My Father's Estate
The IRS can't touch the most valuable things he left us.
By Ben Stein
Posted Monday, Oct. 25, 1999, at 4:30 p.m. PT
A letter from an ill-mannered former high-school classmate of=20
long ago, one of several like it, which I pass on in paraphrase: "I=20
saw that your father had died," she wrote. "He was always so clever=20
about money. Did he leave you a big estate? Did he figure out a way=20
around the estate tax?" It's a rude question, but it has an answer.
My sister and I have been going through my father's estate=20
lately with his lawyer, and we're pawing through old, dusty files to=20
find bank account numbers and rules for annuities, so maybe it's a=20
good time to think about what my father, Herbert Stein, left to us.
He did indeed leave some money. By the standards we read about=20
in the Wall Street Journal or Sports Illustrated, it was not worthy=20
of much ink. In any event, because of the class-warfare-based death=20
tax, the amount that will be left is vastly less than what he had=20
saved. As an economist, my father was famous for defending taxes as a=20
necessary evil. But even he was staggered, not long before his death,=20
when he considered the taxes on his savings that would go to the=20
Internal Revenue Service.
The nest egg is going to be taxed at a federal rate of about 55=20
percent, after an initial exemption and then a transition amount=20
taxed at around 40 percent (and all that after paying estate=20
expenses). When I think about it, I want to cry. My father and mother=20
lived frugally all their lives. They never had a luxury car. They=20
never flew first-class unless it was on the expense account. They=20
never in their whole lives went on an expensive vacation. When he=20
last went into the hospital, my father was still wearing an old pair=20
of gray wool slacks with a sewed-up hole in them from where my dog=20
ripped them--15 years ago.
They never had live-in help. My father washed the dishes after=20
my mother made the meatloaf. My father took the bus whenever he=20
could. His only large expenditure in his and my mom's whole lives was=20
to pay for schools for his children and grandchildren. He never=20
bought bottled, imported water; he said whatever came out of the tap=20
was good enough for him. They still used bargain-basement furniture=20
from before the war for their bedroom furniture and their couch. I=20
never once knew them to order the most expensive thing in a=20
restaurant, and they always took the leftovers home.
They made not one penny of it from stock options or golden=20
parachutes. They made it all by depriving themselves in the name of=20
thrift and prudence and preparing for the needs of posterity. To=20
think that this abstemiousness and this display of virtue will=20
primarily benefit the IRS is really just so galling I can hardly=20
stand it. The only possible reason for it is to satisfy some urge of=20
jealousy by people who were less self-disciplined.
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There are a few material, tangible items that an assessor=20
will have to come in to appraise. There are my father's books, from=20
his days at Williams College and the University of Chicago, many of=20
them still neatly underlined and annotated in his handwriting, which=20
did not change from 1931 until days before his death. Most of them=20
are about economics, but some are poetry.
That's another item my father left: his own poetry and his=20
massive prose writings. Very little of it is about anything at all=20
abstruse. There are no formulas and no graphs or charts, except from=20
his very last years. There are many essays about how much he missed=20
my mom when she died, about how much he loved the sights of=20
Washington, about how dismaying it was that there was still so much=20
confusion about basic issues in economics. And there are his satires=20
of haiku about public policy, his takeoffs on Wordsworth and=20
Shakespeare, often composed for a friend's birthday, then sometimes=20
later published. I suppose there will not be much tax on these=20
because my father was hardly a writer for the large audience.
Some of them will go to the Nixon Library, and some will be on=20
bookshelves in the (very small and modest) house my wife and I own in=20
Malibu, a place he found beguiling because he had always wanted to=20
live by the ocean and write. And there are his furniture and his=20
clothes, none of which has any value at all except to me because they=20
remind me of him and because, when I stand near them in his closet, I=20
can still smell his smell of hair and skin and leather shoes, the=20
closet smelling a lot like he smelled when he came home from work in=20
1954 carrying a newspaper that said there could be no more racial=20
segregation in schools. And there are his mementos of Richard Nixon,=20
his White House cufflinks, photos of Camp David, certificates and=20
honorary degrees, and clippings of great events of state. And there=20
are his love letters to and from my mother when they were courting in=20
1935 and 1936, still tied with light blue ribbon in what was my=20
mother's lingerie drawer, talking about their love triumphing over=20
the dangers of the Depression. I suppose we'll have to place a value=20
on these and have them taxed, too.
