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Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight over Taxing Inherited Wealth [Kindle Edition]

Michael J. Graetz , Ian Shapiro
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Book Description

This fast-paced book by Yale professors Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro unravels the following mystery: How is it that the estate tax, which has been on the books continuously since 1916 and is paid by only the wealthiest two percent of Americans, was repealed in 2001 with broad bipartisan support? The mystery is all the more striking because the repeal was not done in the dead of night, like a congressional pay raise. It came at the end of a multiyear populist campaign launched by a few individuals, and was heralded by its supporters as a signal achievement for Americans who are committed to the work ethic and the American Dream.

Graetz and Shapiro conducted wide-ranging interviews with the relevant players: members of congress, senators, staffers from the key committees and the Bush White House, civil servants, think tank and interest group representatives, and many others. The result is a unique portrait of American politics as viewed through the lens of the death tax repeal saga. Graetz and Shapiro brilliantly illuminate the repeal campaign's many fascinating and unexpected turns--particularly the odd end result whereby the repeal is slated to self-destruct a decade after its passage. They show that the stakes in this fight are exceedingly high; the very survival of the long standing American consensus on progressive taxation is being threatened.

Graetz and Shapiro's rich narrative reads more like a political drama than a conventional work of scholarship. Yet every page is suffused by their intimate knowledge of the history of the tax code, the transformation of American conservatism over the past three decades, and the wider political implications of battles over tax policy.

Editorial Reviews


[A] lively legislative chronicle.


This is one of the most interesting books about politics, and power, and the way the world is going, that you are ever likely to read. What makes it so fascinating is that it is a mystery story. The mystery is this: how did the repeal of a tax that applies only to the richest 2 percent of American families become a cause so popular and so powerful that it steamrollered all the opposition placed in its way. . . . This is not simply a story about the United States. . . . [T]he moral of the tale is far wider than that. . . . Instead this is a tale about the power of narrative in politics, and the increasing ease with which individual stories can be made the be-all and end-all of political debate. (David Runciman London Review of Books )

[Michael] Graetz . . . And [Ian] Shapiro . . . Set out to unravel what on the surface appears a mystery . . . Fueled a grassroots campaign that ended up throwing Democrats on the defensive. . . . Graetz and Shapiro make a convincing case that propaganda was not the chief reason the campaign to repeal the estate tax gathered steam. A far more important factor was that throughout the 1990s, the only people in Washington making impassioned moral arguments about it were antitax conservatives. (Eyal Press The Nation )

Public-policy reporting at its finest. But Death by a Thousand Cuts is much more. It is also an important manual on moral arguments in contemporary politics. (David Cay Johnston The American Prospect )

[A] lively legislative chronicle. (Amith Shlaes Financial Times )

An elegant exegesis of the broad-based political forces that were brought together to fight against a tax that affects only the richest 1% to 2%. . . . There is a moral argument in favor of estate taxes that deserves to be heard above the clatter of the repeal juggernaut. This book is one of the first peeps in its defense. (Elizabeth Bailey The New York Sun )

Death by a Thousand Cuts is a timely and important book. . . [I]t provides an enlightening and insightful account of the American political and tax systems. (Theodore Pollack New York Law Journal )

Graetz and Shapiro are at their best when depicting the subterranean interplay between activists, think tanks, lobbyists, and donors that fuels federal politics. (Daniel Franklin Washington Monthly )

How could a tax paid by only the richest 2 percent of Americans become a cause célèbre for a broad swath of middle-class farmers, businessmen and average Joes? [Graetz and Shapiro] provide a fascinating and readable explanation. (Jonathan Weisman Washington Post )

The book is engaging, enlightening, and thought-provoking. . . . Graetz and Shapiro have written a remarkable book that deserves a wide audience. Their account of 'the fight over taxing inherited wealth' is notable not only for its sophisticated and penetrating analysis, but also for its scrupulous fairness. (Karen C. Burke and Grayson M.P. McCouch Tax Notes )

Instead of rehashing the tired arguments about whether or not the estate tax should exist, these scholars undertook an incredible series of high-level interviews with the leading actors involved in this critical debate. The result is an easily accessible but highly insightful examination of the tax climate in early 21st century America. . . . Death by a Thousand Cuts clearly sounds a wake-up call to anyone who has not already seen how much the political center has shifted regarding the fundamental issues of what government should do and who should pay for it. (Richard L. Kaplan National Tax Journal )

However you feel about the death tax, the book will make you glad that the power that controls our deaths is not the same one that controls our taxes. (Accounting Today )

