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« Bill Maher, Jay Leno, and the State of Moral Reasoning in America, Part 1 | Home | Bill Maher, Jay Leno, and the State of Moral Reasoning in America, Part 3 »

Bill Maher, Jay Leno, and the State of Moral Reasoning in America, Part 2

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, December 11, 2008

Yesterday I began examining a statement by comedian and commentator Bill Maher. He made this statement on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, in a context of discussing what the Republicans need to do to become a viable party. According to Maher, they should, among other things, stop their opposition to the estate tax:

“The estate tax is the perfect tax. I mean, we gotta tax somebody, right? This is a tax on rich dead people: people who literally have estates, otherwise known as not you. People who don’t need money, on account of that whole being dead thing.”

Yesterday I noted how much Maher’s argument plays upon personal self-interest. It also seems to assume that the government can decide how much money somebody needs, and take whatever is extra. I’d be surprised if Maher, a wealthy libertarian, really wants to make this argument.

Part of what perplexes me about what Maher says is what he doesn’t bother to say about estate taxes. I’d like to know why he thinks is morally right, not just expedient, for the government to take somebody’s money just because they died. For some strange reason, this seems to me rather more like stealing than taxing.

Here’s a thought experiment to focus our thinking: Suppose there is a man who worked very hard throughout his life. At twenty, he worked in a construction company as a carpenter. In time he became a superintendent. He put in long hours. He and his family lived conservatively, trying to invest whatever they could. At fifty, the man had the chance to buy the construction company. In the years that followed, he worked even harder, putting in  longer hours than he had before. The company thrived, owing to his hard work and practical wisdom. He continued to invest a fair amount of money because his family lived relatively frugally compared to their income level. Of course the man paid lots of income taxes throughout his life. His lifetime total added up to several million dollars in Federal income taxes alone. Finally, he sold his company and retired. When he died at age 85, his estate was worth $30,000,000. Because his wife had predeceased him, this money would be passed on to their children. But should a major portion of his estate be taken by the government?

Okay, this man was rich and now he’s dead. We can agree on that. Not counting the $2,000,000 that is exempt from the estate tax, this man will owe multiple millions of dollars to the government. This is true even though he already paid income taxes on this money. So here’s what I don’t get. Why is it moral for the government to tax this man’s estate? Why is it right for the government to take a substantial chunk of money he fairly and legally earned? Shouldn’t he be free to do what he likes with his money through his will?

Bill Maher would say that this man doesn’t need the money. Fine. But do we believe that it’s right for the government to take money we don’t need? Is this the standard of fair taxation? Bill Maher would also point out that the government is taking money from someone else, not me, so I should like it. But does that give me any moral foundation on which to stand in my support for the estate tax?

Bill Maher exemplifies the kind of shallow and selfish arguments that plague moral and political discourse in America. His cleverness allows him to make what seems like a moral argument for the estate tax, when mostly it’s an appeal to pure self-interest. Ugh!

Just for the record, I doubt that estate tax issues will ever be relevant to me personally. Those from whom my family and I will someday inherit money don’t have enough to pay estate taxes, and neither will I when my time on this earth is up. So I’m not motivated here by my own self-interest. In fact, as someone who has worked in non-profit organizations all of my life, I am probably an indirect benficiary of the current laws, since people sometimes make tax deductible contributions to churches and other organizations to avoid having to pay estate taxes. So I’m not moved by self-interest. What does move me, however, is curiosity about the kinds of moral arguments that people make . . . and the lack thereof. I’ll bring up another example tomorrow when I comment on something Jay Leno said in his conversation with Bill Maher.

P.S. A friend of mine wrote a thoughtful email about this issue. In it he suggested that estate taxes might have to do with the government’s belief that the nation would be better off without an aristocracy based on inherited wealth. Estate taxes, from this perspective, would be used to keep the economic and political playing field more or less level in our society. It still feels to me as if the government is stealing rather than taxing. But I appreciate a decent argument for estate taxes, even if, in the end, I don’t buy it. Ironically, my friend’s view of estate taxes is a little bit like the Year of Jubilee legistation in Scripture.

Topics: Moral Reasoning |

11 Responses to “Bill Maher, Jay Leno, and the State of Moral Reasoning in America, Part 2”

  1. Thomas Buck Says:
    December 11th, 2008 at 7:00 am

    Dear Rev. Roberts:

    I’m right there with you on this. A person pays taxes on their earnings all of their life, is frugal, amasses a fortune that is small by today’s grand standards, and Uncle Sam takes it. Not cool.

    I know several people that were common middle-class folks, teacher, construction workers, musicians, who through their own frugality saved a very large amount of money. They paid their income taxes all of their lives. Why should they be double-taxed? Why shouldn’t their savings be distributed in the manner they wish?

    There is a program our church has now to allot some of one’s estate to the church upon one’s death. I don’t plan on making use of it, myself, but what if someone wants to?


  2. Evan Says:
    December 11th, 2008 at 8:25 am

    A huge problem with the estate tax that is rarely mentioned in the media is that a good of folks who fall under it do so because of the value of their farmland and/or ranches. They have hardly any cash or investment assets, but they are millionaires because of the value of their land according to the government.

    Another problem is that the taxes are generally due nine months after you die. In a lot of cases, the only way to raise the cash to pay the Feds is to sell your assets within nine months. This is known as a “fire sale,” because you have to take what you can get before the deadline.

