Wealth And Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes

Co-Authored By: William H. Gates, Sr. And Chuck Collins

Authors Credit 60 Plus Association President Jim Martin With Renaming The Estate Tax The “Death” Tax

(excerpted from book, p.57-59)


The proponents of estate tax abolition have a good thing going for them with the moniker “death tax.” Language is essential to enlisting popular support. After President Reagan’s missile defense program was dubbed “star wars,” proponents had difficulty regaining control over the terms of the debate.5

Defenders of the estate tax lost the battle of shibboleths early on. We knew we were in trouble in 2000, when major television news networks, such as CNN, abandoned objectivity, using “death tax” rather than estate tax in their news coverage.

The derivative of the “death tax” phrase is disputed, with several individual pollsters and lobbyists taking credit for coining the successful tag.6 As it turns out, the phrase “death tax” has been around for several decades, but it came into popular use in the mid-1990s, thanks to concerted efforts to focus the repeal campaign message.

California congressman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), lead sponsor of repeal legislation, notes that there were many references to “death taxes” in professional tax journals dating back to the 1970s. Californians, who repealed their state inheritance tax in 1982, deployed the “death tax” phrase throughout the campaign.7 President Reagan first used the term in a Minnesota speech in 1982.8

One significant player in advancing the “death tax” tag was Jim Martin, a longtime activist who founded “60 Plus,” a conservative Washington beltway alternative to the American Association of Retired Persons. Although mostly concerned with privatizing Social Security, 60 Plus jumped headlong into the crusade against the estate tax.

Martin has the distinction of having given President George W. Bush his first political job. When Bush was twenty-two years old, Martin hired him to work on the 1968 campaign in Florida to elect Ed Gurney to Congress. The president, distinguished for his unique nicknames of friends and colleagues, calls Martin “Buddha.”9

Martin is credited with having brought the “death tax” coin back into wider circulation in 1993. He gained an ally in political mastermind Frank Luntz. Luntz, who conducted focus groups for conservative caucuses and politicians, understood the importance of language. He even wrote a rhetoric primer for conservative politicians with the Orwellian name “Language for the Twenty-first Century.”

Luntz’s message research found that “death tax” kindled voter resentment in a way that “inheritance tax” and “estate tax” didn’t. Luntz shared his findings with Republican leaders and included the phrase in the GOP’s 1994 “Contract with America.”

In a strategy memo to GOP lawmakers, the media-savvy Luntz suggested that legislators stage press conferences opposing the estate tax “at your local mortuary” to dramatize the issue. “I believe this backdrop will clearly resonate with your constituents,” advised Luntz. “Death is something the American people understand.”10

The first challenge of any campaign is to have a good message. But it is another hurdle, as the media spin masters will tell you, to enforce “message discipline” (i.e., getting everyone to say the same thing). Enter the pizza fund.

Across Washington, D.C., by water coolers in lobbying organizations, the hard-won battle for message discipline was waged. Woe to the innocent office intern or researcher who referred to the “death tax” as “the estate tax” or by it’s proper name, “the Federal Estate and Gift Tax and Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax.” For this transgression, a one-dollar fine was levied to the pizza fund. The amount collected would pay for a periodic pizza party.

“Death tax pizza funds” first appeared at Jim Martin’s 60 Plus organization. Then, across the Potomac, a pizza fund was instituted by Jack Faris, the president and CEO of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. Soon the idea spread to Capitol Hill, where then House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other pro-repeal lawmakers instated pizza funds in their offices.

Slowly the powerful “death tax” phrase worked itself out from these lobbying groups into advertising, talk shows, and into the title of legislation, the “Death Tax Elimination Act of 2000.” A powerful message catapulted the repeal cause forward.