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Ambivalence over estate tax

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BOSTON — For those who like their reality programming a bit more real, this controversy has all the popular elements of "Survivor" meets "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

Ever since the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to eliminate all taxes to heirs and heiresses of the very rich, there has been an odd public argument about the certainty of death and taxes.

On one side, people who favor the tax break talk about "death taxes" as if the federal government went around lopping financial limbs off warm corpses. Opponents talk about "estate taxes" as if a piece of the public manor was up for grabs.

We are debating the fate of a $50 billion-a-year tax break for those who will inherit from the richest 2 percent of Americans. These are folks who leave more than the $675,000 (and rising) that's already tax-free.

Politicians defending heirs keep assuring us that they are really protecting family farms and small businesses. Indeed, opponents are accused of "class warfare."

But what's missing from the argument as it heads to the Senate is any recognition of the underlying ambivalence that most Americans — taxpayers or family members — have toward the whole question of inherited wealth.

The classic American tale we were all raised on starred the self-made man. The log cabin origins, the rags-to-riches success stories are a part of our democratic lore.

In the past decade the argument over welfare was built on the idea that the poor were demoralized by the dole and would thrive on nothing but their wits. In fact, a certain edge, a fire in the belly, a hunger are assumed to fuel success.

Yet, we play the lottery, cheer people when a fortune falls in their laps, and envy the entitled.

Those who have already made it — and have an estate big enough to be taxed — are also ambivalent in dealing with their will-be heirs. In New York, the new rich are actually taking courses on kids and money. They aren't sure whether their sons and daughters will be enabled or disabled by dollars.

They want to give their kids "everything." But they worry that wealth will undermine such stalwarts as character and work ethic. Even billionaire Bill Gates — who's worth roughly $60 billion — says he's going to leave his kids a mere $10 million apiece.

Meanwhile, most parents are more likely to talk to their children about their sex lives than about their inheritance. But then, we are crazier about money than sex.

As for public policy? Well, we don't believe that America is a plutocracy. We don't even like to acknowledge the incredible growing gap between rich and poor.

But we are now in the midst of a vast transfer of wealth from one generation to another. Plutocracy here we come. More to the point, with the average life expectancy now reaching 74 for our fathers and 80 for our mothers, we'll be transferring from one set of seniors to the next.

Family farms and small businesses should and can be saved through simpler, more targeted reforms. Parents should and can leave a good portion of their estate intact. But why should a person who inherits serious riches be taxed less than a person who works for a paycheck? It would be wiser to use that $50 billion (and rising) to help low and middle-income taxpayers save for retirement rather than help those waiting for the will to be read.

Under current rules, heirs and heiresses will by 2006 be able to inherit a million bucks tax-free.

Whatever our ambivalence about work and wills, taxpayers and heirs, we ought to agree when enough is enough.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.