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Death by a Thousand Cuts:
The Fight over Taxing Inherited Wealth
Michael J. Graetz & Ian Shapiro
With a new epilogue by the authors

Honorable Mention for the 2005 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Government and Political Science, Association of American Publishers

Paperback | 2006 | $30.95 / £21.95 | ISBN: 9780691127897
392 pp. | 6 x 9 | 5 tables.
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400839186 |
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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which has been on the books continuously since 1916 and is paid by only the wealthiest two percent of Americans, was repealed in 2001 with broad bipartisan support?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.

Review:

"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

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      File created: 9/19/2014

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