    In the interests of brevity, I’ll just toss those out and skip the necessarily involved discussion of all the ins and outs and exceptions and sad stories, but suffice to say, it isn’t just a case of “Let’s tax Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, they don’t need it!”

  3. J. Falconer Says:
    December 11th, 2008 at 9:36 am

    Rev Mark Roberts, Thanks for explaining our complex federal tax laws. Yes, I’ve given to ministries & charities when I really couldn’t afford to. I’ve heard money buys almost everything but love & health. My relatives & my personal wealth wouldn’t give a Brinks truck a flat tire !! Ha!! Thank God for our humor on our earthly toiling for work & prosperity.Actually, some of the most wealthy people I met & knew had very sad, challenging personal lives. Thanks again for all of your posts & soon have a Great Weekend. Blessings to you & yours J

  4. ChrisB Says:
    December 11th, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    Re: the aristocracy argument — If true they are still confiscating someone else’s property in their desire to do some social engineering. We still need to know what gives them that right.

    It is not a sin to be born into money, nor is it a sin to inherit it. The right to our property is a core part of our governmental and economic systems. That right doesn’t end when you die and pass your property on to the next generation. If we give up our right at this point, we’re setting the stage to be asked to do the same elsewhere.

  5. Jennie Says:
    December 11th, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    You could think of it this way. In the US, the man who started in construction, worked his way to Superintendent and then, eventually, bought the company, had a very unique opportunity. This kind of “moving up in the world” is possible in some other places, but not many. Perhaps with a debt of gratitude, it’s not the worse thing in the world to give some of your money back to the government after you don’t need it anymore; especially if the government is a good steward of said monies. (which is not always true.) Theoretically, the monies taken from Estate Taxes are building infrastructure and creating jobs for people who may now be able to start at the bottom and work themselves into the American Dream. You know, pay it forward. And, by the way, if people were willing to just give money back in the form of gratitude, we would not need taxes OR stewardship sermon series!

  6. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    December 11th, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    I left comments in the previous thread thinking of the estate as “income.” Of course, this is not entirely accurate. After all, the “estate” is taxed (minus that first two million) no matter how many people will inherit whatever’s left.

    How would this argument change if we instead we talking about an “inheritance” tax, which would be more akin to income. Let’s go further and stipulate that a million dollars of this hypothetical income tax was exempt (that is to each, each recipient is only taxed if they inherit more than one million dollars).

    Would that seem more fair? Less fair?

  7. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    December 11th, 2008 at 4:14 pm


    It is not a sin to be born into money, nor is it a sin to inherit it.

    The government’s “anti-aristocracy” argument is not (of course) based on a concept of “sin,” but rather on an ideal. Namely, the ideal that the society as a whole would function better if money was not locked into the hands of a few. I would be more interested in seeing the parallel to “Jubilee” unpacked and/or refuted, since that gets closer to determining whether or not just an estate tax is “moral” or “biblical” (or not).

  8. Mark Roberts Says:
    December 11th, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Jennie: Ah, if the government were only so good as that! I would rather live in a country that allowed those who died to do whatever they wished with their money, without taxes, and in which they chose to give away large amounts of their money to help others. My idealism isn’t too different from yours, really.

  9. RevK Says:
    December 11th, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    And now a pointed comment about our friend Bill.
    He is unmarried, has troubles maintaining relationships (as reported in the tabloids - for what it’s worth…) has no family to bequeath, and I have no idea to what kind of community he belongs — but the short of my controversial comment is this: His lack of “real world, family experience” taints his world view in everything he discusses. (I can be provocative too; I know it’s not as funny.) I pray for him.

  10. Paul Says:
    December 12th, 2008 at 12:58 am

    If I may add a couple of things….

    First, most people with means employee various strategies (i.e. trusts, corporations, gifts, etc.) to minimize the impact of estate taxes. Very rarely does someone with significant wealth allow all of it to be exposed to this tax.

    Secondly, society has a legitimate interest in preventing perpetuities. Remember that Einstein said that the most remarkable phenomenon of the universe was the compounding of interest! Take the $30 million example above. After just two generations (at only 4%) it becomes $150 million. Another two generations, $732 million and just two more takes the total to over $3 billion. Before you know it, one family has the assets to control part or all of society. (Bill Gates’ fortune after just two generations would be a staggering $296 billion! To put that in perspective, it is more than the 2007 tax receipts for the 5 largest states.)

    As far as the righteousness of the tax, I think we might do well to reread Romans 13. Verse 1 says, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

    Anyway, there you have some contrarian grist for the mill!

    Peace to all.

  11. Don B Says:
    December 13th, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Mark, I think you shrugged off Jennie’s point too quickly. Rather than focusing on the altruism of the government, think of whether the carpenter is realy 100% responsible for his success. Yes, he worked hard, but were it not for the fact that he lives in a country with a stable, thriving economy that supported and complemented his efforts, the rule of law, no rampant violence in the streets, etc. (I could go on and on about the benefits to business of operating in this country as oposed to many other less business-friendly places), would he have achieved the same success? Therefore, does he really “own” the riches he has gained from his business successes? Should he not be required to contribute to the system that allowed for his success in the first place?

    I know, this starts to sound like God and stewardship, but that’s another series . . .


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