Small Business Saturday and The Fiscal Cliff: Shopping Holiday Really About Estate Taxes

Small Business Saturday started in 2010 as a campaign to induce shoppers to patronize individual mom-and-pop businesses. Bookended by Black Friday and Cyber Monday, this shopping holiday is billed as the alterative to big-box retail.  Most of the goods and services provided by small companies are highly specialized or uniquely exceptional to survive in the age of global economies of scale. The charm of an independent bookstore even brought the first family out to buy Christmas presents and support the cause.

The “shop small” campaign however, was actually conceived and publicized by American Express, arguably one of the largest companies in the nation, and is currently co-sponsored by FedEx. With nostalgic advertising perfectly calibrated to current populist political sentiments, it’s hard to argue against supporting local, artisanal, and American made. Where the interests of large conglomerates and small businesses meet is less clear. That is, unless you’re an attorney.

For those who scrutinize the law, large corporations promoting small business makes perfect sense because of the uncertainty surrounding estate taxes. Daily Finance explained, “Under a 2001 liberalization of the law, Congress raised the exemption from $675,000 to $3.5 million in 2009, and reduced the tax rate from 55% to 45%. But a loophole effectively repeals the tax for 2010, and then next year will revert the tax to pre-2001 levels of $1 million exemptions, and a top tax rate of 55%.” For many small businesses, this level of taxation when trying to pass on assets would be too great to bear.

Obviously, large corporations also want to be taxed at the lowest possible rate. The 2010 campaign put the welfare of sympathetic, vulnerable small businesses at the forefront of the national and Congressional conscience. Trib Live says that, “Under the fiscal cliff, the 2011 law aimed at balancing the federal budget, more than $500 billion in tax increases and spending cuts would occur in 2013, starting in January. That includes the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on Dec. 31, which would bring higher federal income taxes and capital gains taxes, higher estate taxes and a resumption of the federal payroll tax that funds Social Security.” Emphasis is my own.

Before the automatic cuts occur, Congress must figure out how to balance the welfare of small businesses with the need to balance the budget and raise federal revenues. Big businesses like American Express have a much easier time making their case for lower estate taxes if they can hold up the example of chic and adorable main street vendors.