- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2004

I don’t have a problem with super-wealthy people using their money to influence the political process. Have at it.

But they should be straight with us: If Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or “the fabulously wealthy” Teresa Heinz take a certain position on legislation, they ought to make it clear whether they will personally benefit in some way.

Consider the death tax, also known as the “estate tax.”

While most small business owners oppose the death tax — because it could force their heirs to sell the business when they die — many of the super-rich have no problem with the tax. Espousing a made-in-PR-land doctrine known as “responsible wealth,” the super-rich say they have an obligation to pay back society for their good fortune after they are gone. (Not while they’re still here piling it up).

Among those espousing this view are William H. Gates Sr., co-chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest (in assets), billionaire investment guru (and professional George Bush basher) George Soros, and Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. one of the world’s largest holding companies.

Of course, favoring the death tax is easy when you’re worth tens, or hundreds, of millions of dollars — or more. You can pay back society and still leave your family plenty of dough. But what about the woman or man whose business — the building, equipment, inventory and “receivables” — is worth far less? Time and time again their families must sell the business just to pay the tax. And too often, they have to sell not just their business, but their homes and other assets.

One can only guess Bill Gates Sr. opposes repeal of the death tax because he likes to give away other peoples’ money. After all, that’s what he does for a living: He allocates the billions his son donated to their charitable foundation. And God bless ‘em!

Mr. Soros probably opposes repeal of the death tax because he hates George Bush so much — and anything Mr. Bush favors Mr. Soros opposes. He is quoted as pledging his whole $7 billion fortune to the defeat of George Bush, if he can be guaranteed success. What maniacal obsession.

As the late-night TV salesmen say, “But wait. There’s more.”

The “more” in this case is the appearance of a possible hidden agenda for Warren Buffet. I don’t believe the following is his primary motive, but the facts are apparent. … Three months ago, as reported by investigative reporter John Berlau, Berkshire Hathaway and White Mountains Insurance, a Bermuda-based investment group run by John Byrne, who previously ran Geico Insurance (another Berkshire Hathaway holding), announced they had agreed to purchase Safeco insurance company’s life-insurance and asset-management division for 1.35 billion.

And what is one of the significant “products” marketed by Safeco? Life insurance for small business owners who want to make sure their heirs can pay the estate tax without selling the store. In other words, if you repeal the death tax you reduce the market for those Safeco insurance policies. Get it? On one hand you promote a loss — and then you sell insurance to cover the loss. I think there’s a moral and philosophical blindness, not to mention fiducial inequity, here.

Under the Bush administration’s tax reform plan the estate tax will be phased out over the next six years. But wait: On Jan. 1, 2011, Congress plans to have it spring back to life.

The White House wants Congress to end this nonsense and repeal the tax permanently. Efforts to do so have fallen short, however — and you and I must insist our elected representatives do our bidding.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 20 million business “firms” in America. Nearly three quarters of these, Census reports, “have no payroll. Most are self-employed persons operating unincorporated.”

All you have to do is look around and you will realize that for every corporate giant like Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway there are thousands of small business owners scratching out a living. Some will make it; some won’t.

Indeed, of the millions of businesses in America, just a few thousand are publicly traded on the stock exchanges. That’s why Fortune magazine’s list of the biggest U.S. companies isn’t called the Fortune 1 million; it’s called the Fortune 500.

When small firms succeed, after years of scratching, saving, mortgaging the house, and jumping through bureaucratic hoops, the government has no right to tax it all away just because the founder couldn’t live indefinitely.

The death tax deserves to die. If some of America’s super-rich disagree, they can donate all they want to the U.S. Treasury — or the charity of their choice. And God bless ‘em.

Pat Boone, singer and performer, is national spokesman for the 60 Plus Association, a senior citizen advocacy group in Arlington, Va.

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