A couple of days ago I saw a story about a Texas family that just had lost a second son – second and last — in Iraq. That same day, I read that Republicans in the U.S. Senate have renewed their efforts to repeal the estate tax, or diminish it to practically nothing. I doubt those Republicans have thought much about the connection between the sacrifices they expect of others and the ones they are not willing to make themselves. They should.
There was a time, not that long ago, when military service was something the children of the rich did not entirely avoid. As recently as the 1950s, about half the graduating classes at Harvard and Princeton went on to serve. Bush Sr. left Yale to fly missions in the Second World War. His son of course used family connections to avoid Vietnam; and the distance between the two defines the distance between the father’s time, and ours.
I don’t have exact statistics. But by most indications, it is not the sons and daughters of the well-connected who are risking their lives in the Middle East. Less than 1% of Harvard and Princeton grads enlist. The figure is just a tiny bit more for offspring of members of the U.S. Congress. As Mark Shields, the commentator and Marine veteran, has said, “probably nobody at any Washington dinner party tonight — liberal or conservative, Bush appointee, or Democratic holdover — personally knows any enlisted man or woman now defending the nation.”
Which means that few of them, when they address a gathering of major campaign contributors, runs much risk of encountering a parent who has lost both sons in Iraq. That many top Administration officials had “other priorities” when it was their turn to serve, is of course well known. It is fair to say there are prominent people in DC who never met a war they weren’t eager to send someone else – or someone else’s kids — to fight.
Under prior arrangements, they at least had to help support the troops, even if they weren’t willing to join them. In World Wars I and II Congress passed special levies on the manufacturers of munitions. If you made extra money from the war, you had an extra obligation to help pay for it. The estate tax itself originally was part of this thinking. Defense confers extra benefit upon those with wealth to be defended; therefore wealth has an extra obligation to pay.
The founding generation enacted an estate tax to finance a naval build up in the late 1790s. Lincoln established one again to help pay for the Civil War. The rich could buy their way out of the Civil War draft. But at least they would have to help pay to support the men who went in their place. Another estate tax came in the late 1890s to pay for the Spanish American War.
In the build-up to World War I Congress made the connection explicit. “The luxury of a large standing army and a great navy,” said Congressman Warren Worth Bailey of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, should be “supported by those whose interests demand that kind of army and navy.” (“Jingoes should pay for jingoism,” he added.) In justifying his plan to finance America’s entry into World War II, Franklin Roosevelt declared that sacrifice in the cause of freedom is a “privilege”, and that he believed in “equality of privilege.” Accordingly, FDR’s plan included a continued estate tax, as well as income tax rates that, at the very top brackets, went as high as 90%.
That ethos prevailed until the junior Bush years. Now, for the first time, we have a president who cuts taxes in time of war – and who cuts them especially for those who are least inclined to have children serving. The President somehow wraps his mind in the imagery of sacrifice and honor. In his inner drama he is a lonely Churchill facing the foe his adversaries lack the mettle to acknowledge. But in reality he is breaking out a keg for his fellow sons and daughters of privilege, while others do the fighting.
This is a true Me Generation presidency, and as such a bookend to the Clinton years. Where Clinton’s self-indulgence was personal and sensual, Bush’s has to do with wealth and class. It’s a different version of the same thing, and affects a lot more people.
The estate tax embodies an economic truth – a moral economic truth. No portfolio is an island. The gains that accrue to our personal accounts, start with the efforts of many to whom we owe a moral debt. At no time is this more apparent than in time of war. You do not have to contend, cynically, that the war is being fought for oil, or for Haliburton, or Bechtel, to observe that great benefits are accruing to shareholders of such firms.
Should not the heirs to fortunes so acquired help to pay for a war they are not themselves willing to fight in? I would say so. Or how about this? If they are going to cut the estate tax, do so only for those heirs who do at least four years of military service. It would be instructive to see how many of our leaders would make bumptious calls to “Bring’m on” when their own sons and daughters would be carrying the guns.