Originally Published: June 20, 2006 4 a.m.
Now let us praise Paris Hilton.
This is not a phrase I ever expected to fall from my lips or my laptop. The high school dropout and celebutante is the heiress that America loves to ridicule. Nevertheless, I raise a glass to Paris, the young and the spoiled, the rich and rhymes-with-rich, after the near-death experience of the estate tax. Paris may yet become the unwitting icon who pulls us from the brink of policy madness.
This past week, the Senate almost permanently eliminated the inheritance tax and the billions it raises every year. Now Republican leaders have vowed to bring the fight against this tax back to the Senate floor and the campaign trail.
So while we are in this brief intermission, let us take a moment to see how the debate plays out against two of the most powerful, ongoing narratives in our country: the Self-Made American and the Spoiled Brat.
Remember when eliminating the estate tax first got on the conservative dance card? The choreographers labeled it the "death tax." According to this spin, the long arm of the government reached into the grave to snatch dollars, family farms and small businesses.
The reality that it was really the Waltons, Marses, Campbells and other family oligarchs behind this policy only gradually and belatedly countered that idea. A growing, if still vague, recognition is emerging that this isn't a tax on the dead but on their heirs whose only heavy lifting may be carrying their parents' DNA.
Two Yale professors first suggested that if opponents label the estate tax the death tax, the we should call the attempt to get rid of it the "Paris Hilton Tax Relief Act." Since then, we've had ads with Paris look-alikes and tag lines saying: "The last thing a rich heiress needs is a $1 trillion raise in her allowance.''
So here we are. The central myth of America the Beautiful Meritocracy is that we can all pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, go from rags to riches, garage to Googledom. People have noted to years that Americans aren't jealous of the rich because we all hope to become rich. We may oppose estate taxes on the very, very, very wealthy because we dream of leaving that sort of wealth to our own kids.
On the other hand, Americans have long regarded heirs and heiresses with envy and scorn. Yes, the cream may rise to the top of the Fortune 500 list, but money easily curdles their kids into spoiled brats.
Chalk it up to the growing gap between the rich and the poor, or the class structure we're not supposed to talk about, but an awful lot of cultural entries into the spoiled brat genre are taking place. We've had a parade of movies and MTV series and novels from "My Super Sweet 16'' to "Laguna Beach'' to "Keeping Up with the Steins.'' That doesn't even include the ongoing docudrama of Paris, the perfume, the sex tapes, the book and now the song.
Paris may be little more than every mogul's worst nightmare. Parents who do well often have kids who do good. But millionaires also worry that their kids feel indolently entitled. Imagine the conversation that middle-class parents have about allowances "money doesn't grow on trees, you know'' in homes where money drops like leaves from the family arboretum.
Andrew Carnegie famously said, "I would as soon leave to my son a curse as the almighty dollar.'' He then added, "it is not the welfare of the children, but family pride, which inspires these enormous legacies.'' This brings us back to the Self-Made American and the Spoiled Brat, to death and Paris and the estate tax. The Death Tax? In 2009, it would tax only estates worth more than $3.5 million (or $7 million for a couple). That's three out of every 1,000 estates. After exemptions and deductions, the effective tax rate on average is an estimated 17 percent. Why exactly should the money handed down to super-rich heirs be tax-free while the money your children earn be taxable income?
The Paris Hilton Tax Relief Act? Billionaire Warren Buffett has said that the right inheritance for children is "enough money so that they feel they could do anything but not so much that they could do nothing.'' Paris, already a trust-fund baby, is enterprising enough to make money off of being an heiress.
But she's due to inherit a chunk of the hotel fortune worth well more than a billion. If we retain an estate tax, she might have to scrimp by on less than her estimated share of about $50 million.
Ah, poor little rich icon. No wondering she's starring in "The Simple Life.''