But these are the trivia of what he left me and my sister. The really=20
valuable estate cannot be touched by the death tax. The man's legacy=20
to his family has almost nothing to do with anything that can be=20
appraised in dollars and cents.
The example of loyalty and principle: When he had just taken=20
over as the chairman of President Nixon's Council of Economic=20
Advisers, he hired a young staff economist named Ron Hoffman (brother=20
of Dustin Hoffman). Almost immediately, John Dean, then White House=20
counsel, came to see my father to tell him that he had to fire=20
Hoffman. Apparently, Ron Hoffman had signed a public anti-war letter.=20
The FBI, or whoever, said that showed he was not loyal and not=20
qualified. My father said that this was a free country, that Ron=20
Hoffman was hired as an economist not as a political flack for RN,=20
and that he would not be fired because he disagreed with some aspect=20
of Nixon policy. After much worrying, Hoffman was allowed to=20
stay--and performed well.
My father was loyal, and the IRS cannot impound that legacy.=20
When RN ran into every kind of problem after June of 1972, most of=20
which were unearned and a chunk of which was earned, my father never=20
thought of disavowing him or even distancing himself from Nixon. Even=20
though he had an appointment to the University of Virginia in his=20
pocket, Pop several times extended his stay at the White House to=20
help out with the struggles over inflation and recession, and never=20
once publicly said a word against Nixon.
Long after, when Nixon was blasted as an anti-Semite, my=20
father told in print and in person of the Nixon he knew: kind;=20
concerned about all on his staff, regardless of ethnicity;=20
pro-Israel; pro-Jewish in every important cause. My father would=20
never turn his back on a man who had been as conscientious to the=20
cause of peace and as kind to the Stein family as RN had been.
"Loyalty." There is no item for it in the inventory of estate=20
assets to be taxed.
My father lived his life, especially in the latter years of it, in a=20
haze of appreciation. Whatever small faults he could and did find=20
with America, he endlessly reminded anyone who listened that the best=20
achievement of mankind was America, whose current failings were=20
trivial by historic standards, which was in a constant process of=20
amelioration, and which offered its citizens the best chance in=20
history for a good life.
When he did consider the failures of American life in the past,=20
especially institutionalized racism, he did so to note the=20
astonishing progress that had been made in his lifetime. He had no=20
use for those who held up a mirror of fault-finding from the left or=20
the right when he could see in his own era what vast improvements in=20
freedom had been made for blacks, Jews, women, Asians, Hispanics, and=20
every other minority.
He appreciated art, especially ballet and opera. He sat for=20
hours in front of the television watching videos of Romeo and Juliet=20
or Les Sylphides or Tosca. He lived to go to the Kennedy Center to=20
see great ballet or opera, and he talked of it endlessly. But he also=20
appreciated art in the form of obscure fountains in front of federal=20
buildings, of the statues of Bol=EDvar and George Washington and San=20
Martin. He appreciated the intricate moldings on the ceiling of the=20
second floor of the Cosmos Club. He was in awe of the beauty of the=20
mighty Potomac in fall and of the rolling green hunt country around=20
Middleburg and The Plains, Va., in summer.
This quality of gratitude for America and for the beauty of=20
life cannot be taxed, at least not so far.
