Customer Feedback: Week 1, 2013

[Lay impressions on the week’s politics, reported to a hypothetical GOP leader curious to know whether and how the week’s political messaging was received. More information about this series here.]

Feedback on this week’s political news and messaging:

Out with the “Fiscal Cliff,” in with the “Debt Cliff”

The “fiscal cliff” seemed to end not so badly for the GOP as many feared.  Most people still conclude the GOP got outfoxed, but seems like some disappointed Democrats feel otherwise.  Ezra Klein assures them the president got his party a good deal.  Paul Ryan and Rand Paul both cast the next fight as one over the “debt cliff.”  That’s probably a good move.  No one knew what the “fiscal cliff” was.  We all know we’re $16 trillion in debt, and spending is nowhere close to getting in line with revenues.

On that score, I worry what would happen if Yuval Levin had been on vacation this week.  No one in leadership is messaging about the spending/revenues delta as clearly.  We hear a lot of talk about whether the GOP should step aside and let something “break” just to stir the public out of its apathy, that trust in financial institutions, and trust in the giant confidence game that is our national currency, is more delicate than we might think.

Greg Mankiw agrees:  “Ultimately, unless we scale back entitlement programs far more than anyone in Washington is now seriously considering, we will have no choice but to increase taxes on a vast majority of Americans.”

President Obama’s talk about the “top 2 percent” is shenanigans.  Flimflam.  Class war.  It has nothing to do with the numbers.  Never did. 

But most of the middle class doesn’t know who Yuval Levin or Greg Mankiw are.  And let’s face it:  Most people would rather believe the narrative that our problems would be fix if the wealthy “just paid a little bit more” than the narrative that we have an unhealthy addiction to government entitlements and we need to take our medicine.

Rep. John Campbell proposed one way the medicine might go down:  It’s better to go over a cliff under circumstances of your choosing, rather than some unknown time in unknown circumstances in the unknown future.  He also points out that market signals aren’t reliable when looking for symptoms of long term problems.  Markets only signal the short-term, not the long-term.  At any rate, this message, once polished up (explain what the short term pain is likely to be; explain what the future unexpected fallout might look like, etc.), could be a credible message.  Maybe not a winning message—again, I just don’t think a majority will willingly reject the president’s rosier narrative—but credible enough.

“The Smart Guys,” John Eastman and Erwin Chemerinsky, agree that the president cannot unilaterally borrow money.  So much for the “trillion dollar coin” and the “14th amendment option” flimflams. (The lawyers seem to agree with you, Kevin Drum.) And Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is bailing. For serious this time, it appears, and before the debt negotiations. 

Two years before he became president, Obama said “the fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure.”  Americans will justly give him slack for extenuating circumstances, but the spending and revenue have to at least be on a trajectory in which they’re expected to intersect at some point.  We’re not seeing that.  That’s leadership failure.

Rep. Campbell says he expects detailed spending cut proposals to be released in a week or so.  Time’s of the essence.

The Payroll Tax

The Obama-led “fiscal cliff” negotiations resulted in taxes rising on 77% of Americans with a mean increase of $1,635.  Almost half of the increased taxes—about 46%—will come from the bottom 80% of Americans.  Courtesy of that regressive payroll tax, the FICA, the contribution to Americans’ Social Security and Medicare “trust fund” accounts. 

The payroll tax is the soft underbelly of progressivism, so I don’t understand why GOP leaders have not scored more points here.  The reason the left is for such a regressive tax is because they’re juicing middle class Americans to continue supporting entitlements designed for the poor.  As William Voegeli puts it in Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State: “The government provides Social Security and Medicare to people who don’t need them for the sake of people who do.” 

The point, again, is the management of perceptions. A simple program to help poor people, including those who are old, would make it easy to distinguish the households that are net exporters of dollars from the ones that are net importers. Liberals don’t want to run that risk. They don’t trust the prosperous citizens in the net exporter households to be generous and public-spirited enough to keep voting for welfare programs once it becomes clear to them that they are financing benefits bestowed on others.

The left believes “people can be induced to support programs to help the poor, but have no interest in relying on the prospect they can be persuaded to support them.”

