Paul L. Caron

Friday, February 20, 2015

Tax Profs Remember Marvin Chirelstein

ChirelsteinFollowing up my posts (here and here) on the February 16 death of Yale/Columbia tax legend Marvin Chirelstein: below the fold are remembrances of Marvin from these Tax Profs (and others):

  • Joe Bankman (Stanford)
  • Paul Caron (Pepperdine)
  • Bill Clinton (Former U.S. President)
  • Mark Cochran (St. Mary's)
  • Steve Cohen (Georgetown)
  • Cliff Fleming (BYU)
  • Will Foster (Arkansas-Fayetteville)
  • Michael Graetz (Columbia)
  • Calvin Johnson (Texas)
  • Richard Kaplan (Illinois)
  • Ed Kleinbard (USC)
  • Michael Knoll (Pennsylvania)
  • Al Lauber (Judge, U.S. Tax Court)
  • Michael Livingston (Rutgers-Camden)
  • Jim Maule (Villanova)
  • Philip Oliver (Arkansas-Little Rock)
  • Alex Raskolnikov (Columbia)
  • David Schizer (Columbia)
  • Dan Shaviro (NYU)
  • George Yin (Virginia)

Joe Bankman (Stanford):

1. One day he began pacing, staring at the window, pacing, and staring at the window. Finally, he stopped. "It's a bit warm here," he said. "Do you think you could open the window."

The window was opened. A few minutes later he stopped again, with a worried, pained look on his face. "It's now a bit cold, don't you think?" he said. The window was closed.

Another few minutes went by and his expression grew pained and sad. "I am so embarrassed to say this, but again, it seems to be getting warm."

"Why don't you take off your jacket, Professor Chirelstein?" one student asked.

"Oh, I couldn't do that," he replied. I'm not wearing anything underneath." He paused and pointed to his shirt. "This is just a dickey."

2. I was taken out to a recruiting dinner with Marvin and other members of the Columbia faculty. He ordered a drink and one young faculty member who had recently clerked on the Supreme Court said "That's Justice Kennedy's favorite drink."

Marvin looked at him blankly. "Who?"

"Justice Kennedy."

Marvin squinted at the guy.

"Justice Kennedy," the fellow said again.

"Canny?" Cannery?" asked Marvin.

"No, Justice Kennedy. Justice Anthony Kennedy," came back the reply.

"Oh", said Marvin. I stopped keeping track after Pitney."

Later another faculty member began expounding his "gate keeping" theory of bar associations.

Marvin looked his usual glum self, and, after a while, his face grew even more pained.

At one point the fellow made some grammatical error.

"D__, D__ ," Marvin exclaimed, explaining the guy's error. "It's bad enough that we've had to listen to you drone on and on with that meaningless theory of yours. But the English language! Have you no respect for the English language?"

I later learned that the next day Marvin went to the Dean and reported that his colleagues had behaved very badly the night before.

3. A fellow student continually spoke in class, making what were in fact smart comments in a hesitant, annoying tone. One day he raised his hand and said "I guess what is bothering me about the decision is..."

At that point Chirelstein interrupted him. "Talk like a man, C___," he said. "Say, I think. I A_, C___, think, I A__ C__, think."

At that point, to his great credit, C nodded and said "I A__ C__ think." The class roared with approval.

4.  The subject of shareholder voting came up in corporate finance one day. Chirelstein opined that shareholder voting was like regular voting - your vote would never decide anything. "I never vote," he said, "it's not worth the time."

"Oh, I know what you're thinking," he said a minute later, as he saw our shocked expressions. "What if everybody acted like me?"

"Then," he said, "I'd vote."

Paul Caron (Pepperdine):

Federal Income Taxation: A Law Student’s Guide to the Leading Cases and Concepts sparked my interest in tax law as a student and was an immeasurable help as I began my tax teaching career.

Bill Clinton (Former U.S. President):

I had the privilege of having Professor Chirelstein for both Tax Law and Corporate Finance at Yale—he was memorably patient with me in the former, and seemed pleased when I redeemed myself in the latter. He had a great sense of humor, forgiving me for reading One Hundred Years of Solitude in class and laughing at my answer when asked how I could be such a bad tax student and do so well in corporate finance: I said it was a lot like politics—someone’s trying to gain at someone else’s expense, and there have to be rules to avoid fraud and violence. It was the beginning of a long, if long distance, friendship. Professor Chirelstein, as I neared graduation, told me about a teaching vacancy at the University of Arkansas Law School in Fayetteville, and recommended me for a job that enriched and changed my life. I’ll always be grateful for his gifted teaching, endless curiosity, and generous spirit.

Mark Cochran (St. Mary's):

I have been a fan of Marvin Chirelstein’s remarkable paperback on Federal Income Taxation since my days as a law student, and I frequently recommend it to my own students.  I didn’t realize he had authored an equally remarkable paperback on the law of Contracts until I volunteered to teach that course after twenty years of teaching tax.  Perhaps because of our shared background in taxation, I found Professor Chirelstein’s Contracts paperback more logical, more insightful, and more useful than anything else I read in the course of my preparation.   That one author could write so effectively on two disparate subjects is a testament to his talent as well as his energy, and I am doubly indebted to him.

Steve Cohen (Georgetown):

Marvin must have been a magician. 

At the start of class, he might shuffle back and forth and sheepishly announce, “This material is boring.  I can barely get through it.”  Or, “I know this is obvious.  I can barely spit it out.” 

But he was never boring, and it was never obvious.    Each class, he provided an insight, an inspiration, a perspective that none of us, his students, could have ever anticipated or figured out without him.  The intellectual content was stunning.

