Enacted in 1916, the estate tax remained unassailable for decades. What politician would dare champion Paris Hilton? But starting in the early 1990s, heirs to the Campbell Soup, Mars candy, Gallo wine, and other fortunes joined with anti-tax zealots to mount a propaganda campaign seeking to transvalue values, arguing that justice required the repeal of the estate tax because... you must look up their Dadaist arguments. I fear infection from their absurdity if I summarize them. As Michael J. Graetz and Ian Shapiro show in a fascinating and appalling new book, Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight Over Taxing Inherited Wealth, this "grasstops" propaganda changed public opinion on the estate tax, making repeal safe for Republicans and not a few craven Democrats.
Death by a Thousand Cuts abounds with detail, personalities, and reversals of fortune. The authors, who combine academic authority with insider knowledge about how Washington works, light up the entire legislative process through the prism of the estate-tax debate. A few of their portable insights:
1) More than lobbying, personal contacts drive votes. "[E]very one in the House," remarked Charles Rangel (D-NY), a defender of the estate tax, "knows one person who's affected" by the tax. Why? Consider Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), who grew up in a well-to-do family and married a rich man. "As she flies back and forth, first class, between Washington and San Francisco, she might find herself sitting next to someone concerned about the estate tax. The odds that she will find herself talking to an avid proponent of the estate tax are vanishingly small."
2) Framing matters. It's not clear which genius of simplification first termed the estate tax the "death tax," but the "repeal coalition" made the magic phrase normal usage in the media. "[T]he nomenclature turned the debate," says former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Death was invoked in sound-bites like this one, repeated by "two dozen legislators" during one debate over the estate tax: "[N]obody should be forced to visit the undertaker and the IRS on the same day." Like God, Death had joined the GOP.
3) "Americans' misperceptions are remarkably resilient." Nearly 40 percent of us, according to a 2000 poll, believe we are "already either in the top 1 percent of wealth or will soon be there." Poor Al Gore. He thought he had a winning line when he charged that most of the Bush tax cuts would go to the top 1 percent.
4) Stand-alone polls are the propagandist's favorite tools. Frank Luntz, the self-promoting pollster, circulated surveys showing, for example, that 61 percent of gays and lesbians who voted for Gore favored repeal of the estate tax. They weren't asked, Do you favor reducing the budget deficit and the national debt, or increasing them by $300 billion or more over ten years by repealing a tax that falls on less than 2 percent of Americans? "By separating repeal from the context of the overall federal budget and spending priorities," the authors write, "and thus isolating the 'death tax' as a stand-alone issue of fairness, repeal advocates were able to manipulate a low-level of interest in the general public."