As for the GOP, there seem to be two competing views, one that thinks ending the “payroll tax holiday” was a good idea because it will make more Americans aware of the consequences of our entitlement programs, and another view that says the GOP needs to make more inroads with the middle class, and eliminating this regressive tax is an excellent way to do it.  There’s something to commend both, but I’m going to agree with the latter.  Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam make a good case for ending the payroll tax in Grand New Party:

When you think about why voters are less enamored of tax cuts than they used to be, consider that the biggest tax most working-class Americans pay is one that nobody even considers cutting. The theory behind the payroll tax, or FICA, is simple: Over the course of our working lives, we make “contributions” to Social Security and Medicare—mandatory contributions, of course—and eventually we get our money’s worth in the form of old-age pensions and medical care well into our dotage. The truth, of course, is rather different. Social Security and Medicare are “pay-as-you-go,” with today’s workers paying for today’s retirees, and the system is enormously regressive, since workers making more than $94,200 pay nothing into the Social Security system above that threshold. This financing scheme made a certain sense in an era of relative economic equality; today, in a less egalitarian era, it’s increasingly perverse. Not only does the payroll tax fail to mitigate inequality, but it actually reinforces it.

. . . .

The ideal course, however, would be to give up completely on the illusion that Social Security is something other than pay-as-you-go, and scrap the payroll tax entirely and pay for old-age insurance out of general revenue.

The alternative is to maintain FDR’s fiction that Social Security is a “trust fund” that we “pay into.”  If we were still in the first generation after Social Security was implemented, perhaps we could still maintain the hope that people would see that they were paying into Social Security as if into a trust fund, but weren’t getting benefits that way.  Boomers are finding what they paid in went to the previous generation, and their children—far fewer in number—can’t contribute enough to give boomers the same retirement they gave to their parents.  Why should we pay for Social Security as a separate line item if those payments don’t have any meaningful relationship with the benefits we’re to receive?  It’s a flimflam.  And as important as it is that those who vote for entitlements understand their costs, you don’t teach lessons about sound economic policy by perpetrating flimflam.

A few weeks back, the president’s social media team was pushing a “what does $2,000 mean to you” meme, $2,000 approximating the increase in taxes on the average middle class family if the Bush tax cuts weren’t preserved.  The president repeated it during his victory lap.  As it turns out, the GOP capitulated to the president’s rates, and taxes on the middle class still increased upwards of $2,200 through the payroll tax.  And that was the gist of AP’s lede this week

While the tax package that Congress passed New Year’s Day will protect 99 percent of Americans from an income tax increase, most of them will still end up paying more federal taxes in 2013.

That’s because the legislation did nothing to prevent a temporary reduction in the Social Security payroll tax from expiring. In 2012, that 2-percentage-point cut in the payroll tax was worth about $1,000 to a worker making $50,000 a year.

I’m feeling more and more like the GOP got the better of the “fiscal cliff” deal.  At the very least, the Democrats failed to cover the spread.

Capital Gains and Estate Taxes

Were any efforts made to limit the increased capital gains taxes to efficiency innovation so as to encourage more investment in empowering innovation?  I didn’t hear anything.  Why not?  The president has made clear his objective is to create “fairness” by seeking to level total wealth, not growth for growth’s sake, or opportunity for opportunity’s sake.  If you oppose him full stop, you’ve already lost, because we’ve seen that it makes the GOP look like they’re just protecting the wealthy.  When the president takes the wrong position on a moral issue, but the right one is unpopular, then your play is to find the narrow area of agreement and push back on the rest with practical proposals. 

As for estate taxes, I don’t understand why this was a hard call.  The vast majority of Americans hate the estate tax.  According to a December 2010 ABC News/Washington Post Poll, 29% of respondents "support strongly" a policy of "Increasing the exemption on inheritance taxes so that only estates worth more than five million dollars are taxed," with another 23% saying they "support somewhat" such a policy. A puzzled Kevin Drum concluded “Like it or not, I think that most people simply have an instinctive feeling that you should be able to bequeath your money to whoever you want.” 

If politicians want to make the argument that a decedent’s assets cease to be property upon death, then make it.  If they want to make the argument that it costs the government resources to administer that property—like making probate courts available—then establish a rough approximation of that overhead and assess it against the estate.  Since we are dealing mostly with fixed costs here, though, that “tax” would likely be regressive, not progressive.  But if the justification for the estate tax is to “level the playing field,” to crack down on “trust fund kids,” then I have a thought experiment for you: 

Remember the movie Gattaca?  Imagine a future where one’s economic aptitude can be determined by a pre-natal genetic screening, sort of like in Gattaca. In the interest of establishing a truly egalitarian society where no one is unfairly advantaged at birth by the whim of nature or God, the government could require these screenings and strongly encourage the termination of pregnancies that would result in children who would undesirably deviate from the mean aptitude and upset society’s egalitarian balance.

