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Few people know more about the federal estate tax than Michael Graetz. His 2006 book, Death by a Thousand Cuts, offers the most in-depth look to date at the political fight over the estate tax. Graetz also happens to be a much lauded tax law professor at both Columbia and Yale.

Last year, on the 100th birthday of the modern estate tax, Graetz spoke to an anniversary conference at Boston College Law School. His remarks, now available online, fill in the estate tax history since his book first appeared a decade ago.

“Make no mistake,” Graetz argues, “the death tax repeal effort is a critical piece of an attack on the very idea of progressive taxation in America.”

The push to fully repeal the federal estate tax, our only national levy on the intergenerational transfer of immense wealth, began back in the early 1990s when a group of political neophytes with deep pockets — backed by some of America’s largest wealth dynasties — first descended on Capitol Hill.

Washington insiders, notes Graetz, initially considered these neophytes “a joke.” But these rich neophytes would go on to run, perhaps the best political messaging campaign ever. The estate tax would soon become ingrained in the public mind as a threatening “death tax.”

The repealers wouldn’t fully achieve their goal in the 2001 Bush tax cuts. But they did manage to dilute the impact of the estate tax dramatically. And they’re still pressing for more. In the 2016 election cycle, all of the 17 Republicans who ran for president supported complete estate tax repeal.

This insightful read introduces all the characters behind the estate tax repeal effort — and tells a fascinating and troubling history important for everyone interested in the drivers of inequality today.

This write-up is from the Must Reads segment of our weekly newsletter. For the full speech from Michael Graetz, click here. To read and subscribe to the weekly newsletter, click here.

Josh Hoxie is director of the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-editor of 

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