The Rising Power of the American Dead

RWJIIRobert Wood Johnson II died in 1968. He left the bulk of his $400,000,000 estate to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Since this foundation now helps fund Tobacco Control, the following article seemed relevant:


It’s a common-sense notion that society’s wealth shouldn’t be governed by ghosts. “Our Creator made the earth for the use of the living and not of the dead,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. (Also: “One generation of men cannot foreclose or burthen its use to another.”) But in our new age of inequality—the top 10 percent now own nearly 80 percent of all wealth—old concerns about wealth and inheritance are coming back from the dead.

Americans have, historically, had a simple approach to dealing with wealth after its holder dies: You can do whatever you want with your property, but not for very long. Rich people can disinherit children. They can put extreme conditions on how their successors can inherit, like requiring marriage. They can build monuments to themselves or give everything to their pets. But they can only do it so long. Eventually, time catches up with them and their estates dissolve.

Or at least that’s how it used to be. Remember that the dead can’t actually do any of this themselves because they are, in fact, dead. Instead, a trust is empowered to carry out the last wishes of the deceased. A trust is simply a legal entity that contains property; people tell a trust what they want to do, and the trust acts like a ghost, enforcing their wishes beyond the grave. But there’s a safeguard built in to prevent abuses: Trusts have been governed by something called the rule against perpetuities, which places a roughly 100-year limit on how long they can exist. This prevents people with no connection to the living world from putting restrictions on our country’s wealth.

In recent years, the safeguard of time has been eroded. As the tax expert Ray D. Madoff documents in her 2010 book Immortality and the Law: The Rising Power of the American Dead, we are experiencing a rapid rise of dynasty trusts, which massively expand the power of the dead over the wealth of the living.

To take advantage of a change made to the tax code in the 1980s, states started to radically diminish or outright remove the rule against perpetuities in the 1990s. This resulted in a race to the bottom, with states competing to see which could most effectively restructure their laws to benefit the rich. By 2003, states weakening these rules received an estimated $100 billion in additional trust business. Now, 28 states allow trusts to live indefinitely, or nearly so, creating what are called perpetual dynasty trusts.

I learned today that the International Space Station should be visible in Britain during August. So I got hold of its state vectors, and ran it on my orbital simulation model. The video below is the 3D view of my location in Herefordshire from the ISS as it passes overhead at about 00:35 GMT (1:35 BST) on 4 Aug 2015. I’m hoping to be able to actually see it tonight out my window as it comes in from the west (if the cloud clears).

P.S. The sky was clear at the appointed time, and I could see lots of stars. But I didn’t see any space station. Perhaps it was too faint, or in the Earth’s shadow.

About Frank Davis

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15 Responses to The Rising Power of the American Dead

  1. harleyrider1978 says:

    Destroy the ghost money and we end the next round of prohibition when it comes in another 80 or so years. Likely stopping corporate takeovers of governements too!

  2. jltrader says:
    The Danish royal has come under fire repeatedly for her longtime habit, but she has never bent to pressure and when questioned on whether she would ever quit, has replied: ‘I have no problem’.
    The criticism has almost always come from outside of Denmark.

    • nisakiman says:

      The Danes seem to have a very relaxed attitude to smoking. A client of mine, a Danish businessman, has a villa here. Neither he nor his wife smoke, but their sons, who are in their late teens / early twenties, both do. When they are here on holiday, both his sons smoke freely (albeit not inside the house) in front of their parents without so much as a frown.

      • nisakiman says:

        Heh! I just read the article you linked to, jl. I loved the final paragraphs!

        In 2001 a study by Professor Hugo Kesteloot appeared to blame Queen Margrethe’s popularity for the rate of female deaths due to smoking in Denmark.

        But the royal family were immovable. Her husband Prince Henrik, an ex-smoker himself, said at the time: ‘We must not be impressed or influenced by political correctness. Let people die from smoking if they want. It’s their business.’

  3. harleyrider1978 says:
    • Roobeedoo2 says:

      Do you play games on Facebook Harls? I’m not on it but husband is. He has an absurdly large number of friends because of the game he plays. He’s very good at it apparently, like that means anything 😉

  4. harleyrider1978 says:

    Sea Level Has Been Rising For 20,000 Years – Obama Thinks He Can Stop It

    Posted on August 3, 2015 by tonyheller

    • beobrigitte says:

      Thanks for the amusement!
      Saving lives? Saving the planet? REALLY????

      Let’s face it our planet dictates what is going to happen next – anyone come up with an idea about stopping one of the super volcanoes going off? If one of them does we’re all up sh*t creek!!! As we were when they did previously. Not even the wind farms will help us – unless, of course, we could eat them….

      We reap what we sow…

  5. RdM says:

    Re the International Space Station:
    Live ISS stream (can make full-screen) with position map

    Full screen tracking map


  6. Pingback: Creeping Prohibition | Frank Davis

  7. Pingback: Missive From ‘Merica: The Experiment (Part 2) – Library of Libraries

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