This is analogous to the principle at work underlying an estate tax that transfers wealth out of the hands of family lineage for egalitarian redistribution by government. The idea that the moral right to property is rooted in the demonstrated merit in acquiring it is dangerous to liberty.  It is indeed the very opposite of liberty when it comes to property rights:  If my fellows can appear on my doorstep and announce their decision that my efforts don’t merit the car in my driveway and they’re here for the keys, then property is an empty concept.  As Hayek concluded from this in The Constitution of Liberty, “The proper answer is that in a free system it is neither desirable nor practicable that material rewards should be made generally to correspond to what men recognize as merit and that it is an essential characteristic of a free society that an individual’s position should not necessarily depend on the views that his fellows hold about the merit he has acquired.”   Indeed, the project of assessing merit would be hopeless anyway: 

Reward according to merit must in practice mean reward according to assessable merit, merit that other people can recognize and agree upon and not merit merely in the sight of some higher power. Assessable merit in this sense presupposes that we can ascertain that a man has done what some accepted rule of conduct demanded of him and that this has cost him some pain and effort. Whether this has been the case cannot be judged by the result: merit is not a matter of the objective outcome but of subjective effort. The attempt to achieve a valuable result may be highly meritorious but a complete failure, and full success may be entirely the result of accident and thus without merit. If we know that a man has done his best, we will often wish to see him rewarded irrespective of the result; and if we know that a most valuable achievement is almost entirely due to luck or favorable circumstances, we will give little credit to the author.

We may wish that we were able to draw this distinction in every instance. In fact, we can do so only rarely with any degree of assurance. It is possible only where we possess all the knowledge which was at the disposal of the acting person, including a knowledge of his skill and confidence, his state of mind and his feelings, his capacity for attention, his energy and persistence, etc. The possibility of a true judgment of merit thus depends on the presence of precisely those conditions whose general absence is the main argument for liberty. It is because we want people to use knowledge which we do not possess that we let them decide for themselves. But insofar as we want them to be free to use capacities and knowledge of facts which we do not have, we are not in a position to judge the merit of their achievements. To decide on merit presupposes that we can judge whether people have made such use of their opportunities as they ought to have made and how much effort of will or self-denial this has cost them; it presupposes also that we can distinguish between that part of their achievement which is due to circumstances within their control and that part which is not.

So long as property has been earned lawfully, without threats or coercion, it deserves equal protection under the law.  The estate tax is just more flimflam. 

“Opportunity Conservatism”

Newly-sworn-in Senator Ted Cruz messaged about an “opportunity conservatism”:

Don’t just say no to new taxes — fundamentally reform the tax code so that every American can file his taxes on a postcard. Eliminate the corporate welfare and complexity that enrich only accountants and lawyers.

Don’t just criticize union bosses; explain how closed shops confiscate wages and make it harder for low-skilled workers to get jobs.

Don’t talk generically about education; advocate school choice to empower parents and expand opportunity for children struggling to get ahead.

Don’t just dwell on the long-term solvency of Social Security; promote personal accounts to allow low-income Americans to accumulate wealth and pass it on to future generations.

Arthur Brooks on Hewitt’s show Wednesday also talked about an “opportunity society” for everyone. This is a winning theme.



Will the Great Doubling Stop Punishing Us and Start Paying Dividends?

Herbert Meyer thinks so

By the way it’s going to be a five billion-person middle class. This will become the most powerful force in the world. Their demand for our goods and services will set off an economic boom…I believe that we’re heading for not just a sonic boom, but maybe a supersonic boom.

I hope he’s right.

Enjoy your weekend!

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at


  1. A few things:

    -At times when it comes to entitlements and their structure I hear from progressives (most notably Matt Yglesias) that programs directly targeted towards the poor rather than being universal are easier to attack because a large portion of the public has racialized poverty in their heads (despite, y’know, demographic facts). While there’s merit to this in polling, it’s still a bit perverse to subsidize people who don’t need help out of fear that people who do will be screwed otherwise — they aren’t exactly doing so well right now anyway. What’s your view on that?

