Life is beginning to imitate art yet again. It was more than 13 years ago when The West Wing aired the episode “Ways and Means.” In it, one of the key legislative battles taking place was the Democrats trying to shove through the death tax (or “estate tax”) yet again. But they run into some unexpected roadblocks when the Congressional Black Caucus balks on supporting it. Josh is having some trouble wrapping his head around how a staunch group of Democrats could possibly be opposed to the policy so he asks Leo.
Josh: These are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, can you think of any reason why they would oppose the Estate Tax?
Leo: The first generation of black millionaires is about to die.
Coming back to 2015 in the real world (or as close as Washington ever gets to being “real” anyway) we’re not talking about members of Congress, but black business owners. Specifically, it’s the members of the National Black Chamber of Commerce and BET Television who are concerned about the generational effect of the death tax, particularly on some families who waited a long time to have something significant to pass on.
Republicans seeking to repeal the estate tax have rolled out the endorsements of black business advocates who argue the levy is especially painful for minority entrepreneurs.
Harry Alford of the National Black Chamber of Commerce and Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), separately argued in recent days that the estate tax is an especially bitter pill for minority business owners, many of whom only started getting successful in the last half-century or so.
“Full repeal of the estate tax would allow African Americans to pass the full fruits of their business success to the next generation and thereby laying the foundation for a permanent minority ownership class that can contribute to the economic growth and development of the United States economy,” Johnson, whose worth has been estimated at more than half a billion dollars, wrote to the House Ways and Means Committee last week.
One representative of the group refers to it as a “legacy-killer.” That’s a pretty good description, and one which takes on a far more grassroots tone coming from these groups. The reason this turns into such a sticky wicket for the Democrats is that we’re talking about what is usually assumed to be the basest of the bass in terms of liberal ideology. But the realization that an increasing number of minority families are finally getting to the point of amassing generational family wealth takes the issue of the death tax into unsafe waters for them.
It was always easy to push this if you could frame the argument as nothing more than evil, rich fat cats against the little guy. The majority of all people (though traditionally this included minorities in outsized proportions) fall into the “little guy” category. But all of those little guys want to know that the opportunity is out there to climb up the ladder. And once they finally get a few rungs up they don’t want Uncle Sam fleecing the family when they pass away. This the conservative version of a populist argument and it’s a very solid one.
The more traditional Democrats who wind up doing well and amassing wealth, the fewer of them will be in favor of a destructive death tax when it applies to their own families. This is a bad idea which needs to be put to rest. Perhaps now the coalition to make that happen will expand into a significantly larger tent.