He appreciated his friends and did not differentiate between them on=20
the basis of fame or position. He took the words of his longtime pal=20
Murray Foss at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank where=20
he hung his hat for many years, into account; and the words of Mrs.=20
Wiggins, who ran the cafeteria at the AEI; and the thoughts of Alan=20
Greenspan or the head of Goldman, Sachs; and valued them entirely on=20
their merits to him, not on the basis of how much press or money the=20
speaker had. He never once in my lifetime's recall said that any man=20
or woman deserved special respect for riches--in fact, like Adam=20
Smith, he believed that the pleadings of the rich merited special=20
suspicion. He did not believe that my sister or I should devote our=20
lives to the pursuit of money, and by his life set an example to us=20
of pursuing only what was interesting and challenging, not what paid=20
the most. I never knew him to chase a deal or a job (he never in his=20
whole life applied for a job!) for any other reason except that it=20
was of interest to him. He derived more pleasure from speaking to his=20
pals at the book club of the Cosmos Club about John Keats than he did=20
from giving speeches to trade associations that paid him handsomely.
My father's stance against seeking money for its own sake--so=20
wildly unsuited to today's age, but so reassuring to his=20
children--cannot be taken by the Treasury.
Pop had a way of putting what I thought of as catastrophes=20
into their rightful context. If I was hysterical about losing some=20
scriptwriting job, my father would brush it aside as a basic risk,=20
part of the life I had chosen. If my stocks went down, even=20
dramatically, my father would explain that if I had a roof over my=20
head and enough to eat, I was far, far ahead of the game. Most=20
reassuring, my father would tell me that my family and I could always=20
come to Washington, D.C., and live quietly, keeping him company, for=20
which not a lot of money was required. (My father lived on a fraction=20
of the income from his savings, even allowing for paying for his=20
Once, about 25 years ago, when my boss treated me unfairly, my=20
father said that if it happened again, I should quit and he would=20
take care of me until I found a job. I never needed to do it, but the=20
offer hung in my mind as a last refuge forever.
This reassurance--that somehow things will be all right, that=20
there is a lot of ruin in a man, as well as in a nation, to=20
paraphrase his idol, Adam Smith--has become part of me, and I can=20
still summon it up when I am terrified because of a huge quarterly=20
tax payment due or a bad day on the market. Again, the IRS taxes it=20
My father himself, as far as I know, inherited no money at all from=20
his father. He did inherit a belief that hard work would solve most=20
problems, that spending beyond one's means was a recipe for disaster,=20
that flashy showoff behavior with borrowed money was understandable=20
but foolish. He did inherit enough common sense to tell his son that=20
buying property he would never live in was probably a bad mistake.=20
(He rarely spoke in moral absolutes. He believed instead that humans=20
could and would make individual choices but that there were surely=20
consequences to those choices that could be considered.) He passed=20
these beliefs on to me, although they have become somewhat attenuated=20
by my 20-plus years in the fleshpots of Hollywood. Still, I am one of=20
the only men I know here who has never been drastically short of=20
money (so far), and that I attribute to hearing his rules of prudence.
Most of all, my father believed in loving and appreciating=20
those persons close to him. He stayed close to all his pals from the=20
Nixon days (and would not hear personal criticism of Pat Buchanan,=20
who had been a friend and colleague, although he was bewildered by=20
Pat's stands on many issues). He basked in the pleasure of the=20
company of his colleagues and friends at the American Enterprise=20
Institute, which he thought of as one of his three homes--the Cosmos=20
Club and his extremely modest but well-situated apartment at the=20
Watergate were the others.
He could form attachments readily. Even in his last days in=20
the hospital, he took a liking to a Ukrainian-born doctor and used to=20
refer to him as "Suvorov," after the Russian general written of=20
glowingly in War and Peace--which still sits on the table next to his=20
reading chair, with his notes on little pieces of paper in it.