    -I think the extent to which the government-provided social safety net is used because of mass inability to prepare outside of government (simply put, many can’t save money and/or pool resources because they’re living nickel to nickel, so Now swallows up anything that could’ve been used Later) is woefully ignored. Something has to give, more people need money, and though I take it from your agreement with Ted Cruz on unions you feel otherwise, I don’t see how addressing that *doesn’t* mean an increase in labor power.

    -On the payroll tax…I never expected to agree with Ross Douthat on, well, anything. But much more often, I hear remarks on the Right about everyone having “skin in the game”, implying that lower-class people are somehow getting over by generally not paying income tax. Well, income taxation requires…income! Of which they have little. Seriously, that view strikes me as claiming one can squeeze juice from a stone.

    -Back to Cruz & the “personal accounts” thing: last time a similar accounts reform to Social Security was proposed it turned out the money wasn’t fully treated as yours (it was either to be invested or left in the traditional system). I’ve asked about if in the latest proposals along those lines one would be able to simply pocket the money if they concluded they more needed it now than later (which goes back to my point about inability to save, btw) and haven’t exactly gotten reply from its promoters.

      • I did some searches of comments by Voegeli on related matter, and didn’t quite get the sense he thinks that’s a problem, even though he acknowledges it.

        That said, even setting aside the ethnocentrism issue as a cultural one, it strikes me as a contributor to the pretzel logic that the federal budget operates on: “more on this, because it’s for People Like Me…less on that because it’s for Other People…” followed by Hell No when it comes to sufficient payment for the whole mess to keep going.

        It’s bad enough the extent to which the state as we know it outright violates people on a regular basis. But to repeatedly flunk basic math?

    • While there’s merit to this in polling, it’s still a bit perverse to subsidize people who don’t need help out of fear that people who do will be screwed otherwise — they aren’t exactly doing so well right now anyway.

      The best way to get away with this is to give much higher quality help to people who don’t need help and crappy help to the people that do. (See, for example, the quality of schools up near the hoity-toity part of town, the quality of schools near the white collar part of town, and the quality of schools near the used-to-be-blue-collar part of town.)

      Everybody has access to education. It’s something that we, as a society, provide to everyone.

  2. Paul Ryan and Rand Paul both cast the next fight as one over the “debt cliff.” That’s probably a good move.

    Holding the entire world economy hostage? We disagree about the goodness of that.

    • Okay, I should probably clarify. As I think I mentioned later in the post, there are really two “debt cliff” scenarios. The first is the little cliff coming up shortly. The other is the big cliff that we worry will happen at an unknown time in the future under unknown circumstances and with unknown but suspected catastrophic consequences. Whether Republicans can successfully message their position here depends on how effectively they convey those two alternative scenarios, painting the little cliff as painful but minor, and the big cliff as inevitable and catastrophic.

  3. I agree with Greg Mankiw that taxes will need to go up, on everybody. I’ve been telling everybody this for a couple of years now. You want PPACA, Medicare Part D, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and you don’t want to legalize 20 million workers to get them on the tax rolls? Your taxes need to go up. Not just the rich people. Everybody. Get ready.

    I disagree that the tax negotiations was flimflam, I think it was purely political ground clearance. I think it’s pretty obvious to the (D)s that taxes have to go up, on everybody, if the welfare state as they like it to be is going to stick around.

    I think the (D)s, generally, have gotten wise to the fact that raising taxes is a crap sandwich that they don’t want to eat, sure. Given a choice, a good number of (D)s – and (R)s, too for that matter – will vote for a tax break to save their job, yes.

    But I don’t think you could have sold a tax increase on everybody, straight up. They could have done it, of course, but with the GOP in the House nixing the deal it’s just a political loser, you’re junking your political career for no gain.

    So I think this is the first sign of taxes going up, yeah. Revenues have to go up. Growth won’t cut it. Making the rich eat the first bite of the crap sandwich allows you to come back to the middle class and try and save some face when you pony up a real revenue increase. “Hey, we made the rich take the first hit, the economy is getting better, now it’s time to go back to the Clinton tax rates” (which probably still aren’t high enough for the welfare state as currently incarnated, but if Congress is good at anything it’s good at kicking the can down the road).

