NYT Strikes Populist Pose vs. 'Gimmicky' GOP Tax Plan, Laments 'Death Tax' Label

November 18th, 2017 10:56 AM

In Saturday’s New York Times, reporter Patricia Cohen took the most jaundiced view of the GOP tax-cutting plans with some liberal rhetoric about Republican attempts to pare down the estate tax, colloquially known as the death tax, which applies to a person who inherits a wealthy estate: “Only the Most Wealthy, Including Trump, Gain From Estate Tax’s Repeal.” The top rate is 40% and the exemption level tops out at $5.5 million. Of course, one reason for the low figure may be the tax machinations involved in avoiding the confiscatory tax in the first place, contributing to economic inefficiency.

More tough headlines from the Times: “Some See a Foundation Of Gimmickry in Tax Bill,” and“Party’s Priority: Comfort for Corporations.” The subhead: “Plan Pinches Families, Not Businesses.”

Cohen wrote:

Supporters and critics of the Republican tax bills argue over their effect on middle-class Americans, but there is one group that everyone agrees would come out ahead: the millionaires and billionaires who have to reckon with the estate tax.


As it is now, the estate tax affects a small set of wealthy Americans, applying only when someone leaves assets worth more than $5.49 million to heirs. Together, parents can leave $11 million to their children without paying a penny in estate taxes.

Last year, for example, more than 2.6 million people died in the United States. Of the estates filed with the Internal Revenue Service, 5,219 -- or 0.2 percent of the total -- were large enough to qualify for the tax.

The kind of households that could potentially owe money, however, include Mr. Trump’s, Mr. Mnuchin’s, and those of several cabinet members and advisers, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Housing Secretary Ben Carson and Gary Cohn, chief of the National Economic Council.


Mr. Trump has stated, incorrectly, that the tax is crushing “millions of small businesses and the American farmer.” In reality, only about 80 small businesses and farms would fall under the estate-tax tent this year, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

Republicans want to shrink the numbers further. In the Senate’s proposed tax bill, exempted income would temporarily double to $11 million per person -- $22 million for a couple -- during the next decade.

Cohen had a media-related grump, that the GOP was just too good at injecting its propaganda into the public discourse.

The Republicans’ repeated success in whittling away at the number of people subject to the tax is both a marvel of marketing -- with its relabeling as a “death tax” -- and a testament to the outsize influence of wealthy donors on policy.

The Times, meanwhile, uses loaded liberal terminology like “trickle-down economics” and “big oil” in its reporting without warning-sign quotation marks.

The modern version has been around for more than 90 years. One of its primary advocates was not a soapbox socialist but a Republican. Theodore Roosevelt, the first 20th-century president to endorse a tax on luxe inheritances, was the son of a wealthy socialite and an industrial baron. He warned that passing vast fortunes from one generation to the next not only undermines the recipients but “is of great and genuine detriment to the community at large.”

Over the past couple of decades, Republican efforts to shield more prosperous Americans from the estate tax have been increasingly successful. In 2001, estates worth more than $675,000 (nearly $1 million in today’s dollars) could be taxed at a top rate of 55 percent.

The tough headlines continued on Saturday: “Some See a Foundation Of Gimmickry in Tax Bill,” by Alan Rappeport, which would have been more accurately headlined, “Alan Rappeport Sees a Foundation Of Gimmickry in Tax Bill.”

The liberal loading made Friday’s front-page in a “news analysis” by reporter Jim Tankersley, “Party’s Priority: Comfort for Corporations.” The subhead: “Plan Pinches Families, Not Businesses.”

But that’s misleading. The “pinching” won’t be taking place until January 2026. Even a hostile New Yorker article admitted that “next year, almost no middle-income families lose out from the bill, and most upper-middle-class households come out ahead.”

Tankersley struck a liberal, populist pose in his front-page “news analysis”:

There are tough choices at the heart of the Republican tax bills speeding through Congress, and they make clear what the party values most in economic policy right now: deep and lasting tax cuts for corporations.

The bill that sailed through the House on Thursday chooses to take from high-tax Democratic states, particularly California and New York, and give to lower-tax Republican states that President Trump carried in 2016, particularly Florida and Texas. It allows for tax increases on millions of families several years from now, if a future Congress does not intervene, but not for similar increases on corporations.

The version of the bill that the Senate Finance Committee approved along party lines late Thursday chooses to give peace of mind to corporate executives planning their long-term investments. That comes at the expense of added anxiety for individual taxpayers, particularly those in the middle class, who could face stiff tax increases on Jan. 1, 2026.

A consistent conservative philosophy underpins all those decisions. So does a very large bet -- economically and politically -- on the power of business tax cuts to deliver rapid wage growth to United States workers.

There is also the appearance, to liberal critics in particular, of Republicans seeking to reward their prized constituencies first, while leaving others to bear the consequences if their most optimistic scenarios do not play out.