The Truth, Mainly - 04/16/2001

The Death Tax: inspiration for "American Gothic"?
by Leon Satterfield

"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.

Time passes.

"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 way."

"OK," she sighs, putting down her puzzle. "Why do they look that way?"

"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"Well, it should be repealed," I say.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!"

"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 rich."

"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? 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 constipated?"

"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 address is:

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