    Good plan? Nah, I think it sucks. I think if you’re looking at revenue increases your best and maybe even most equitable bet is to start transferring stuff to the States and let them raise state taxes, which people find less unpalatable. Or moving off income taxes as the main source of revenue. Which, come to think of it, is probably a good idea because income taxes revenue so directly tracks economic output which means you need more of it when you have less. Federal sales tax or something is probably a better way to go.

    (admittedly, the best way to go is to cut a bunch of spending, but that’s not exactly an option. A bunch of our spending is already spent, and another bunch you can’t cut, because you gave it to the retirees and cutting those spending chunks is just going to get you unelected. So cutting as much spending as you can and increasing revenue is probably your only way out)

    • Yeah the economy is, to my mind, the best explanation for why Obama went spongy (setting aside his obsession with bipartisan deals). The man simply didn’t want widespread significant tax increases on the middle class with the recovery wobbling along as it is. Certainly the politics plays into it as well. The Obama long game is probably something along the lines of trying to actually thump the GOP in the house in 2014 and then, with Dem control more solidified actually turn their attention to both reforming entitlements and raising taxes to balance out budget. Interestingly enough Hagel seems to imply that Obama is going to start out his budget balancing agenda by taking a hatchet to the flabby flanks of the defense budget. That’s an excellent move to my mind. The public em masse hate, hate, HATES cutting entitlements but they’re somewhat lukewarm to cutting defense (except of course for military dependant communities or defense industry communities that intensely oppose it).

  4. A puzzled Kevin Drum concluded “Like it or not, I think that most people simply have an instinctive feeling that you should be able to bequeath your money to whoever you want.”

    This. There are two perversities in the estate tax as currently enacted. The first is that the wealthy generally pay more taxes anyway, so when they die, not only have we already received more from them, but on top of that we say, “but we demand yet more; a lump sum extra final payment from you.” If you want that fishing money, just fishing tax the motherfishers more up front through higher progressive taxes (and solving the so-called Soros problem at the same time).

    The second perversity is that estate taxes are clearly a spread-the-wealth concept, but the money isn’t really used to spread the wealth. It goes into general treasury instead of into programs to help the poor. If it all went into, say, improving education in those neighborhoods where kids have the least chance of socio-economic advancement, it would at least be serving its purpose. (Yeah, money is fungible and all that, but still…)

    And that leaves aside the problems of land-poor farming families, who get hit with an estate tax they can’t pay because all their wealth is in land, with precious little spare cash.

    It’s a case of increasing complexity just resulting in decreasing functionality. Just tax it as income (and I’d even argue for taxing it at the lowest rate), and leave it at that.

    • I dunno, James, if anyone can be said not to own anything any more, it’s a dead dude. In principle, anyway.

      I agree it should be taxed as income, though; moreover, I’ll do the antitax crowd a solid and say it should be considered an amortized payment over time rather than a lump sum. Count 20% of the total each year and defer the remainder as taxable in future years. This gives the asset-rich and cash-poor estate the best chance to get reasonable market value for any assets that need to be liquidated to pay the tab, and also manage the cash to pay the tax bill any given year. Also, any transferred amount should only be taxed once if it occurs in the transition 5 years (if grandpa dies and leaves half his estate to papa, and papa dies the following year, junior shouldn’t get 35% dipped out twice.)

      • Let’s say Smith agrees to give his house to his daughter, effective when escrow transfers the deed on February 1. Smith’s express, unequivocal intent is established, awaiting only the transfer itself. Tragically, Smith dies on February 1 at the precise moment the deed is delivered to his daughter. The government steps in and says, you know, your dad is dead, so we can’t say he owned anything to give you. As a concession, you can have some equity, but we’re taking a big chunk of it. [Revised to third person to avoid morbid references to my own death.]

        There’s obviously something wrong with that. And that’s basically how the estate tax works: Intent is established in a will, with the date of delivery of the property established as the date of death. The property is never owned by a “dead dude.” Refusing to effectuate the decedent’s intent is in principle no different from saying that a contract is not breached if the injured party never discovers it or can’t enforce it.

        One example: a non-licensed worker agrees to paint my house for $1,000. Upon completion, I tell him that because he’s not licensed, he can’t enforce our agreement in court, so tough luck but I’m not paying. It’s legal, but it’s wrong.

        So it is with the estate tax.

        • We tax gifts, do we not, over a certain amount?

          In general, we tax wealth when it changes hands. Whether sales tax, income tax, or whatnot — when money changes hands, we tax.

