What a New York Marathon Victory Says About the Estate Tax

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/11/19/what-a-new-york-marathon-victory-says-about-the-estate-tax/

What does Shalane Flanagan’s victory in the recent New York Marathon have to do with President Donald Trump’s proposal to repeal the estate tax?

Most of the news coverage of Flanagan’s victory celebrated her victory:  she’s the first American woman to finish first in that race since 1977. A few stories noted in passing that she is the daughter of Cheryl Bridges Treworgy, who was once the world record holder in the women’s marathon. But I didn’t see or hear anyone saying that that diminished Flanagan’s accomplishment.

Contrast the treatment of inherited athletic ability and inherited wealth.

New York Times columnist Timothy Egan wrote earlier this year, “Trump will cut taxes on the rich, and for those born on third base, eliminate an estate tax that was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s solutions to inequality.”

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote last year, “Mr. Trump is a clear case of someone born on third base who imagines that he hit a triple:  He inherited a fortune, and it’s far from clear that he has expanded that fortune any more than he would have if he had simply parked the money in an index fund.”

The New Yorker magazine published an article in 2012 claiming, “There are some people who, having been born on third base, stand there believing they hit a triple. Donald Trump was born on third base and thinks he invented baseball.”

Second-generation wealth gets treated with derision, and with policies, like the estate tax, that try to take some of it away. Second-generation athletic ability, on the other hand, gets celebrated. The same New Yorker magazine that routinely sneers at Trump greeted Flanagan’s marathon victory with a headline hailing it as heralding “the triumph of American women in running.” There was no sourness about her being “born at mile 25,” no suggestion that children of marathon runners be saddled with rock-filled backpacks to slow their running speed and therefore reduce inequality.

In 2014, Flanagan’s mother, Cheryl Bridges Treworgy, sat for a two-hour telephone interview with GaryCohenRunning.com. Cohen’s questioning plumbed some interesting issues. “With this genetic gift through two generations, I’m wondering how athletic were your own parents?” he asked. She replied in part that her dad “was a high jumper at the University of Indiana and was a basketball player. So, he was very athletic. He was six feet, six inches tall. He is in their athletic hall of fame.”

There are parentally transmitted aspects that go beyond long legs or speed. Cheryl Bridges Treworgy said she and her daughter share a certain “drive,” and that while “parents never really know how much their children are listening to them,” she also counseled her daughter with advice about training and performance.

Before the 2012 Olympics, Shalane Flanagan’s mom told Runner’s World, “I’m getting there four or five days before the marathon so I can walk the course and figure out the best places to support her. I’m also hoping to get close to the finish line. I like to do more than just yell for her. I like to observe her form and face to see what I can see.”

Shalane Flanagan’s father, Steve Flanagan, himself reportedly ran once ran a marathon in two hours, 18 minutes. 

Attempts to eradicate inequality via taxation will always be limited and imperfect because while politicians can tax away, or try to tax away, intergenerational wealth transfer, it’s really hard for the government to tax away inherited athletic ability. And, in a free society, it’s nearly impossible to prevent a parent from trying to teach her child how to be better at doing something that the parent and child both love.

If there’s a message here about the limits of leveling, though, there’s also a point about individual achievement. Inheritances, whether of money or genetic ability, can be burdens as well as gifts, and they can be easily squandered. Not every child of a marathon champion goes on to win the New York marathon. Some of them may decide to do something else. Donald Trump has a sister who was a respected federal appellate judge and a brother who died young as an alcoholic. 

What matters in the end, after all, isn’t so much what base a person is born on, but where he or she goes from there.


Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of JFK, Conservative.