Since when is opposing the estate tax a “family value”?

Since when is opposing the estate tax a “family value”?

The unfortunate alliance of religious conservatives and anti-tax ideologues     

For most progressives, there's something that rankles about the longstanding, often successful effort of religious conservatives to appropriate the word "family." The presumptuous notion that one particular band of one religious tradition – in this case conservative Christianity – has the right to anoint itself as the "defender of traditional family values" is simply offensive to millions of loving, caring and family-oriented people who come from lots of other faith and non-faith-based traditions and hold different political views.

Still, as the years have gone by, the competing sides, the media and the public at-large have come to a kind of general understanding – namely that the "family values" banner is not to be taken literally. It is, instead, understood to be a handy code phrase – a shorthand descriptor for religious conservatives who speak out on "social" issues like abortion, prayer in public places, LGBT rights, end-of-life decision making and the like. As a practical matter, the conservative positions on these issues have nothing in particular to do with supporting the "family," but at least, just about everyone knows what they mean by their use of the term.

As used in this context, "family values" means the values of a subset of religious conservatives who generally favor literal interpretations of selected parts of the Bible and the promotion of some of the social practices and hierarchies of an earlier time in American history. That time period is always a little fuzzy and can, depending on the particular subgroup, refer to the 1950's, the 1750's or somewhere in between.

In North Carolina, there are numerous groups that claim and display the family values mantle, but the most active and visible one in state policy debates is probably the North Carolina Family Policy Council. Here's how the group, describes itself:

"Founded in 1992, the North Carolina Family Policy Council is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of the family and traditional family values.

Our mission is to strengthen the family by educating North Carolinians on public policy issues that impact the family and equipping citizens to be voices of persuasion on behalf of traditional family values in their localities….

As an independent 501(c)(3) research and education organization, the North Carolina Family Policy Council is supported entirely by the generosity of our donors. We are engaged in a battle to retain the Judeo-Christian values that are the foundation of western civilization. These are the same values which supported the establishment of the United States and which are embodied in the Ten Commandments and in the founding documents of our nation." (Emphasis supplied).                 

Through the years, the group has been a prolific voice in the General Assembly on a host of issues – most notably of late in opposing any and all efforts to confer equal rights on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. During the past two legislative sessions, the group pulled out every imaginable stop in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to defeat anti-school bullying legislation that sought to make clear that kids targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity were deserving of full protection.

Branching out?

Increasingly, however, the group's definition of "traditional family values" appears to be confined less and less to the realm of "social" issues like sex and religion and definitions of life. Indeed, if a recent report released by the group is any indication, the Family Policy Council and some of its allies now feel fully empowered to place the "traditional family values" seal of approval on an unlimited assortment of conservative policy positions.

The report in question (which was actually prepared by a pair of right-wing think tank staffers and "co-released" by the North Carolina group along with a couple of it national partners) is entitled "Repealing death tax will create jobs and boost economy." "Death tax," of course, is the far right's approved propaganda term for the federal estate tax – a tax on very large estates that has already been slashed in recent years.

The hook that makes the piece a "family" issue is that the "death tax" supposedly impacts "family businesses." But this is just a clever bit of packaging by a market fundamentalist group in search of political allies. The estate tax is, in reality, a modest tax on a very small group of rich people.

As the right does with every other progressive tax, however, the authors trot out all of the standard "supply side" (i.e. trickledown) economic theories – that government can raise more revenue by cutting taxes, that taxing the rich stifles economic activity, and that progressive taxes are somehow part of a nefarious plot to "redistribute" wealth. Here is a representative paragraph:

"Eliminating the death tax would increase small business capital accumulation, create a large number of small business jobs, and actually increase tax revenue at the federal, state, and local government levels. It is rare that a policy option that is extremely simple to enact with such clearly identifiable positive effects presents itself to Congress."

In other words the report consists of the same old, predictable anti-tax rhetoric that one could easily find on the website of any number of conservative, anti-government think tanks. The only "traditional family values" really at stake in the debate appear to be the values of the stock market and real property portfolios of the "traditional" (i.e. wealthy and establishment) families who underwrote the report.

Reality check

To read actual, fact-based assessments of the estate tax, readers would do well to explore a pair of reports from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities – "The Estate Tax: Myths and Realities" from February of this year, and a more recent piece that directly critiques the Family Policy Council report.   

Among the things that one would discover:

  • The estate tax has been an important source of federal revenue for nearly a century.
  • Almost all estates (99.7%) owe no federal estate tax at all. Of this tiny number of very wealthy estates that do owe taxes (perhaps 6,000 per year), the effective tax rate averages less than 20%. In return for this modest attempt at a measure of tax code progressivity, the federal government brings in tens of billions of dollars each year in essential tax revenue.
  • Repealing the estate tax would weaken the economy by adding nearly $800 billion to budget deficits over 10 years, thus reducing national saving and leaving fewer funds for investment that leads to higher productivity in the long run.
  • Repeal would also be likely to harm charitable donations significantly since estates currently redirect billions of tax exempt dollars per year to nonprofits.

In other words, the estate tax is about as much of a threat to the average American family as a tax on private jets or seventh homes. Try as they might to conflate the interests of the super-wealthy with those of average religious conservatives, right-wing think tanks just can't make it make sense.

The sad part about all of this, of course, is that for many rank and file Christian conservatives (most of whom live on modest incomes and have never heard of genuine tax policy experts Center on Budget and Policy Priorities), the pseudo-research from conservative ideologues will be all they hear about this issue.

Like the pathetically misinformed health care reform protesters who decry "government intervention in their Medicare" and do the bidding of insurance conglomerates, these activists are being duped into supporting policies and politicians that work counter to their own economic well-being.

It's enough to make you think that the real, traditional American value receiving protection from the so-called family groups is the robber baron-era aphorism frequently attributed to promoter P.T. Barnum: "There's a sucker born every minute."     

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.