Why Southern Progressives Should Support an Estate Tax

The essence of the American dream is that every child born should have an equal shot at success, and that every person should pay their fair share of taxes, right?

The rich don’t think so — which is why their political minions on the right are pushing to abolish the estate tax, to ensure the Paris Hiltons of the world never have to do honest work or contribute to society.

And to prove just how narrow the base is for estate tax repeal, Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy — which has been leading the fight to keep the estate tax — released a report two weeks ago showing the “movement” is largely financed by just 18 families:

18 families worth a total of $185.5 billion have financed and coordinated a 10-year effort to repeal the estate tax, a move that would collectively net them a windfall of $71.6 billion.

The report profiles the families and their businesses, which include the families behind Wal-Mart, Gallo wine, Campbell’s soup, and Mars Inc., maker of M&Ms. Collectively, the list includes the first- and third-largest privately held companies in the United States, the richest family in Alabama and the world’s largest retailer.

Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) has promised to lead the fight for repeal in May, and House Republicans are firmly on board — even though 57% of the public opposes estate tax repeal.

This is a perfect issue for Southern progressives. Half of the super-rich families are based in or have close ties to the South. And Southern populists — a large part of the Southern electorate, who are progressive on economic issues — hate the idea of the super-rich not paying their fair share to make government work. (The fight for the estate tax was actually started by Populists as a response to the excesses of the Robber Barrons.)
The only possible “hook” the right wing has for appealing to Southerners is the argument that the estate tax hurts the family farm — a claim the Office of Management and Budget easily proves wrong:

Myth: Many family farmers and small business owners are forced to pay the estate tax.

Reality: Most family farms and small business owners do not meet estate tax eligibility thresholds.

The USDA’s Economic Research Service reported that the average farm household net worth ranged from $576,400 for small farms to $1.5 million for very large family farms. The estate tax already exempts $1.5 million of all estates, and the exemption level rises to $3.5 million by 2009 (double for couples). The New York Times has reported that the American Farm Bureau could not cite a single case of a family farm lost due to the estate tax.

This is an issue Southern progressives can hit out of the park and use to expand their appeal to the Southern middle–and working-class.

Are they stepping up to the plate?

CHRIS KROMM is Executive Director of the Institute for Southern Studies,