A couple of weeks ago I tuned in to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. (One of the happy benefits of living in the Central Time Zone is that most television programs come on an hour earlier than on the east and west coasts. So I can catch a little bit of Leno before bed and still be asleep by 11:15. On this particular night, Jay’s guests included singer/actress Kristen Chenoweth (always fun!) and political comedian Bill Maher (always obnoxious!). You can watch the recording on Hulu, if you’re so inclined.
Bill Maher is a clever, cynical, critical man who gets attention by saying outlandish things. Maher, as you may recall, recently released the film Religulous, that made fun of religion and religious people, mostly with a series of cheap shots. Thus it came as no surprise to me when, in a conversation with Jay Leno about homosexuality, Maher wondered if Jesus had been gay. “It wouldn’t make him any worse!” Maher explained, assuming that Jesus was already bad enough. Maher’s evidence for Jesus’ gayness? He was “a gentle guy” who “never got married” and ended every prayer with “Ah . . . men!” See what I mean by cheap shots?
Maher did have a few funny lines. On the election of Obama, he said, “It’s a new chapter in America. Unfortunately, it’s Chapter 11.” But his making fun of Sarah Palin was lowball even for Maher. His sexual innuendos were both offensive and unbelievably sexist for someone who claims to be a an enlightened human being.
I could waste the rest of this blog post picking on Maher. But I want to take seriously something he said about taxation, of all things. I want to analyze his ideas and examine his moral reasoning because I think it’s instructive and, to an extent, representative. You hear this kind of argument, not just from eccentric comedians like Maher, but from much more mainstream leaders and lots of regular Americans.
Maher’s comments came while he was giving advice to the Republican Party as it considers its future. He condemned Republicans as the people who are against estate taxes. Maher explained further:
“The estate tax is the perfect tax. I mean, we gotta tax somebody, right? This is a tax on rich dead people: people who literally have estates, otherwise known as not you. People who don’t need money, on account of that whole being dead thing.”
Now I realize Maher was exaggerating to be funny. But he wasn’t just telling jokes. He was also advocating a position that, I’m quite sure, he actually holds. (This is ironic because Maher claims to be a libertarian. It’s hard to imagine a true libertarian thinking that the government should take money from people just because they died.)
Maher is partly right, partly wrong, in what he claims. I’m no expert on estate taxes, but I’m pretty sure that in the U.S. today, the first two million dollars of one’s estate are exempt from the estate tax. So the only people who would pay estate taxes are those who have more than two million in net worth and who are dead. Of course, in a sense the estate tax is actually a tax on the heirs of the deceased. They’re the ones who will have less money in the end. So it’s not just a tax on dead people, as if the money the government takes would otherwise be buried in the ground along with the deceased.
I find most interesting Maher’s statement that an estate tax is a tax on “people who literally have estates, otherwise known as not you.” This is an open argument from self-interest. We should support the estate tax, he says, because other people will have to pay, not us. Now that’s an argument I could get behind, given my natural instinct towards selfishness! But should I?
Maher offers some justification for making others pay, namely: they “don’t need the money, on account of the whole being dead thing.” Yes, of course. But the money is really coming from the heirs, who, presumably, don’t need it.
I wonder if Maher would be willing to argue the general principle: It is right for the government to take from people whatever money they don’t need. That would sure open up a can of worms, wouldn’t it? Who gets to decide what somebody needs? Suppose the government decided that nobody needs more than $250,000 a year. Would it be right for the government to take whatever extra somebody makes? I’ll bet Bill Maher makes a whole lot more than this. Does he need all he makes? Would he be happy to let the government take every thing he doesn’t need? (At this point I’d love to see Maher’s tax return, not only to see how much he makes, but also to see how much he gives away to charity.)
Tomorrow I’ll finish up my critique for Bill Maher’s moral reasoning before moving on to Jay Leno.