"I figured it out," I tell my wife. "By golly, I figured it out."
"Whee," she says, not even looking up from her crossword puzzle.
"Don't you want to know what it was I figured out?" I finally say.
"Oh my goodness gracious, yes!" she says, using an ironic
exclamation point. "Whatever in the whole wide world did you figure out?"
"That one picture," I say. "The old guy who looks like the
preacher we had when I was a kid. And his wife standing next to him. She
looks like the preacher's wife we had when I was a kid."
"You figured out a picture of a preacher and his wife?" she says.
"No," I say. "They just look like a preacher and his wife. He's
a farmer and he's wearing funny glasses and holding a pitchfork. She
looks like she's thinking maybe she married the wrong guy. They're
standing in front of a house with a churchy kind of upstairs window. You
know the picture I mean."
"Could it be," she says, "that you're talking about 'American
Gothic,' one of the best-known of all American paintings? The one you
looked at for 30 minutes when we were at the Art Institute in Chicago?"
"Wherever," I say. "I couldn't get over how worried and
constipated they looked and how much they looked like the preacher and his
wife we had when I was a kid. Great artist, that Sergeant John Singer.
Who says you can't learn anything in the army?"
"Grant Wood," she says. "Grant Wood did 'American Gothic.'"
"Whoever," I say. "Anyway, I just figured out why they look that
"OK," she sighs, putting down her puzzle. "Why do they look that
"Death tax," I say.
"Pardon?" she says.
"Death tax," I say. "They're getting old. They're worried about
having to sell the farm so they can pay the death tax after they die."
She rolls her eyes.
"I suppose," she says, "you're talking about the estate tax."
"If I'm talking about the estate tax," I say, "why does the
President call it the death tax? Answer me that."
"Because he wants to repeal it," she says. "He figures if he
calls it the death tax, boobs like you will want to repeal it too."
"Well, it should be repealed," I say. "It's terrible to tax
people for dying. They've got enough trouble."
"Listen carefully," she says. "Dead people don't pay death taxes.
Only live people who inherit things worth lots of money pay death taxes.
But they aren't taxes on death. They're taxes on big estates that get
inherited. And only two percent of Americans inherit estates big enough
to get taxed."
"Redistribution of wealth!" I holler. "Dirty rotten commie plot!"
The Truth, Mainly
"Abe Lincoln signed an estate tax," she says.
"Hah?" I say.
"Teddy Roosevelt," she says, "made a speech in 1910 saying he
believed in 'a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes.'"
"Class warfare," I say. "The pampered poor against the deserving
"Is that why," she says, "five or six Rockefellers, Bill Gates'
daddy, and more than 200 other very rich people signed an ad in favor of
the estate tax?"
"Hah?" I say.
"Is it class warfare," she says, "when Warren Buffet says
repealing the estate tax would be a 'terrible mistake'like 'choosing the
2020 Olympic team by picking the eldest sons of the gold-medal winners of
the 2000 Olympics'?"
"But," I say, "how about all those farms like the folks in the
painting will have to sell to pay their death tax? How about that? Huh?
She pulls an April 8 NY Times clipping from her knitting basket.
"Says here," she says, "that 'a farm couple can pass $4.1 million
untaxed, so long as the heirs continue farming for 10 years.' Says here
that Neil Harl, an Iowa State economist, looked all over the place 'but
never found a farm lost because of estate taxes.' He says it's a myth."
"He's an economist," I say. "What does he know about money?"
"OK," she says, handing me the clipping and pointing to an
underlined passage. "Read this part aloud."
I read it aloud.
"Even one of the leading advocates for repeal of estate taxes, the
American Farm Bureau Federation, said it could not cite a single example
of a farm lost because of estate taxes."
"Well?" she says.
I think hard for a minute or two.
"OK, Miss Smarty Pants-Art Critic-Tax Specialist," I say. "Why
do you think the people in 'American Gothic' look so worried and
"They are constipated," she says. "They need indoor plumbing."
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail