Time for a Political Estate Tax?
18 March 2001
The sad news from Boston this month is that longtime Democratic congressman Joe Moakley has incurable cancer and will not run for re-election in 2002. While he represents some of the most reactionary constituents this side of Alberta, his politics have always been both democratic and Democratic. The only amusing repercussion of this sad news is that every pundit in Boston thinks that Max Kennedy will run for Moakley's seat and that he is the front- runner for the job. I think that Max Kennedy is a poster child for a figurative estate tax on the political elites in this country.
The citizens of most countries are able to separate the political aristocracy from the actual aristocracy. To cite just one example, the British do not expect Prince Charles to run for MP; instead, the country alternates between chagrin at his extramarital affairs, and bemusement at his orthogonal commitment to both organic farming and foxhunting. There are countries, of course, where the sons and daughters of former leaders wind up taking office later. We generally call them monarchies, although some nascent democracies (for example, India and Sri Lanka) share this trait. Most democracies enjoy fresh insertions of new talent each generation, although the infusion is seldom as pure in practice as it is in theory.
In a recent comment on the estate tax, Warren Buffett likened estate tax repeal to "choosing the 2020 Olympic team by picking the eldest sons of the gold-medal winners in the 2000 Olympics." Buffett's claim is weaker than it could be, because athleticism is to some extent genetic. However, most of the parents of today's great athletes did not make their marks as great athletes. For example, only one time in baseball history have a grandfather, father, and son all played even one game each in the major leagues.
In spite of the lack of any link between genetics and political ability, candidates like Max Kennedy and George W. Bush get huge head starts because of their names. Max Kennedy is thinking of moving into Joe Moakley's district to run for Congress, although he has never held any other political office. The only official item on Max Kennedy's political resume is that he ran his uncle Ted Kennedy's successful Senate campaign. The competition? Jack Robinson, a Republican candidate so embarrassing that:
I could go on, but somehow Robinson got more votes than the Libertarian candidate, Carla Howell. Because of this daunting competition, Max kept staffers and volunteers out in force on election day, until 6:00 p.m., when he sent many to New Hampshire to round up Democratic Presidential votes. Gore lost New Hampshire by about 7,000 votes. Had he won there, he would have picked up a total of 271 electoral votes. Everyone (except perhaps the editors here) would be saying "Governor Bush" a lot more than now. What is Kennedy's reward for this highly effective job? A congressional seat!
Max and George W. Bush have a fair amount in common. George W. Bush decided in 1974, with no political experience to speak of, to run for a congressional seat. Perhaps it says a lot about Texas that he almost won, but I suspect that it said a lot about his last name that anyone took his candidacy seriously. Both Kennedy and Bush attended Phillips Academy ("Andover" to most of the boarding students, but not to those of us who actually lived in town). George graduated in 1964, well before my time. Max, who would have graduated in 1983, one year ahead of me, attended in the 1980-81 and 1981-82 school years. (We didn't know each other, but I did work in the mail room, and I do know that he withdrew before his senior year.) By all accounts, neither Max nor George was any threat to win any of the academic prizes there.
Of course, good politicians do not have to be great students, or even come from great schools. But it should take more than a great last name to be, in the words of Tobe Berkowitz of Boston University, "a prohibitive front-runner" for Congress. One should not have to have unbounded idealism to expect that something, whether fresh ideas or relevant experience or community activism, would be a prerequisite for front-runner status. Is there no better candidate for Joe Moakley's district than an first-time candidate who lives outside of it?
(I take some comfort from the fact that Max Kennedy doesn't share his whole name with any former politician. While Massachusetts has had its share of Kennedys in office, none were named Maxwell. As recently as early 2000, a small but nonzero percentage of citizens who answered pollsters  still thought that the George W. Bush running for President was actually his father. I wonder how many Florida voters were confused that way, perhaps 537 or so?)
For most of its existence, the federal government has placed some sort of levy, sometimes superficial and sometimes deep, on the financial estates of its citizens. While it is impossible to tax the political estates of its elites, it is possible for the citizens and the media to apply a figurative estate tax in the form of added scrutiny on those who would crawl into office by virtue solely of their good names. True democracy demands that the political arena be a free market of ideas. The financing of campaigns today tilts that arena enough as it is. I do not want to begrudge the son of daughter of a politician from trying the same craft. After all, who would better understand how things get done in Washington? Or is that part of the problem?
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