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Rhetoric and Economics in the Estate Tax Debate

By William G. Gale and Joel Slemrod


In this paper, we evaluate and critique ten principal claims made in recent debates on the estate tax, distinguishing five types of statements: facts, rhetoric, value judgments, economic reasoning, and informed speculation. Economics can not fully resolve the debate because economic knowledge is inconclusive and because value judgments help determine optimal choices. Nevertheless, economic analysis can contribute substantially to informing these debates and we show that many of the claims on both sides are incorrect or incomplete, given what is known. Economists often bemoan the apparent lack of sophistication in policy debates, where loose rhetoric too often drives out objective economic thinking. But economic theory and evidence cannot fully resolve most policy debates, for at least two reasons. First, the current state of economic knowledge is inconclusive regarding a wide variety of economic responses that are relevant for policy; as a result, economic evidence often cannot even reliably quantify the various trade-offs that policy makers and the public face. Second, even when those trade-offs can be quantified reliably, the appropriate policy choice depends on people’s value judgments, a subject about which economic

Year: 2011
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