How to drive off a cliff

Posted: December 13, 2012

If you have worked hard for five decades, made pots of money, and now want to squander it all in Las Vegas on wine, women, and baccarat, go ahead. If, however, you harbor the antisocial desire - stigmatized as such by America's judgmental tax code - to bequeath your wealth to your children, this would be an excellent month to die. Absent a congressional fix before Jan. 1, the death tax, which is 35 percent on estates above $5 million, reverts to 55 percent on those above $1 million.

This is one of many tax changes that could be triggered. The Hoover Institution's Tammy Frisby notes that - not counting temporary disaster-relief tax breaks - 31, 56, and 37 provisions of the tax code expired in 2010, 2011, and 2012, respectively. "The country," she wrote, "is trying to create sustained economic growth using temporary tax laws." It is not working.

Unless Congress reaffirms its follies, a credit for wind power - a long-standing adventure in industrial policy - also expires. This is not a reason to go over the "fiscal cliff," but it would be a consolation for doing so.

The cliff could cause a potentially constructive chaos of questions. Is it wise to increase taxes as student debt passes the $1 trillion mark, dampening graduates' power as consumers? Is it wise to increase the top tax rates, paid by small businesses, just as the Obamacare tax produces many "49ers," businesses that stay below the 50-employee threshold for providing insurance? Automatic defense cuts might raise questions about whom our 54,000 troops in Germany are protecting Germans against - Denmark? Poland?

Washington, with its (at most) one-track mind, is fixated on the "Bush tax rates" but cannot even accurately describe them. They're actually the Bush- Obama rates. Two years ago, Obama - joined by 43 Senate and 139 House Democrats - extended the rates for two years because the economy was too weak to absorb large tax increases.

When Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) said "Social Security has not added one penny to the deficit," Charles P. Blahous III, a member of the Social Security board of trustees, wrote to the Washington Post that the program will add $165 billion to the deficit this year because its expenditures exceed its tax revenues by that amount, and "this gap is filled entirely by revenue that the federal government borrows." The fact that the second-ranking Senate Democrat is off by 16,500,000,000,000 pennies reveals the precise thinking that got the country into its current condition and that supposedly will produce a cure. It is enough to make you want to hop in your Fisker and drive off a fiscal cliff.

You should know Fisker because you have helped to finance the California company that makes - well, has made a few - electric cars. Its only model, the Karma - really; Obama administration green investments are beyond satire - costs $110,000. Your subsidy helped Justin Bieber buy one. No one said saving the planet one electric car at a time would be easy.

The Wall Street Journal reports that despite Fisker's $192 million in Energy Department loans, the Karma "has been hobbled by recalls and quality problems," and Fisker has sacked half its employees. But perhaps its biggest problem is that its source of batteries, A123 Systems, went bankrupt in spite of its $249 million Energy Department grant. The administration demanding control of more of the nation's wealth is the author of many Solyndra-style debacles.

American politics has occasionally confronted issues not susceptible to compromise - e.g., expansion of slavery into the territories. The fiscal cliff is about splittable differences - this or that tax rate or entitlement rule - but also the proper scope and actual competence of government. This necessary argument should not be truncated until the cliff is even closer.


George Will is a Washington Post columnist. He can be reached at georgewill@washpost.com.

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