Some people believe that it is morally wrong—in fact, “theft”—for the government to tax an estate passed down from one generation to the next. The “death tax” takes away the hard-earned bucks that industrious people intended for their descendants to inherit. As one editorial put it, “People should not be punished because they work hard, become successful and want to pass on the fruits of their labor, or even their ancestors’ labor, to their children.”
It’s a sentiment that we can all appreciate: let people enjoy the fruits of their parents’ labor and their ancestors’ labor. In fact, it’s a point that other folks were making for decades before the modern “estate tax” debate even emerged. While “free market economists” were still railing against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for its “violations of economic privacy,” civil rights activists were demanding that the impoverished descendants of slaves be compensated for centuries of their ancestors’ unpaid forced labor. The logic is impeccable: if we operate under the assumption that we are all entitled to the wealth for which our ancestors worked, then we must compensate people for every penny withheld from their enslaved and brutalized ancestors.
Of course, because slave owners didn’t keep time sheets or file withholding taxes, it is difficult to determine precisely how much money slaves’ descendants are owed. However, one estimate settles on an accumulated debt of “$97 trillion, based on 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865, ‘compounded at 6% interest through 1993.’ ”
Here, we are talking about a multi-trillion dollar debt owed to African-American descendants of slaves, true “theft” of family wealth in the strictest sense of the word. But interestingly, we never hear the “let my family keep what it earns” crowd call for the restitution of trillions of dollars to slave-descended African-Americans. These activists seem only concerned with protecting wealth that may actually have roots in racist institutions and corporations. Some of these ideologues are my dear (and wealthy) friends, insistent that they are “part” of their parents’ and grandparents’ acquisition and maintenance of wealth, and that they thus deserve to keep everything for which their antecedents worked so hard.
Out of respect for them and their view, I offer them a choice.
If we declare, uniformly, that everyone deserves everything for which their ancestors labored, then we must not only allow Bill Gates to pass down all of his wealth to his descendants, but we must fully compensate the descendants of slaves whose wealth was stolen from them. Corporations with a role in slavery, like JP Morgan and Wachovia, will have to pitch in millions of dollars for this project. The US government, which itself used slave labor to construct the Capitol, White House, and other government buildings, will be liable for billions more. We will even have to hunt down the African tribes that kidnapped people and sold them off to the European colonists. It will undoubtedly be a bureaucratic nightmare, replete with tedious discussion of who owes what, and will not ultimately remedy the indelible psychological and emotional trauma that slavery imposed on generations, but it will, nonetheless, be a move in the right direction.
Once the reparations for slavery are handed out, we will only be getting started, for we will then have to repay people for the opportunities their ancestors were denied under our post-slavery system of apartheid. We could start by paying people for the economic harms afflicted by the Black Codes, a legal doctrine that systematically re-enslaved southern African-Americans through the enforcement of shoddy laws against loosely defined acts like “vagrancy.” We will be obligated to pay off the descendants of tens of thousands of African-American WWII veterans who were unfairly denied bank loans and saw their claims for GI Bill benefits denied by the US Department of Veterans Affairs at a time when the white middle-class was soaring to prosperity. The progeny of the thousands of African-Americans who were barred from college because of their skin color will also have to receive reparations for their ancestors’ lost wealth. It will be hard, if not impossible, to assign a dollar value to all of these grievances, but it will be better than no redress at all.
The anti-“death tax” crowd might protest that no living American was either enslaved or owned slaves. That’s true, but coming from them, the point is plainly irrelevant. If we’re not willing to hold people financially accountable for the wrongs from which their ancestors benefitted, then why should we reward those same people with the money their ancestors made? In apportioning wealth, the two propositions must go hand-in-hand—we either consider the economic activity of people’s ancestors, or we don’t.
If we determine that people should be held accountable for the means by which their ancestors made money, it doesn’t mean that we’re calling white folks “guilty,” as some commentators might suggest. If I steal a thousands dollars from you and give it to my child as a birthday present, my child isn’t “guilty,” but he still is not absolved of his responsibility to give you the money back. For centuries, skin color unfairly conferred upon white people a set of economic opportunities that produced inheritable and still-existent wealth, meaning that the injustice must today be rectified.
If we mended this injustice through the means described above, then every dollar would be inherited, but so would every outstanding debt. Even though I would not principally object to this arrangement, I suspect that it would not go over so well with the “spend less, tax less” crowd, which, thus far, has not endorsed the direct payment of reparations to oppressed peoples.
So, instead of doling out cash to slaves’ descendants, “calling it even,” and then letting laissez-faire capitalism unravel as it will, we could instead provide more indirect reparations to all disadvantaged people, of all colors, by making long-term societal investments in social welfare programs that keep people afloat. Providing all people access to affordable healthcare, education, and housing will give them the tools for self-actualization that their ancestors may have been denied. Under such a system, no individual slave’s descendant would have a direct economic claim against a party that profited off of slavery, but the economy would be structured to maximize the resiliency of all communities, including those that were, for generations, unfairly disadvantaged. And yes, this would require an understanding from wealthy Americans that they, like the descendants of oppressed people, will not receive a literal check, paid in full, from the order of their ancestors.
The choice is ours. But if we are to maintain any semblance of economic justice in our country, these are the only two defensible options.