We'll Always Have Paris

Prof Bainbridge is pretty much always on the side of the angels in my book, but I have to dissent in part from his recent post on repealing the estate tax.

First, the good: he recognizes "the liberal arguments against repeal strike me as wholly without merit." He also quotes Bruce Bartlett's too-rarely-seen argument that the super-rich actually benefit from current estate tax rules in many ways, despite the ostensible class-warfarism rhetoric behind arguments against repeal.

But then …

… I get to thinking about Paris Hilton and her ilk and the case for taxing trust fund babies into having to work for a living takes on tremendous gut level/populist appeal.

So maybe the right answer is an estate tax that has substantial deficit neutral exemptions for small business and family farms, but no loopholes for the Hiltons of the world.

Linking Paris Hilton to the Estate Tax is immensely popular. The Google currently gives 70,300 hits for that combo. There was an anti-repeal TV ad awhile back that featured a Paris lookalike cooing her thanks to Congressional Republicans for their repeal efforts. We love to hate her, and many have no compunctions about leveraging that hatred to argue tax policy.

But it's a wild misfire. Paris makes more than enough money on her own to fuel her, um, active lifestyle. Check, for example, the Forbes Celebrity 100 where she's reported bringing in $6.5 million per year. OK, she's not exactly mining coal, but neither is Prof Bainbridge. (Or me. Or, probably, you.)

In addition, it's not as if Paris has ever experienced an estate tax hit, nor is she likely to see one in the near future. Her grampa, Barron Hilton, is still alive and kicking at 78; Forbes reports that he's worth about $1 billion, barely enough to get him on the 400 Richest Americans list (he's number 346). Interestingly enough, Wikipedia reports that his father, Conrad Hilton, left him and his siblings "almost nothing"; Barron sued successfully to win a bigger share. Besides running the hotel chain, he founded the San Diego Chargers, and had a bunch of other businesses.

Paris's father, Rick, is also still alive (he's 50). His Wikipedia entry says that (in addition to being an heir someday, with his seven siblings), he's a real estate broker.

So what does this all have to do with the estate tax? Nada, really. This WSJ editorial (found with the Googling above) points out that, if anything, the presence of an estate tax encourages the high-consumption lifestyle that Paris putatively represents: spend it now, or the state will grab a huge chunk of it when you croak.

But what's really disappointing is the Prof's apparent inclination to punish people he doesn't approve of through the tax code. OK, so Paris is an airheaded slut. That's hardly a good basis for one's stance on tax policy. Should we really try to tax people based on their character?