Tuesday, May 21, 2002

You know that income inequality in America is getting out of hand when Andrew Sullivan is complaining about it. But, he says, there's nothing to be done; it's just the inevitable workings of the market. Just like it was during the last Gilded Age, figures from which (like Carnegie) Sulli helpfully cites, in case you were thinking he hadn't heard of them. (Well, at least according to contemporary defenders of that "overclass". Funny how the workings of the market weren't quite so inevitable in the 1950s and '60s, though).

The upshot, in Sullivan's words? The rich, rather than disposing of their boodle in some reasonably productive way, instead pass it on to progeny who, born with all the money they will ever need, become (in Sullivan's words) "the overclass --- a socially excluded (to use the Blairite term), drug-addled, family-free, work-shy, unreachable population". What he suggests in response: increased attention to philanthropy; he approvingly cites Carnegie's maxim that "a man who dies rich dies disgraced".

Hey, I've got an idea! To try to keep these rich folks from setting up their progeny in unproductive, idle decadence, we can force the issue by arranging that they can't just pass all their boodle along without interference. If nothing else, we could use some of it to reduce the once again burgeoning national debt. And that could be accomplished by a simple tax on inheritances --- not all of them, to be sure, but very sizable ones. I wouldn't even touch an inheritance of, say, less than half a million dollars.

Remember, the purpose here isn't so much to raise tax revenue (although given the sheer amount of money the rich are passing along --- a startlingly increasing portion of the total economy --- it sure can't hurt), but to create incentives for socially productive behavior, and discourage the creation of an isolated "overclass". And even if the government isn't your idea of the best possible charity, remember, we're only using it here as the charity of last resort --- wealthy people who would prefer some more charitable purpose for their cash need only donate while they can, before the taxman cometh.

I've even got a name for it: "Estate tax".

Hey, could someone tell Bush about this?

(Kevin Phillips has also written on the topic, no doubt more sensibly than Sullivan --- an entire book, which I haven't had the chance to read yet, though some of the figures cited in this review by themselves make it clear how much of the total economy a small number of folks have managed to grab. Review found via Arts and Letters Daily).

(Update: I didn't really discuss the economic case for income inequality, but Chris Bertram did).


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