I was going to ignore this, I really was. Most Washington Post readers know Dana Milbank is a hard left, often unstable partisan reporter pretending to be an objective analyst. Most also know that he is prone to jump the rails of logic, fairness and reality from time to time, like here, when he blamed a “scandal of the week” mentality on the press and Republicans, and not the fact that the incompetent Obama Administration averages a scandal a week…or here, when he called millennials selfish for not supporting their President’s misbegotten health insurance scheme and acting in their own interests rather than their President’s political interests.
But his most recent column was churning around in my brain like Lewis Black’s routine about overhearing a young woman say, at a table next to him in a restaurant, “If it weren’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college.” ( Black: “Now, I’m gonna repeat that, because it bears repeating. “If it weren’t for my horse…” as in, giddyup, giddyup, let’s go — ‘I wouldn’t have spent that year in college,’ which is a degree-granting institution. Don’t think about that too long, or BLOOD will shoot out your NOSE!”) Milbank’s columns are often like that for me, and this one, expressing his outrage that the Republicans are trying to repeal what’s left of the estate, or “death tax,” was one of the worst. So you can regard this post as saving my life, if you wish.
I have no philosophical objection to taxing rich people, none at all. However, I have a very great ethical disagreement with those, like Milbank, who seem to think that there is something so sinister about parents trying to amass wealth for their kids that it justifies the government laying claim to what they have achieved, grown and saved through their own had work and responsible decisions. This was the ethic that drove our grandparents, great grandparents and great grandparents to build values, families, businesses, communities and a nation. Making life better and easier for their children than it was for them was a virtue, and properly recognized as such.
Many studies, out of fashion now and suppressed in academia because they are politically incorrect, have suggested that poverty persists through generations in part because of the acculturated lack of a future time perspective among some groups, which is a nice way of saying that when people seek instant gratification and don’t save and invest their assets, they become poor and stay poor. It is essential to progressive cant that there are no differences between successful people and unsuccessful people…not intelligence, talent, diligence, industry or ambition…just opportunity and privilege, or the lack of them.* People really believe this, especially the people I see in worn-out clothes buying 30 bucks worth of lottery tickets at a pop in the 7-11 rather than saving the cash to get some job training, or start a college fund for their children, who, this being the D.C. area, probably don’t live with him anyway. No, there’s nothing these unfortunates can do to better their lot, you see. Meanwhile, the government preys on their present-time proclivities by creating rigged lotteries to take their money from them.
Of course, someone born into a wealthy, two-parent, stable and supportive family is equally deluded to think, as the late Texas governor Ann Richards once said derisively of George H.W. Bush, that he hit a triple when in fact he was born on third base. That still does not mean, as Milbank seems to think, that there is something wrong and undesirable about American’s parents working and sacrificing to make sure their children aren’t left sitting on the bench, or can’t even get in the park to see the game. Milbank, like the lock-step progressive he is, believes that every individual in every generation should have to start life without any competitive advantages over anyone else, and if that means giving his competitors a head start, or making him run with weights on his feet, or tripping him at the start of the race, well, too bad, and too bad for his parents.
That’s fairness to our many Milbanks. To me, fair is for each individual to be able to make the most of what life and luck provides, through their own abilities and efforts, with the help and assistance of parents and family being a a vital and respected inheritance that reinforces a duty and obligation to do the same for the next generation.
Anyone is free to see it differently. What should not be tolerated are statements like this, by Milbank:
“The current exemption of $5.4 million (the current estate tax has an effective rate averaging under 17 percent, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center) does little to prevent a permanent aristocracy from growing — and abolishing it entirely turns democracy into kleptocracy. The kleptocrats offer all sorts of bogus justifications for giving away $269 billion to a few thousand of the wealthiest Americans.”
That’s just a lie, and it is a lie that springs from a dangerous mindset. The government has no right to that 269 billion. It isn’t “giving away” anything if it decides taking it is bad policy. Milbank’s distortion is the model that the United States was created to reject, the assumption that the monarch owned everything, and that mere citizens kept their property by his leave. American citizens earned that money, and were already taxed on it, in many cases more than once.