          My dad dies? What he leaves me might have been taxed when he earns it, but it hasn’t been taxed when it was given to me. (And it won’t, because my Dad’s estate is not nearly worth 3.5 million or 5 million or whatever the cap is).

          The estate tax is basically a windfall tax, and even then you have to get a SERIOUS windfall before you pay the back-breaking 40% on money you didn’t have yesterday.

          Which still leaves you with 60%. No one actually loses the family farm, no one loses anything.

          Property, money, and assets change hands — and are taxed, as they always were.

          Heck, if anything the estate tax is NICER than most. If my dad GAVE me 100,000 dollars I’d pay a ton in taxes, but if he bequeathed it I wouldn’t pay a dime.

          • People really do lose the family farm if they’re not careful. I’ve got a friend, now retired, whose job for years was managing farms that were put into trusts to avoid the estate taxes none of the kids could afford to pay. Say farmland’s going for $6,000 an acre (a little below average for an Iowa farm, where my friend lives), and you have a 300 acre farm (a little below average for an Iowa farm), then the value of it is $1.8 million. If you’re paying 40% on that, that’s $720,000 you have to come up with, which few farming folks can do unless they sell a big chunk of it or take out a big-ass mortgage.

            Sure you’re left with 60%, but that 60% is not cash, it’s not liquid. And the IRS won’t take dirt or soybeans in lieu of cash.

          • Look, if someone actually LOST the family farm then people would have EXAMPLES of people losing the family farm. The funny thing is, over the last two decades or arguing the estate tax, no one has ever managed to come up with a single example of someone losing the family farm.

            Just that they “could have”. Heck, the American Farm Bureau Foundation (which lobbied to end the estate tax) couldn’t find a single actual example. (Probably because most people with millions in land, working land or not, handle this in the will).


            Nobody loses the actual farm. It’s a freakin’ myth, and one repeated blindly.

          • Capital property probably should be treated different from liquid cash, certainly. I mean, we already recognize this in tax law with amortization and depreciation.

          • Morat, let me rephrase. People are forced into circuitous legal options in order to avoid losing the family farm. But those who don’t don’t lose it in the sense of having the Feds take it. They sell off portions for homesites to cover the taxes, thus diminishing our crop acreage (this could become a critical problem over the next few decades, barring a new green revolution), or they sell it off to a large agribusiness company, leading to more of the kind of industrial agriculture liberals object to.

            Talk to people in the business. It’s real.

            Not new, though. The problem of being land rich but cash poor is an old one. Thomas Jefferson was an example. But gov’t need not exacerbate the problem through needless policies.

        • I’m going to have to muse on this a bit, Tim.

          Refusing to effectuate the decedent’s intent is in principle no different from saying that a contract is not breached if the injured party never discovers it or can’t enforce it.

          The first side note is that Smith probably owes unsecured debts, too, but the fact that they’re unsecured and Smith is now dead means the creditor is out of luck, correct? That’s my understanding of debt obligation execution anyway. Even though Smith clearly had the intention to pay them off (presumably). I’m assuming I’m not making a huge boner of an error about debt law, here (feel free to nose-smack me if I am)… I don’t carry at lot of revolving debt so I don’t pay attention to the legal nuances.

          Granted, in your specific example, I would think that this should still be regarded as a gift if it’s documented, but I don’t know enough about the differences between gifting and inheriting and their tax implications to know whether this is really a big problem or not, in practice.

          One example: a non-licensed worker agrees to paint my house for $1,000. Upon completion, I tell him that because he’s not licensed, he can’t enforce our agreement in court, so tough luck but I’m not paying. It’s legal, but it’s wrong.

          Well, it was wrong for you to hire the unlicensed guy in the first place, and it was wrong for him to perform the work without a license, so, yes, it’s wrong, but you’re already four steps past the finish line, and I’m not sure that an example based upon an already decent amount of unethical behavior qualifies as particularly illustrative.

          The things that get me about the estate tax are that (a) inheritance is clearly one of the better routes towards generational wealth mobility, so we don’t want to treat it just like ordinary income for people to whom this factor matters and (b) most inheritance is really probably better just regarded as “income”, if it’s not performing that (a)… and (c) encoding that in law is rather difficult and there’s no clear justice principle to guide us other than absolutes that don’t give you much of a nuanced middle.

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