Sunday, February 16, 2014

Death tax, where is thy sting?

Congress recently passed a debt ceiling increase with less drama than we've become accustomed to.  On NPR the other day, they were interviewing someone from a communications consulting firm who said that the Democrats had won over public opinion by talking about "avoiding default" rather than "increasing the debt limit."  They asked him if there were other cases in which a change in language had swung public opinion.  As I expected, he named the Republicans' use of "death tax" in the debate over the Bush tax cuts.    I've often heard this cited as an example of the power of rhetoric (or "framing"), but I haven't seen much evidence.  A search of the New York Times showed that "death tax" started to appear regularly in 2002, although it had been used occasionally for a century before then.  So I looked for survey questions on estate/inheritance taxes asked in 2001 or earlier.  There weren't many, but here is a sampling:

2001 "As you may know, federal inheritance taxes currently apply only to estates valued at more than $1 million. Which of the following would you prefer to see Congress do this year--change the laws to eliminate all inheritance taxes on all estates, eliminate inheritance taxes on small businesses and family farms but otherwise leave the taxes unchanged, or leave inheritance tax laws unchanged?"
 39%:  eliminate all
30%:  eliminate on small businesses and farms
25%:  leave unchanged

2000: "I'd like your opinion on some programs and proposals being discussed in the world today. . . . eliminating the inheritance tax"
43%:  strongly favor
28%:  favor
15%:  oppose
8%:  strongly oppose

2000:  "Thinking about the federal inheritance tax, do you consider this tax too high, about right, too low, or don't you know enough to say?"
41%:  too high
5%:  about right
1%:  too low
53%:  don't know enough to say

1997:  "The recently passed tax cut bill also phases out the inheritance tax, which is a tax as high as 55% that the government levies on money, farms, businesses, and other capital items passed along when someone dies.  Do you favor or oppose phasing out the inheritance tax?"
50%:  strongly favor
20%:  somewhat favor
12%:  somewhat oppose
15%:  strongly oppose

1997:  "Do you think the inheritance tax on estates worth $600,000 or more should be reduced, or not?"
43%:  should be reduced
44%:  should not

In 1984, a survey told people that the Reagan administration and Congress were considering raising some taxes in order to reduce budget deficits.  They listed eight possibilities, including "gift or inheritance taxes" and asked people for their first and second choices on which to raise.  The percent choosing each one as first or second:

54%:  luxury items like jewels or furs
46%:  corporate and business taxes
30%:  excise taxes on items like tobacco, alcohol, gasoline, airline tickets, and phone calls
15%:  user fees for those who use federal programs and services
13%:  place a tax on imported oil
4%:  increase federal income taxes
6%:  increase gift or inheritance taxes
6%:  establish a value-added tax

An increase in gift or inheritance taxes was one of the least popular items--well behind a tax on oil or excise taxes on items used by most people.

Despite the differences in the questions, the general picture is clear:  there was never much public support for the inheritance tax, even before Republicans started calling it the "death tax."

No comments:

Post a Comment