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Make opportunities for everyone despite money

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

A couple weeks ago a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers threw his elementary school-aged sons’ athletic trophies away because they were for participation instead of winning. His intended lesson? According to him, everything in life should be earned. People are not entitled to anything just because they tried their best.

James Harrison got lots of publicity for his action. I don’t have strong feelings about participation trophies one way or another, but I want my kids to learn that lesson as well. They shouldn’t expect any valuable prizes to be handed to them. Hard work, grit and more hard work are keys to success and satisfaction. That’s probably a typical goal among most parents.

Sites like “Fox & Friends” quickly spread Harrison’s remarks on social media. A couple of my conservative Facebook friends re-posted his comments on their pages.

That was predictable, but also ironic, because when it comes to participation trophies worth millions or even billions of dollars instead of just a few bucks, conservatives tend to whistle a different tune.

What if we applied Harrison’s lesson to the federal estate tax, which currently only affects the top 0.2 percent of households? (It kicks in for individual estates at $5.43 million, or $10.86 million for a couple.)

Here’s a go: Just because a person has wealthy progenitors doesn’t mean they should be rich too. They’re not entitled to the participation prize of inheritance. They should have to earn their fortune like the rest of us.

But Republicans in Congress repeatedly take aim at the estate tax, this fairest of all taxes, a partial re-leveling of the American playing field. With a Republican majority, the House passed another repeal of the estate tax in April. (Only seven Democrats voted for it.)

If it had been signed into law, it would have cost the U.S. Treasury an estimated $14.6 billion in fiscal year 2016 alone, an added hole to plug in the budget. As recently as 2001, the estate tax kicked in at $675,000, bringing in over $37 billion in revenue, so we’re already covering a big hole as it is.

Some conservatives use those numbers to make the absurd argument that we should get rid of the estate tax because it’s a declining source of revenue, even though the main reason it’s declining is because Congress raised the exemption level eight-fold, making far fewer estates liable to pay it.

Imagine playing a Monopoly game where everybody starts with the standard $1,500, except one player who begins, by chance, with $5 million. It would be obvious to everybody the game is now rigged in that person’s favor.

This is what we live every day in America. Those who have, get.

It’s not just inheritance. From 2002 to 2005, three-fourths of national income growth went to the top 1 percent. During the 2009 to 2010 recovery, the same group captured 93 percent of income gains. Did they really work that much harder than everybody else?

The richest 1 percent now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. Getting rid of the estate tax would only make this inequality worse.

Don’t buy the “class warfare” argument. The politicians who use it would like people to accept the status quo without question or complaint. They would prefer the masses pay attention to something else, like football.

About 10 years ago, Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor who has spoken forthrightly about his tax advantages compared to his middle class employees, said to Ben Stein, “There’s class warfare all right. But it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

That’s the crux of the problem.

Open markets, educational opportunities and democratic government make it possible for many people to climb up a long way, some to the top. According to Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s research, as described in Chrystia Freeland’s “Plutocrats: the rise of the new global super-rich and the fall of everyone else,” these things are part of a virtuous cycle that creates widespread prosperity in a society.

But once they get to the top, some people want to maintain or bolster their position, and they lobby for special rules that are pro-business instead of pro-market. They exert monetary influence in elections to get laws written in their favor, corrupting the democratic process, especially as caps on campaign donations are lifted. They believe that what is good for them is good for everybody else. This is the development of plutocracy, in which the wealthy control government.

Does this sound all too familiar?

We need to reclaim democracy and make opportunities broadly available again. We teach our kids that grit and hard work are keys to success, and we must demand a system in which these things are likely to help them get there.


Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.