Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Inheritance of Jean Laffite

Many of the people interested in "pirates" today enjoy little outings to search for hidden treasures -- real or imaginary -- that they believe the privateers of yesteryear may have buried -- coins or gold and silver trinkets under the ground in a big chest  in some remote spot, placed there just so that centuries later some eager tourist would be able to find them using a metal detector and a shovel.

According to Jean Laffite, though, when a privateer had processed a prize, it would be converted into specie, and the money was used first to pay off all outstanding debts, to reward every crew member for his service under the contract that they had signed, and lastly what remained was re-invested or saved in a bank account.

Jean Laffite describes how the next day after his elder  brother returned with his first prize  was spent with bank authorities
From this article

Jean Laffite was not necessarily all that rich even during the heyday of his privateering ventures in Barataria and in Galveston. It is estimated that the gross income at Galveston for the entire operation was about $400,000.00 per year. But whatever the exact amount may have been, when he retired, he had saved away a goodly sum, which in time was given over to his children.

When he retired in 1823,  Jean divided his estate in two parts. The first he shared equally among the three children born to his first marriage, who were now adults. The other half he used to found a business in Missouri, from which he made a living until close to the time of his death. What was left of that half was later inherited by his second wife and their surviving son. What do you think would have happened if there had been an estate tax in the US at the time?

Today on Facebook someone was complaining that republicans in the house had voted to repeal the estate tax. When I said that this would allow more people to hold onto the family farm or business, she replied: "This tax only applies to billionaires."

Is there a tax that only applies to billionaires? I wondered. After all, there are only about 526 people in that category in the United States. As far as I recalled, the estate tax applies to many more people than that. The 2015 exemption for estate taxes is only $5,430,000.

I asked my friend if she was in favor of repealing the Regular Estate Tax and there was just some other Estate Tax for Billionaires that she did not want repealed. It turned out that my friend was confused, and she did not distinguish between a millionaire and a billionaire.

In today's world, people of very modest means might be termed millionaires, people who in the grand scheme of things are much less rich and powerful than Jean Laffite. Over two hundred years of inflation will do that.

Dairy Farm Ad from

In 2015, 5.9 million dollars is what it costs to buy a 150 acre working dairy farm with the capacity for 600 cows. I don't think it even comes with the cows, but it does come with a four bedroom house and 2 1/2 baths -- hardly a palace. It comes with no employees.You have to do all the work yourself.  I am not sure how many people need to work there for how many hours to make it pay, or what the gross annual income from such a venture would be. But my friend believes that inheriting such an operation would be a windfall, just like winning the lottery, and that it should  be taxed in the same manner as winning the lottery. And then she accused me of believing in social Darwinism and not caring about the poor.

What would Jean Laffite say? For that matter, what would Karl Marx say? Didn't he believe that the workers should own the means of production? How can a dairy farmer own the means of production, if it gets confiscated every time he leaves it to his son in a will?

Here is an excerpt from Theodosia and the Pirates The War Against Spain that deals with this issue.

Do you object to wage slavery like Jean Laffite? Then you can't be for an inheritance tax that divests people of the ownership of the means of production.


  1. In California being a millionaire would not even take you that far since a lot of houses probably go for that amount. Also, I know a lot of people who went to medical school or law school, and end up about a quarter million in debt. So at one time a million dollars was a lot of money, but not really today. As time goes by I feel people like you are right about repealing some of these taxes, especially since how are the taxes being spent anyway? A lot of times the money does not go to what it was intended for. It would probably make life easier if we all had less taxes.

    1. That's a good point, Julia, about what has happened to real estate prices in California. What with general inflation and regional differences in the cost of living, being a millionaire today would not be anything like it used to be, even fifty years ago. In fact, inflation does not only steal the value of the money we have, it gets us taxed at a higher rate than was intended by some of these laws as everyone, even the very poor, end up having what looks like large amounts of money but is really not all that valuable. I am glad you agree about repealing some of these taxes.