He grieved like a banshee when my mother died in 1997 and never=20
really got over the loss of a soul mate of 61 years, who literally=20
dreamed the same dreams he did. Once, he wrote my mother a poem=20
(which he called "Route 29") about the beauty of Route 29 north of=20
Charlottesville, Va., and the pleasure of riding along it with my=20
mom. He filed it away for further work and never touched it again.=20
The day after my mother's death, he found it--with her reply poem=20
telling of how she hoped to never see those hills and those clouds=20
and those cattle with anyone else but Pop. She had written her poem=20
(which she titled "Only You") and put it back in the file without=20
ever telling him. He survived that terrible loss with the help of a=20
beautiful widow, whom he also came to appreciate and live for. He=20
probably spent more time trying to help her with an annuity problem=20
than he ever did on any financial feature of his own life. A simple=20
call from her inviting him to dinner in her kitchen on Kalorama=20
Circle was enough to make his life complete.
Even in his hospital bed, hearing my son's voice on the phone=20
could make him smile through the fear and the pain. ("He sounds so=20
sweet when he calls me 'Grandpa,' " my father said, beaming even with=20
tubes in him.)
Never once did my sister or I ever ask him for help that he=20
hesitated, let alone declined, to give. Usually this was some=20
research we were too lazy to do, but which he did without any=20
resistance at all. When I was a child and had a chore like leaf=20
raking that I didn't want to do, his simple answer was to say, "Let's=20
do it together. It'll take half as long." I use that with my son=20
almost every day, along with the devotion, and my father's example=20
about his friends from long ago to make my life work. He stayed close=20
with friends from Williams College Class of '35, especially Richard=20
Helms of the CIA. He had lunch with one of his pals from Williams,=20
Johnny Davis, class of '33, who got him a job as a dishwasher at=20
Sigma Chi, days before he went into the hospital.
This quality of devotion and the rewards I get from it are=20
worth far more than any stocks or bonds in my father's estate--and=20
cannot be taken away at the marginal rate of 55 percent. Plus, I can=20
pass it on to my son without any generation-skipping surcharge.
And he left something else of perhaps even greater value: a good=20
name. Many people quarreled with my father's ideas about taxes or=20
about when to balance the budget. He faced frequent opposition to his=20
belief in a large defense budget. Of course, most of the people he=20
knew disagreed with him about RN. But no one ever questioned that he=20
came by his views honestly, by means of research and analysis and=20
sometimes sentiment, but not for any venal reason or by the process=20
of money changing hands. His reputation for honesty was simply=20
without a speck of question upon it.
This good name cannot be taxed at all, at least not right now.=20
My sister and I and our children will have it for as long as we keep=20
it clean. It's priceless, incalculable in value.
So, in answer to the query from the forward high-school=20
classmate, "Yes, my father did leave an immense estate, and yes, he=20
did manage to beat the estate tax." The only problem is that I miss=20
him every single minute, and I already had the best parts of the=20
estate without his being gone, so the death part is pure loss.
Related in Slate
Herbert Stein was a longtime contributor to Slate, creating his=20
trademark "It Seems to Me =8A" column, filing "Dispatches" from=20
Israel, and serving as the original voice of "Dear Prudence." Upon=20
his death, Jodie T. Allen remembered Stein as a man who "was as ready=20
for new adventures as he was for new ideas." Her piece contains links=20
to some of his best articles.
Related on the Web
The American Enterprise Institute, where Herbert Stein was a senior=20
fellow, provides free access to its research and analysis on a wide=20
range of public policy issues. It also posts a Stein backgrounder=20
with links to summaries of each of his books. Click here to buy his=20
last book, What I Think: Essays on Economics, Politics, and Life.=20
Curious about how much you'll owe in estate taxes? Visit=20
estateplanning.com, which features an instant estate tax calculator=20
and advice on reducing your obligation. If you want to see someone=20
Win Ben Stein's Money (at least that portion of it that the IRS=20
hasn't taken), watch the game show on cable's Comedy Central.
Ben Stein is a writer, law teacher, and actor in Los Angeles. He is=20
the Emmy-winning host of the Comedy Central game show Win Ben Stein's=20
Money and is currently in shock about losing his father.