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Taxing the dead is just unfair

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Some people won't be happy until all Americans hand over all of their money to the politicians to spread about the land "doing God's work." This point will be driven home again in a few days when President Clinton vetoes legislation, passed in both the House and Senate by large margins, that would have eliminated the so-called "death tax."

The fact that some Americans spend 40 or 50 years working 60-to-80 hour weeks, save a little money every month rather than take lavish vacations on Fire Island or Majorca, drive five-year-old Fords rather than new BMWs is no matter. Such people are just pathetic chumps.

This is the drum beat now being played around the country by supporters of the decades-old death tax. Jane Bryant Quinn, "personal finance" columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group, characterizes the complaints of death-tax opponents as "the whining of multimillionaires." Besides, she wrote recently, "fewer than 48,000" estates were taxed in 1998, and just 1,200 of these were "made up primarily of small business and farms."

There seems to be a presumption among certain of our fellow citizens — they are, by their own acclamation, the wisest and most enlightened and caring among us — that the government is more entitled to our money than we are. In fact, we probably should offer praise that we are allowed to keep any at all.

If you believe differently, as I do, you are obviously greedy. Probably wealthy. Undoubtedly cranky. And like all greedy, wealthy, cranky people, you certainly don't give a hoot about the need to solve America's real problems, such as providing care "for the children of women leaving welfare for work" and fixing crumbling schools, to name just two examples cited by Quinn.

Is it time to surrender to those who are more enlightened about these matters than the rest of us? Not on your life.

Without getting bogged down in detailed explanations of who pays death taxes at what rate and why and how many are farmers and small-business people and other side arguments, all of which are really irrelevant, let's focus on the basics.

And the most basic of all is the fact that the tax is unfair. It is no more and no less than a kick in the gut to those who strive for and achieve success in life. They do well and the government, in its wisdom, takes it away.

The second most basic fact is this: It's your money we're talking about, not the government's. The target of the estate tax is (in alphabetical order) the art, automobiles, boats, businesses, investments, jewelry, real estate and other assets people accumulate over a lifetime of hard work, wise investing, good luck or some combination of the above. Even though you pay taxes every step of the way — on income, on dividends and interest, on purchases, and on capital gains — when you die the government claims the right to tax whatever you managed to hold on to above a certain amount.

There is nothing in the Constitution, however, that gives Washington claim to any of this. If you, or your parents or grandparents, are among the fortunate minority to have a taxable estate, you should be free to dispose of it however you want when you die.

To Jane Bryant Quinn and other defenders of the death tax, there's no real problem out there because the government, under current law, only found it necessary to pick the pockets of "fewer than" 48,000 estates in 1998. But where I come from, 48,000 is a pretty large village of victims. In fact, one is too many.


Veteran television personality and author Art Linkletter is national spokesman for United Seniors Association, a senior-citizens organization with more than 675,000 members.