Donald Trump promised that his tax cuts wouldn’t benefit the “the wealthy and well-connected,” but rather America’s “forgotten men and women.” This was always a transparent lie. But it was impossible to appreciate just how gaudily Orwellian the president’s “populism” was, until congressional Republicans unveiled their detailed tax plan Thursday morning.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act doesn’t just redistribute trillions of dollars to corporate shareholders; or provide a windfall to wealthy business owners; or repeal the tax on estates worth more than $5.5 million dollars: It also allows the heirs of those estates to avoid paying any capital gains on their inherited assets — while ending a tax credit for adoption expenses, which was specifically designed to encourage adoption.
In other words, the law finances a giant gift to multimillionaire trust-fund kids, by (among other things) cutting subsidies that benefit orphans. Even by the modern GOP’s illustrious standards, this a stunningly ruthless act of class war.
Under our current tax system, you don’t have to pay any taxes on the appreciation of your assets (whether they be stock, real-estate, or fine art) until you “realize the gain” — typically, by selling it. One implication of this: If you die before selling that West Village brownstone you bought in 1970 (or what have you), then the millions of dollars you made on that investment are never taxed at all. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, unrealized capital gains account for around 32 percent of the value of estates worth between $5 million and $10 million — and 55 percent of the value of estates worth more than $100 million.
One of the purposes of the estate tax, then, was to ensure that the government gets a piece of these untaxed capital gains. After all, why should $10,000 increases in labor income be subject to taxation, but multimillion-dollar increases in capital income accrue entirely to their idle owners? To the extent that our society values progressivity in its tax code — and mobility on its socioeconomic ladder — this policy makes no sense.
Thus, previous Republican proposals for estate-tax repeal at least imposed some limited form of capital-gains tax on the heirs of multimillion-dollar estates. But the Trump tax plan lets those scions keep every penny they didn’t earn — while giving America’s orphans an even harder-knock life.