I won’t argue that the government, being hopelessly in debt and lacking leadership with the courage and resolve to live within its means, desperately needs that money (and a lot more). I won’t even argue that there are better places for it to come from, or people who can sustain the loss more easily. Yup, it’s true: just as Willie Sutton explained that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is,” the government reasonably seeks to tax the wealthy for the same reason. But the government doesn’t own that money, and not taking what doesn’t belong to it is not “giving away” anything. Milbank’s distortion, which we can expect to hear ad nauseum from Hillary in the coming months, is designed to condition Americans to think like peasants. Those whose brain surfaces arn’t inadequate (see the note below) have an ethical obligation to call this lie out and protest it.
This is the kind of verbal brainwashing that the biased news media does so well, and so shamelessly. It is an effort to win weak arguments by using dishonest terms that decide an issue before it has been fairly debated. The worst example, one that I hear or read literally every day, is the use of “immigrants” and “immigration” for “illegal immigrants” and “illegal immigration.” One is not the other. Yes, America was built by immigrants, but not illegal immigrants. Those sane, responsible Americans who oppose efforts to romanticize, reward and enable illegal immigration are not anti-immigration.
I actually keep a list. I started it years ago. It has well over a hundred reporters, pundits and elected officials on it—also some Facebook friends: anyone who intentionally uses the legal, honorable words for those denoting illegal and unethical conduct can’t be trusted and shouldn’t be, either because they are liars, or because they are stupid.
And yes, I have a personal perspective on the issue of estate taxes. My parents were dead-center middle class in every way. I earned more in my first job than my father had earned in any job for the first 45 years of his life. When they died, my sister and I were shocked how much money they had in their estate. By pure luck, that estate was not decimated by the estate tax, as it would have been just a few years earlier. They amassed all that money by buying everything on sale; by buying nothing on credit; by driving to places rather than flying; be seldom eating out; by cutting coupons; by investing carefully. My dad was a Depression kid, abandoned by his father: he was determined that he would make sure his children didn’t have to go through school working nights. My mother was one of eight children born to Greek immigrants; her father was a cook. The family grew a lot of what they ate in the back yard. All her adult life, Mom regarded every cent she spent on herself as being at the expense of her unborn grandchildren.
That unexpected estate allowed my own family to get out from under a predatory 9% mortgage. It enabled me to keep Ethics Alarms going, and to pursue ethics as a field, as non-lucrative as it is if you’re not willing to prostitute yourself. It enabled me to contribute my time to The American Century Theater, which has enriched the cultural lives of many thousands of families in the D.C. area. It will allow my son to pursue his dreams as well. The estates of the super-rich are no less legitimate legacies for their families, and the government’s claim that it can spend that money more efficiently and beneficially is laughable: no family (the kind that the class-baiting Milbank sneers at as “aristocracy”) can spend as incompetently as Uncle Sam and stay wealthy for long.
So yes, my family members have been beneficiaries of an estate, and damn Milbank and anyone who says that it was a gift of love and sacrifice from anyone but my hard-working, ethical, responsible and patriotic parents. The nation can decide to tax what it must, but the origin of that money remains the people, not the sovereign. If the government decides not to take as much as it once did, or wishes it could, that isn’t giving back anything. If a thief chooses not to rob me, I’m not saying “thanks, and bless you.” The efforts by Milbank and others to distort that truth must be exposed and condemned, or a lot of people with inadequate brain surfaces are going to be persuaded.
There. I feel better.
* NOTE: Yesterday a study was released showing that infants born to poor people have a smaller brain service that those born to more successful parents. The researchers and the media have instantly interpreted this to mean that “Stress from Poverty Decreases Child Brain Sizes,” as PBS put it. No one I have read has had the audacity to even suggest that the most logical conclusion may explain the phenomenon: unsuccessful people tend to be less intelligent than successful people, even though the researchers don’t understand how poverty would effect brain size to this extent. Thus does confirmation bias and partisan blindness reduce society’s brain surface.]