (Cox Enterprises), the DeVoses and van Andels (Amway), the Johnsons (BET), and the Nordstroms. The entire report, "Spending Millions to Save Billions," may be found here (in .PDF format); you will find a useful and link-rich post on the subject at Facing South.

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