Death Panels and the Estate Tax

I’ve been struggling to understand the overheated rhetoric surrounding the proposal that allows Medicare to pay for end-of-life counseling. I think I get it now: It is all about the death tax.

Here is the story the government doesn’t want you to know. The 2001 Bush tax cuts will repeal the estate tax next year, but only for a year. Starting in less than 18 months, estates in excess of $1 million will once again be taxed at a stiff 55 percent. This will cost the children of the very wealthy tens of billions of not-so-hard-earned dollars. And it creates a huge incentive for these offspring to, shall we say, accelerate nature’s course. You see where I'm going here.

The “death panels” of Sarah Palin’s fevered fantasy could do a marvelous job enhancing this process. Just imagine: Rich Uncle Ralph gets a case of the flu next winter and his n’er do well nephews drag him before Palin’s dreaded government bureaucrats. A few dollars judiciously spread around, perhaps the promise of Ralph’s soon-to-be-unused Redskin tickets, and those compliant pencil-pushers will render the desired decision: Pull the plug.

This may save the taxpayers some money—all those years of Ralph’s foregone Medicare benefits, after all. Of course, knocking him off in 2010 will cost Treasury a bundle in lost estate taxes. Once the tax is back in 2011, however, sending seniors off on the ice flow will be a win/win for the feds. They’ll not only save those Medicare bucks, but they’ll once again be able to grab all that estate tax dough as well. I even heard the bureaucrats will get a bounty for every senior they bump off. Read it on a Website somewhere. 

I can see it now. The death panel elbowing its way into the intensive care unit, urging Ralph to throw in the towel. The IRS estate tax guy right behind, ready to grab Ralph’s assets at his last breath. Meanwhile, a tearful Aunt Shirley struggles to get past all these cheap suits to whisper a final goodbye to her beloved brother. It is a powerful image. And given the past success of the anti estate-taxers and the outsized attention the death panel fanatics are getting (many of the same people, I suspect), it is pure PR genius.

The thing is, of course, none of it is true.