The great death tax lie

Well, here's great news for all you peasants living in your huts out there, or in your shared condos in Ferndale: Donald Trump, protector of the weak, is ending the hated and oppressive death tax!

"We are finally ending the crushing, the horrible, the unfair estate tax — or, as it is often referred to, the death tax," our leader told us last month.

Made me cry with gratitude, it did — never mind that pretty much everything the Man with the Little Hands says is a lie, or that he usually doesn't follow through on his promises.

The sentiment was great, wasn't it? Trump did this, by the way, in a speech unveiling his tax plan: which would help the rich, make it harder for government to do its job, and do little or nothing for the rest of us — except free us from the death tax.

Except... there's one small problem.

What he said about the "death tax" may well be Donnie Trump's biggest lie, and that's saying something. I learned about this when my mother-in-law died in 1998.

People were whining on right-wing radio even then about the "death tax," and her poor daughters were worried they'd be wiped out by it. Their mother left maybe $200,000 or so, mostly in the value of her home. The accountant we went to see chuckled when we confided our death tax fears.

"You don't have to pay an estate tax," he said. "You don't even have to file any return."

"You wouldn't have to pay any 'death tax' if she had 20 times as much money," he told us bewildered ones.

Well, to be sure, when Trump started hollering about his death tax, I got in touch with my ultimate economics guru — professor Charles Ballard, former chair of the economics department at Michigan State University, and the author of an excellent little book called Michigan's Economic Future.

Ballard told me that the most recent year for which statistics are complete is 2015, a year in which 93,719 Michiganders died, in all their various ways.

So — how many of those folks paid the hated "death tax?" Whoops; bad way to put it; dead people never pay taxes at all.

My bad. So — how many of them left estates that had to pay some tax? Guess. I've asked a variety of people, who usually guessed about half of them. The lowest guess was 1,000.

The answer — drum roll, please — was... 91.

No, not 91,000. Ninety-one people, out of 93,719. Well, actually 211 left heirs who had to file an estate tax return.

"However, the estate tax has a lot of deductions," the good professor Ballard says, and more than half of those who had to file a return ended up not having to pay any tax.

How much did the unlucky 91 have to pay? Well, the IRS won't release that figure — but they did report that the 211 who had to file returns left an average of $22 million per estate.

More than likely, those who ended up having to pay inherited even bigger estates. In fact, nobody is subject to the estate tax at all unless they inherit an estate of at least $5.5 million, and often not then. There are always loopholes.

Leon LaBrecque, the managing partner of LJPR Financial Advisors in Troy, independently contacted me to make sure I knew what bullshit Trump's claims were.

He says that research by the Tax Policy Center indicates that those few who did have to pay the tax pay a rate of about nine percent. So, leave junior $22 million, and the government might take $2 million. (I think Junior can stand that.)

Naturally, he'd probably pay a lot less after deductions. Warren Buffett, the philanthropic billionaire, probably won't have to pay any estate taxes at all, LaBrecque told me. That's because, except for maybe a few million he'll leave his kids, the rest will go to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Leave your money to charity, and there's no tax.

By the way, Trump also said the main reason to get rid of the death tax was "to protect millions of small businesses and the American farmer," sentiments so touching they would make tears run down a crocodile's spine.

Leon, however, looked up how many farms and small businesses had to pay the estate tax in the entire country.

The total: 50. "Some particular hogwash," LaBrecque snorts. Well, sorta kinda, I thought, wishing desperately that old Leon were running the economy, rather than the appointees of our bozo-in-chief.

Billionaires who aren't generous would, however, get a nice new tax cut if the estate tax were repealed. "The very, very richest folks would be able to leave more to their heirs," Ballard told me. Nationally, "the distribution of wealth would become a little more unequal, although it's already extremely unequal."

No kidding. Well, as it now stands, the best thing we can do for our kids, ourselves, or anyone we love is to hope that somehow they die rich enough to have to pay the death tax.

P.S.: I'm a journalist and a teacher.

No way that my surviving hamsters will ever pay a dime.

Pop quiz:

Which daily newspaper do most of us read? The Detroit Free Press? The Detroit News? Time's up! The right answer is that most people now don't read either of them.

Not in print; not online. An even smaller percentage of Detroit-area folks subscribe to them.

Thirty years ago, before the great Joint Operating Agreement merger and swindle, before the last great newspaper strike and before the World Wide Web, The Detroit News had a daily circulation of 670,000; The Detroit Free Press, 630,000.

Here's what it is today, with a slightly bigger population: Free Press, 98,596 print copies; Detroit News, 44,715.

That's according to their own figures, published in very tiny type in the back pages of both papers on Saturday, Oct. 7.

Ah, you may say, but that comparison is unfair; people read everything, including newspapers, online these days.

Well, yes, they do. Except not these newspapers. Add in the paid electronic circulation numbers, and the Free Press gets up to 148,920; the News, 70,250, still mere shadows of the past.

This poses the question: How relevant are they to anything happening today? Last year the head of a major institution in this town told me he had a problem.

A trip by some of his co-workers had been inaccurately characterized by one of the papers as a junket, in a story buried deep in the back pages. "Do you know what the circulation of that paper is?" I asked. When I told him, he smiled.

"That's a relief," he told me.

You have to wonder if these papers could even bring down Kwame Kilpatrick, if his shenanigans were to happen today.