Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Now that the fiscal cliff debates are (we hope!) coming to a conclusion, Responsible Wealth — a network of business leaders and other wealthy citizens, including Bill Gates Sr., Warren Buffett and George Soros — is speaking out in favor of returning to an estate-tax structure more reminiscent of that of the pre-Bush years.
The group is arguing for a much lower exemption — $4 million for a couple — than current law dictates. Its members also believe that the tax rate should begin at 45% and rise on a graduated basis in proportion to the size of the inheritance. This is actually a more liberal policy than President Obama is calling for; he has proposed a maximum estate-tax rate of 45%, with a combined exemption for couples up to $7.5 million.
But how much money would this tax actually raise, and could it help avert some of the other painful choices being made in the fiscal-cliff debate? The amount the estate tax could raise, of course, depends on the details of the reform. According to a recent analysis by the Wall Street Journal, current policy, which mandates a maximum estate tax of 35%, would raise $161 billion in revenue over the next 10 years. By contrast, reverting to a pre-2001 estate tax would raise $532 billion in the same time period, while the President’s proposal would raise $276 billion.
These aren’t the kind of proposals that are going to solve America’s budget issues overnight. The U.S.’s yearly deficits have been topping $1 trillion per year. At the same time, every hundred billion counts, and the past several months (and perhaps the entire election cycle) have been centered on whether the Bush income-tax cuts on top earners should expire — a debate over a swing of just $110 billion (more or less) in taxes over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And if an aggressive estate tax would raise almost $400 billion more in the next 10 years than current law allows, that’s $400 billion less we would have to cut from entitlement programs.