Cure for Tax-and-Spend?  Try the Ellen Stern Test

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The most illuminating recent article about the tax reform debate didn’t appear on the front page of any newspaper. It wasn’t in the business section, or on the editorial page.

It was an interview that appeared on an inside page of the New York Times arts section with Ellen Stern.

Stern isn’t an academic economist or a politician or a tax policy expert at some Washington think tank. She’s a widow. Her husband, Jerome, died in March. Beginning on November 14 and continuing through March 2018 in nine separate events, Sotheby’s is scheduled to auction off the collection of art Jerome and Ellen Stern assembled over 30 years.

The Times reporter on the story, Robin Pogrebin, covers arts, not the Senate Finance Committee or the House Ways and Means Committee or the Treasury department. She sensitively captured the emotions involved:  “Losing her husband, Jerome, in March was devastating for Ellen Stern. And preparing to part with much of their extensive art collection this fall is its own kind of grief.”

Ellen Stern described having to sell the art as “like you’re stripped naked.”

So why would Stern part with the paintings and sculptures that she told the Times she loved almost like children? The Times posed the question directly:  “Why are you selling it?”

Stern answered equally directly: “Because of taxes.”

Of all the many cruelties of our current tax system, one of most cruel is that it takes grieving widows and forces them to part with possessions accumulated over a lifetime.

You may say that in a country of poverty-stricken hurricane victims and high-school dropout opioid addicts, Ellen Stern having to sell her Picassos in order to pay the tax bill on her 10-bedroom, 10-bathroom Westhampton estate doesn’t exactly rank high on the list of outrages. It isn’t a problem that affects a lot of people. Up to $5 million a person in 2010 inflation-adjusted dollars is exempt from federal estate taxes, though some states, including New York, levy their own estate taxes. The people it does affect are asset-rich.

But the more you think about it, the more you realize that essentially all taxes — not just the estate tax — are just some kind of variation of the IRS forcing Ellen Stern to sell her art.

For ordinary, middle-income taxpayers, just like for Ellen Stern, the IRS won’t wait patiently for you to get around to paying. The government’s take comes out of every paycheck, or gets paid quarterly in advance in estimated payments. If you don’t pay on time, the penalties and interest start accruing rapidly.

And for ordinary, middle income taxpayers, just like for Ellen Stern, the conflict between things that you might have for your family and the money that you owe the IRS is just as stark and concrete. Ellen Stern has to sell sculptures so that she can pay her tax bill. Another family may have to skip going away on vacation. Another family may not be able to afford a house in a better public school district. Another family may not be able to afford braces for their child’s teeth. Another family may not be able to afford having another child. Someone who loves art may not be able to afford buying that first painting or sculpture. Someone who loves animals may have to choose not to adopt a pet because the food or veterinarian bills are too much.

In some cases, the sacrifices to pay taxes may seem worthwhile. Pick your favorite government program — Social Security, Medicare, the police, the military, park rangers, medical research, public defenders. 

All too often, though, it seems the politicians tax our money and spend it as if they are forgetting that every dollar comes from forcing a grieving widow to sell her art — or from the middle-class equivalent of the same difficult choices.

The secretary of health and human services spends hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to travel on private or military aircraft. Medicare spends $1.5 billion on replacing malfunctioning or defective medical devices. Disability welfare programs are so broken that even NPR and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof think they are problematic.

How much wasteful or counterproductive spending in Washington could be cut if before each time some politician approved a spending measure, he or she had to consider whether funding it was really worth making some widow sell a beloved artwork, or forcing similar painful tradeoffs on millions of middle-class American families? Call it the Ellen Stern test.


Ira Stoll is editor of and author of JFK, Conservative.