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FRAMING 1, THE PUBLIC O: A "Death Tax" or "the Paris Hilton Tax Cut"? The End of the Estate Tax Shows the Power of Framing to Shape Policy Decisions

June 23, 2006, 5:53 AM
Buried in today's NYTimes Business section is a report on the vote yesterday by the U.S. House to permanently eliminate the estate tax for about 99.7 percent of all families and reduce tax rates for the few who still faced a bill. Regardless of your partisan affiliation, if you have an appreciation for how the perception of statistics and numbers can be skewed by language and selective definitions, then the Estate Tax is a lesson learned.
In an era of skyrocketing deficits, the bill, reports the NYTIMES "would reduce tax revenue by $282 billion in the first five years after it took full effect in 2011, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, and about $61 billion just in 2011. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research group in Washington, has estimated that the tax cut and interest payments on a higher national debt would cost $762 billion over 10 years."

As James Carville and Paul Begala detail in Take It Back (pp 255-56), their excellent book length strategy memo for Democrats, few Americans probably know that the Estate Tax was originally passed into law by Republican Abraham Lincoln. Later another Republican presidential icon Teddy Roosevelt had this to say about his support for the Estate Tax:

"No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar's worth of service rendered--not gambling in stocks, but service rendered. The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective--a graduated income inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against invasion and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate."

Yet Republicans have skewed the image of a tax on unearned inheritance among just the 1% of the wealthiest Americans, into the impression that somehow the tax affects everyone, impacts Mom and Pop businesses, and that it is unfair.

The tool has been framing and language. Based on focus groups by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, Republicans came up with the frame device and new label of "death tax." Democrats tried to counter with the label of the "Paris Hilton Tax Cut," but the tactic has failed. Polls show that a majority of Americans believe they are affected by the "death tax" and believe it should be repealed. Here is how the framing of the two parties is captured in quotes appearing in the NYTimes article:

"I've never thought that every trip to the undertaker should be a accompanied by a trip by the I.R.S. to your family," said Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Republican whip. "Do I have to sell the corner grocery store or the service station, just to pay the inheritance tax?"


"This is the Paris Hilton tax relief act -- not Conrad Hilton, Paris Hilton," said Representative Stephen Neal, Democrat of Massachusetts. "This Congress has bent over backward to take care of the wealthy, the strong. Who do we neglect? The people who do the menial work."


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