Product Details

  • File Size: 776 KB
  • Print Length: 392 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; With a New epilogue by the authors edition (January 11, 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #282,300 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Right off, let me say that this is one of the best books written about how politicians in Washington D.C. respond to certain constituents when promoting or opposing changes in the tax law. Before your eyes glaze over and you think that this book is for tax experts, I assure that it is not. The authors are wonderful writers and focus on the people behind the drive to repeal the inheritance tax. Thus, it is more about personalities, personal stories, and ideology and how these are used to enact changes in the tax code, than about taxes on inherited wealth per se. Graetz and Shapiro attempt to solve several "mysteries" in this book. First, how did a tax on inherited wealth, which existed for over 60 years and was seen as appropriate, come to be viewed by many Americans as unjust and immoral? Second, how did the diverse coalition attempting to abolish the inheritance tax maintain their cohesiveness when compromise counteroffers should have weakened it? Third, why were groups who favored maintaining the inheritance tax so ineffectual when responding to the abolitionists? Finally, what does the fight over the estate tax tell us about the future of progressive taxation, the idea that those with greater resources should pay higher tax rates? The story Graetz and Shapiro tell should give great comfort to those who want government at all levels to be as small and powerless as possible, and cause great concern to progressives, like myself, who wish to see government programs in service to the majority of working people, rather than in service to the wealthy and powerful. No matter which side of the ideological debate you are on, this book is a wonderful read and I highly recommend it.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Required Reading for all Registered Voters April 14, 2005
A friend gave me a copy of this book; and, therefore, I felt duty-bound to give it a try despite the fact that I never read books pertaining to politics. After struggling through the first few pages, I becaame facinated. It is not a book about estate taxes. Rather, it is a book about how our government works (or does not work). Every registered voter should be required to read it.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing but useful August 14, 2006
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book was written by two distinguished experts on tax policy and reviews the development of the campaign to end estate taxes at the federal level. In many cases it is quite informative. But compared to Jeffrey Birnbaum's book on the development of tax policy in Congress (Showdown at Guccci Gulch) is it quite light in a couple of areas.

The book begins with three questions - fundamentally, how did the coalition that formed get together, how did the repeal coalition successfully resist amendments, and finally how did an item like this (seemingly without a high level of support and which cost a lot of revenue and only affects a small number of people) not cause more generalized opposition to the Bush tax bill?

The book is excellent in some of its history (especially the chapter about the use of science in public policy) but is weaker in telling the story of how the current provision was adopted in a consistent manner. The description of the initial phases of the development of the coalition is pretty detailed. The coalition brought together some seemingly disparate interests.

Where the book falls down is in two areas. First, there are some amazing omissions in this book. Bill Gates' father was indeed a leader of the opposition - but at no place in the book does the narrative explain that Gates' father was an attorney who helped to structure estates and thus had a direct interest in the continuation of the tax. At the same time the authors keep coming back to themes - for example, a minor figure in the fight (farm owner Chester Thigpen) is highlighted more heavily than a key Senator like Max Baucus.
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20 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Exciting Story of Killing the Death Tax (for 1 Year) September 2, 2005
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This reviewer is a trusts and estates lawyer as well as a former NY State Senate legislative tax counsel, so the story behind the 2001 repeal of the federal Death Tax effective in 2010 was professionally interesting. However, the authors of Death by a Thousand Cuts did such a fine job of investigative journalism that this book should fascinate anyone interested in politics or even the people and culture of the US. The authors are a Yale Law School tax professor and a Yale College political scientist. They thoroughly understood their material. They explain clearly and choose vignettes and examples for their drama and human interest.

They begin with the question how a 55% top bracket death tax paid by less than 2% of US estates could garner enough opposition to be voted out decisively by both houses of congress. The surprises and drama mostly come from who started and led the battle for repeal and what motivated them. They take us into the heart and mind of a liberal Seattle newspaper publisher who was disgusted to see media chains gobbling up family-owned newspapers all over the country, more often than not because a family death forced sale to pay the confiscatory death tax. They show us a farm equipment dealer whose dealership has little cash but a huge inventory. When its owner dies it will too. They tell us that America's first Black billionaire took out newspaper ads to fight the death tax and that the Congressional Black Caucus supported repeal. It takes no imagination to see a tax imposed on grieving families as sadistic in general, but these particular stories are packed with drama and human interest.

The authors clearly favor the death tax and that makes their extensive coverage of pro-repeal arguments praiseworthy. Their bias comes forth more subtly.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book
Required by one of my public policy class. Very good analysis of how politics work and easy to read. Recommended
Published 18 months ago by Jing
5.0 out of 5 stars Explains what happened & why
As its subtitle indicates, the book is about the nitty-gritty details of how the near-repeal of the estate tax got enacted into law. Read more
Published on September 9, 2007 by John Harllee
4.0 out of 5 stars Some useful information
Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro successfully explain the history of the estate tax, the lobbying battles over it, and the shift from consensus to its repeal in their book Death by a... Read more
Published on April 24, 2007 by K. Price
2.0 out of 5 stars Too partisan to prove useful
As a tax attorney, I was excited to purchase this book and get a non-partisan, in-depth look at what was going on with respect to the estate tax. Read more
Published on May 26, 2006 by taxdude
5.0 out of 5 stars Post Mortem on the Death of the Estate Tax
The authors, Professors at Yale University, wrote this book to explain how the century-old estate tax was repealed in a seemingly democratic society. Read more
Published on August 13, 2005 by Acute Observer
2.0 out of 5 stars Normative Screed; misdiscriptive; unbalanced
If you want to know how politics work in DC (politicians focus on their constituents, duh) then this is a good book. Read more
Published on May 30, 2005 by A_2007_reader
5.0 out of 5 stars Graetz and Shapiro's book is a must-read.
Graetz and Shapiro's book DEATH BY A THOUSAND CUTS is a must-read for anyone interested in national tax policy. Read more
Published on May 5, 2005 by Charles Whitebread
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent of the Conservative Playbook
This is an immensely readable, highly educational book. It details how conservatives went after one of the most progressive taxes in our system and successfully got it eliminated. Read more
Published on March 31, 2005 by B. Edwards
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