BOSTON -- Now let us praise Paris Hilton.
This is not a phrase I ever expected to fall from my lips or my laptop. The high school dropout and celebutante is the heiress that America loves to ridicule. Nevertheless, I raise a glass to Ms. Hilton, the young and the spoiled, the rich and rhymes-with-rich, after the near-death experience of the estate tax.
Ms. Hilton may yet become the unwitting icon who pulls us from the brink of policy madness.
The Senate almost permanently eliminated the inheritance tax and the billions it raises every year. Now Republican leaders have vowed to bring the fight against this tax back to the Senate floor and the campaign trail.
Remember when eliminating the estate tax first got on the conservative dance card? The choreographers labeled it the "death tax." According to this spin, the long arm of the government reached into the grave to snatch dollars, family farms and small businesses.
This was only gradually and belatedly countered by the reality that it was really the Waltons, Marses, Campbells and other family oligarchs behind this policy. There is a growing, if still vague, recognition that this isn't a tax on the dead but on their heirs whose only heavy lifting may be carrying their parents' DNA.
Two Yale professors first suggested that if the estate tax is labeled the death tax by its opponents, the attempt to get rid of it should be called the "Paris Hilton Tax Relief Act."
The central myth of America the Beautiful Meritocracy is that we can all pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, go from rags to riches, garage to Googledom. It's long been noted that Americans aren't jealous of the rich because we all hope to become rich. We may oppose estate taxes on the very, very, very wealthy because we dream of leaving that sort of wealth to our own kids.
But Americans have long regarded heirs and heiresses with envy and scorn. Yes, the cream may rise to the top of the Fortune 500 list, but money easily curdles their kids into spoiled brats.
Chalk it up to the growing gap between the rich and the poor, or the class structure we're not supposed to talk about, but there have been an awful lot of cultural entries into the spoiled brat genre.
Ms. Hilton may be little more than every mogul's worst nightmare. Parents who do well often have kids who do good. But millionaires also worry that their kids feel indolently entitled. Imagine the conversation that middle-class parents have about allowances - "money doesn't grow on trees, you know" - in homes where money drops like leaves from the family arboretum.
Andrew Carnegie said, "I would as soon leave to my son a curse as the almighty dollar." He then added, "It is not the welfare of the children, but family pride, which inspires these enormous legacies." This brings us back to the Self-Made American and the Spoiled Brat, to death and Ms. Hilton and the estate tax.
The death tax? In 2009, only estates worth more than $3.5 million (or $7 million for a couple) would be taxed. That's three out of every 1,000 estates. After exemptions and deductions, the effective tax rate on average is estimated to be 17 percent. Why exactly should the money handed down to super-rich heirs be tax-free while the money earned by your children be taxable income?
The Paris Hilton Tax Relief Act? Billionaire Warren E. Buffett has said that the right inheritance for children is "enough money so that they feel they could do anything but not so much that they could do nothing." Ms. Hilton, already a trust-fund baby, is enterprising enough to make money off of being an heiress. But she's due to inherit a chunk of the hotel fortune worth well over $1 billion. If we retain an estate tax, she might have to scrimp by on less than her estimated share of about $50 million.
Ah, poor little rich icon. No wondering she's starring in The Simple Life.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.