by Greg Palast
for The Guardian, Comment Is Free
Monday, July 31, 2006
East Hampton, New York — Anthony Marshall, the tabloids tell us, wouldn’t buy his elderly mother her prescribed medicine, locked her dachshunds in the pantry and refused to buy her hair dye or her favorite make-up. His mom is Brooke Astor, the ultra-rich socialite, now frail, helpless and dependent on her son.
While others merely gossiped about this tragedy of dogs and cosmetics, George Bush acted. In a deft maneuver at the end of last week, Bush rammed through Congress a massive reduction in the inheritance tax. As a result of the tax change engineered by the White House, Marshall stands to save $9 million on the $45 million he expects to inherit from his mom.
George W. Bush could feel Anthony’s pain. It’s not easy being a child of incredibly wealthy parents. Indeed, as the President noted, “death taxes” are supremely unfair to those who’ve earned these millions. As Mr. Bush often mentions, he himself worked long hours his whole life to be born into a rich family.
Our President recently told the Detroit Economic Club that, in an era of government belt tightening, “Spending discipline requires difficult choices.” But this choice was easy as pie: the President chose to use our tax dollars to reduce the burden on the most deserving. And who could be more deserving than Barbara’s kids? The President himself, who stands to inherit well over $76 million from his parents, will save at least $12.7 million. Talk about family values!
This year, the President’s budget eliminated the $255 paid to widows of social security recipients. But who needs a measly $255 when you’re going to save millions on the estate you inherit?
Here’s how much your family will save, if your family is the Astors. Under current law, Anthony would have to pay the government 46% of his profits from his mother’s death, after the first tax-free $2 million. Now, Anthony will get the first five million tax-free and the tax rate on the rest is cut in half.
Altogether, this reduction in inheritance taxes will cost, oh, a quarter trillion dollars over the next decade — $267 billion, to be exact. To pay for it, besides eliminating the $255 widow benefit, the President’s “difficult choices” included taking $12 million from the federal traumatic brain injury assistance program and $119 million from housing for the disabled.
But cripples looking for a government hand-out should stop thinking selfishly. They should have more sympathy for the Menendez brothers, whose parents were worth $14 million. The tax laws in 1989 reduced the net sum each of the two boys stood to inherit to just $2 million each, giving the young men no choice but to kill their parents for the additional insurance money.
Apparently, one of the single largest beneficiaries of the change will be Robert Durst. And now that he’s out of jail (he dis-membered his 71-year-old neighbor), the heir to the Durst real estate billions can look forward to a bonus of, I’d estimate, at least a quarter billion bucks from the US taxpayers. (With the extra Treasury treasure, Durst can look for his wife who is, uh, missing.)
The President could have used the quarter trillion to buy every displaced family from New Orleans a one million dollar home. But, he reasoned, their kids would just end up paying estate taxes on it when their parents kicked the bucket.
Several newspapers deplored the way Anthony treated the elderly Mrs. Astor. But, let me note, it was the Tax-and-Spend policies of Big Government that forced him to dilute his mom’s medicine. Let’s face it: until our President’s bold action to repeal death taxes, Mrs. Astor, hanging in there at 104 years of age, simply had no incentive to die.
The National Association of Manufacturers, the key lobby for the end of estate taxes, wrote every Congressman, “Why on earth should good, honest, hard-working people” — like Durst, Marshall and the Menendez kids — have to pay taxes while other Americans just slack it?
Until the Republicons took action this week, Americans have simply had no reason, said our president, to “accumulate wealth.” I know that in my own dad’s case, rather than become a multi-millionaire, he chose to work 65 hours a week in a furniture store, with no pension, just so my sister and I would never have to fear estate taxes.
Congress’ vote last week would eliminate only 74% of the taxes on America’s wealthiest. Our President is not satisfied. Mr. Bush will not rest in peace until we emulate one of the only nations on the planet without any death taxes, Saudi Arabia. There, our president could point to the example of the billionaire bin Laden family, whose scion, Osama, unburdened by estate taxes, has donated his entire inheritance to “faith-based initiatives.”
Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “ARMED MADHOUSE: Who’s Afraid of Osama Wolf?, China Floats Bush Sinks, the Scheme to Steal ’08, No Child’s Behind Left and other Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Class War.” Go to www.GregPalast.com.