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Jewish World Review April 20, 2001 / 27 Nissan, 5761

Joseph Perkins

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The death tax and the minority community -- BOB JOHNSON grew up in a small Midwestern town. He was the first member of his family to go to college, earning a diploma from the University of Illinois and a master's degree from Princeton University.

Upon completing his studies, Johnson borrowed $15,000 to start a business. In 1980, he founded Black Entertainment Television, a cable network targeting the African-American viewing community.

BET began with two hours of programming a week, on Friday and Saturday nights. It boasted a potential audience of 3 million cable homes. By 2000, BET had grown into a 24-hour cable network reaching 60 million cable homes on four channels.

In November of last year, Johnson sold his 20-year-old company -- the one he started with $15,000 -- to media conglomerate Viacom for $3 billion.

In so doing, Johnson became the nation's first black billionaire.

Johnson remains chief executive of BET, which owns seven hotels, and heads a new regional airline operating out of Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. He is already thinking about what will happen to the great fortune he has amassed when he goes on to his reward.

That's why he is piqued that Bill Gates Sr., father of the Microsoft chairman; Warren Buffett; George Soros; and another 100 or so multimillionaires have mounted a petition drive opposing the repeal of the estate tax. Gates argues that the repeal "would enrich the heirs of America's millionaires and billionaires while hurting families who struggle to make ends meet."

Last week, Johnson and four dozen other black business leaders -- almost all of whom count themselves as Democrats -- endorsed President Bush's proposal to phase out the estate tax over the next 10 years.

The group placed full-page advertisements in The Washington Post and The New York Times that said, "The estate tax will cause many of the more than 1 million black-owned family businesses to fail or be sold. The fact that the tax can be paid with interest over a number of years is of little comfort or no help to already cash-strapped minority firms."

The death tax, which has a top rate of 55 percent, is "particularly unfair to the first generation of high net worth African-Americans who have accumulated wealth only recently," the black business leaders added. "These individuals may have family members and relatives who have not been as fortunate in accumulating assets and who could directly benefit from their share of an estate as an heir."

Johnson says that Buffet, Soros and the particularly vocal Gates Sr. are operating under "a little bit of liberal noblesse oblige."

However, wealthy black businessmen, most of whom have had to overcome struggles that Buffet, Soros and Gates cannot remotely imagine (however empathetic they may pretend to be), "just have a totally different perspective," says Johnson.

"The estate tax is unfair double taxation," the black business leaders declare, "since taxpayers are taxed twice -- once when you earn the money and again when you die. The income taxes you pay, in some cases up to 40 percent, already redistribute wealth and provide for government services."

If Buffet, Soros, Gates and their other second-, third- and fourth-generation centi-millionaire peers think the government should confiscate 55 percent of their assets upon their deaths, that's fine with black business leaders.

"If they feel that way," says Johnson, "write the IRS and ask to be placed in a different category." They can just volunteer their assets to Uncle Sam, adds Johnson. But they don't have to volunteer his fortune or anyone else's.

The black entrepreneur finds most hypocritical the suggestion by Gates, who runs the world's wealthiest philanthropic foundation, that the nation's charities will suffer if the estate tax is repealed.

The implication of that argument, said Johnson, is that Gates and his seemingly magnanimous multimillionaires need the "sword of Damocles (the estate tax)" hanging over them "to be do-gooders."

To Johnson's mind, neither Gates, Soros, Buffett nor any of the other rich folk who are fighting repeal of the estate tax should "need the threat of government" to make charitable contributions.

Advocates of the estate tax have tried to portray President Bush's proposal to repeal the onerous levy as a giveaway to the rich. They have argued that the revenue the federal government would forfeit by repealing the tax would deprive the nation's most needful -- a disproportionate number of whom are black- and brown-skinned -- of various and assorted government benefits.

But Bob Johnson and his fellow black businessmen offer a compelling argument to the contrary. The death tax falls heaviest on minority businessmen, who only recently have accumulated their wealth and who aim to pass along a legacy to their heirs.

Repeal of the estate tax will "allow wealth to grow" in the black community, the black business leaders declare. It will encourage "investment in minority businesses." And it will "allow African-American families to participate fully in the American Dream."

So by campaigning to retain the confiscatory death tax, Buffet, Soros, Gates, et al. are actually undermining the economic interests of America's minority communities.

JWR contributor Joseph Perkins is a San Diego Union-Tribune columnist and television commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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