COMMENTARY: The New York City marathon winner and the death tax

What does Shalane Flanagan’s victory in last Sunday’s New York Marathon have to do with Donald Trump’s proposal to repeal the estate tax?

Most of the news coverage of Flanagan’s victory celebrated her victory: She’s the first American woman to finish first in that race since 1977. A few stories noted in passing that she is the daughter of Cheryl Bridges Treworgy, who was once the world record holder in the women’s marathon. But I didn’t see or hear anyone saying that that diminished Flanagan’s accomplishment.

Contrast the treatment of inherited athletic ability and inherited wealth.

New York Times columnist Timothy Egan wrote earlier this year, “Trump will cut taxes on the rich, and for those born on third base, eliminate an estate tax that was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s solutions to inequality.”

The New Yorker magazine published an article in 2012 claiming, “There are some people who, having been born on third base, stand there believing they hit a triple. Donald Trump was born on third base and thinks he invented baseball.”

Second-generation wealth gets treated with derision — and with policies, such as the estate tax, that try to take some of it away. Second-generation athletic ability, on the other hand, gets celebrated. The same New Yorker magazine that routinely sneers at Trump greeted Flanagan’s marathon victory with a headline hailing it as heralding “the triumph of American women in running.” There was no sourness about her being “born at mile 25,” no suggestion that children of marathon runners be saddled with rock-filled backpacks to slow their speed and therefore reduce inequality.

In 2014, Flanagan’s mother sat for a two-hour phone interview with GaryCohenRunning.com. Cohen’s questioning plumbed some interesting issues. “With this genetic gift through two generations, I’m wondering how athletic were your own parents?” he asked. She replied in part that her dad “was a high jumper at the University of Indiana and was a basketball player. So, he was very athletic. … He is in their athletic hall of fame.”

There are parentally transmitted aspects that go beyond long legs or speed. Cheryl Bridges Treworgy said she and her daughter share a certain “drive,” and that while “parents never really know how much their children are listening to them,” she also counseled her daughter with advice about training and performance.

Before the 2012 Olympics, Shalane Flanagan’s mom told Runner’s World, “I’m getting there four or five days before the marathon so I can walk the course and figure out the best places to support her. I’m also hoping to get close to the finish line. I like to do more than just yell for her. I like to observe her form and face to see what I can see.”

Shalane Flanagan’s father himself reportedly ran once ran a marathon in 2 hours, 18 minutes.

Attempts to eradicate inequality via taxation will always be limited and imperfect because while politicians can tax away — or try to tax away — intergenerational wealth transfer, it’s really hard for the government to tax away inherited athletic ability. And, in a free society, it’s nearly impossible to prevent a parent from trying to teach her child how to be better at doing something that the parent and child both love.

If there’s a message here about the limits of leveling, though, there’s also a point about individual achievement. Inheritances, whether of money or genetic ability, can be burdens as well as gifts, and they can be easily squandered. Not every child of a marathon champion goes on to win the New York Marathon. Donald Trump has a sister who was a respected federal judge and a brother who died as an alcoholic.

What matters in the end isn’t so much what base a person is born on, but where he or she goes from there.

Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of “JFK, Conservative.”

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