Even more amazing was that Marvin’s classes made you feel happy.  The subject did not matter, whether Individual Income Tax, Corporate-Shareholder Tax, or Corporate Finance.  At the end of his classes, you felt happy, the way you are supposed to feel after an hour with your therapist but often don’t.

Why did his classes make us feel that way?  It was Marvin’s humor--no borscht-belt comedian was funnier—his personal warmth, self-effacing manner, and personal magic. 

Marvin was a magician.   

Cliff Fleming (BYU):

I had one face-to-face conversation with Marvin Chirelstein and we exchanged a few letters back when people still corresponded on paper. So I cannot claim to know him and I have no up-close-and-personal anecdotes to share. Instead, I have a few thoughts from an altitude of 30,000 feet. The first edition of Marvin's income tax primer was published when I was a fairly new tax prof and feeling very frustrated over finding a way to deal with the basic income tax course more broadly than on a purely doctrinal basis. Tax scholarship was rich with contributions by Bill Andrews, Boris Bittker, Walter Blum, Stanley Surrey, and others but I was struggling to get some of that richness into the basic tax course without either sacrificing other important elements or having to make a sure-to-be-doomed plea to the curriculum committee for more course credits. Marvin's book showed me a road map. For a number of years, I required my students to buy the book and reading assignments from it were included in my syllabus. Eventually, casebooks, including my own, incorporated so much of the type of material in Marvin's primer that I stopped requiring students to buy it even though his work had the best prose.  Nevertheless, I feel indebted to Marvin for getting me started on the road to teaching the basic course from both doctrinal and interdisciplinary standpoints. Of course, younger teachers haven't known anything else and so may not be aware of Marvin's pedagogical contribution. But from my 30,000 foot view he was a pioneer who laid down important elements of the foundation on which we do today's tax law teaching and scholarship.

Will Foster (Arkansas-Fayetteville):

Prof. Chirelstein’s presence commanded respect.  Indeed, he chose the Wolfman and Ring textbook for our class in part because it included two cases he argued (and in part because “it’s the shortest one I could find.”) But his sense of humor is what left an indelible impression.  Students sometimes preserved his monologues in their notes:

On the difficulty of corporate tax:

“I can’t help it, what can I do?   Did I make you sign up for this?  All the other courses in this law school are easier.  You chose to sign up with this.  You sit there staring at me with this insulting attitude… [Dismissing class for a break]  So when you come back with cheeks flushed with excitement, we’ll pick up with subsections (D) and (E) … Now get up and shuffle about.”

On the next day’s reading assignment:

“Thirteen pages, can you do it?  One thing that we lawyers can do that others can’t do, we can read endless documents… and do it with interest.  It’s as if we are talking about an acrobatic trick that requires years of training.  That’s our trick… to read a document of that length and not even be bored.  So when I ask you to read thirteen pages, it should make your mouth water.  Is your mouth watering?”

Michael Graetz (Columbia):

Marvin Chirlestein taught more students Federal Income Taxation through his wonderful book than any of us could ever hope to reach. And he inspired many Yale and Columbia Law graduates to choose tax law as a career. But more important than all of his many accomplishments was his great humanity, his unparalleled sense of humor, his love of music, the twinkle in his eye.

Calvin Johnson (Texas):

Federal Income Taxation: A Law Student’s Guide to the Leading Cases and Concepts defines what a student should get out of Federal Income Taxation.   Bittker complained that Chirelstein had revealed 30 years of Yale law secret teacher’s notes.  And for the benefit of the world.   A beautiful clean stylist.

Richard Kaplan (Illinois):

I was a student in Marvelous Marv’s classes on Corporate Finance and Corporate Taxation, and we exchanged Income Taxation exams when I first went into academe. After a few years, he stopped sending me his exams, claiming that mine were so much funnier, a high compliment from someone of such formidable comedic talent. 

Two reminiscences that do not repeat what others have already provided: (1) in Corporate Tax one day, he referenced an article he had written about the case we were discussing, an unusual instance of self-promotion from a person who was so relentlessly self-effacing, but he explained that it appeared in the Rutgers Law Review, which is where you publish something you’re tentative about and don’t want anyone to see; (2) one day, a student he had called on gave a very good answer, complete with cross-references, and Marv’s mildly befuddled response was along the lines of “when you hear it come back to you like that, it’s just really hard to follow.”

Ever a quip-master; always an inspiration.

Ed Kleinbard (USC):

I had the great pleasure of being a student of Marvin’s at Yale, and serving as the first student reader/editor of the draft manuscript that became his indispensable overview of the income tax.

Marvin was a tall man with a predilection for mumbling  asides to himself during class. One day in early November — election day, in fact — Marvin entered the classroom already engaged in an animated conversation with himself. After a minute or so he looked up, seemingly startled to see us all sitting there, and loudly announced, “I didn’t vote! What’s the point? It’s only one vote, why should I waste my time? It won’t change anything.” We were stunned for a minute, but then a particularly earnest student raised her hand and asked, “But Professor Chirelstein, what if everyone felt about voting the way you do?”

“Ah,” replied Marvin, leaning down to fix our gaze,  “then I’d vote!” 

I imagine in retrospect that Marvin counted on the law of large numbers to assure himself of at least one such earnest student on every election day.


In my third year at Yale I worked on Marvin’s income tax treatise as its student guinea pig and editor. As I recall, he paid me $5.00/hour. One of my proudest moments in my professional career was actually finding a minor technical mistake that was corrected before publication. When I was done, I proffered my suggested edits, and my bill for $165 or so. Marvin began to write out a check, but I begged him not to, and to accept my suggestions gratis. “You’re just throwing good money after bad,” I explained. “No one is going to buy this book. Enthusiastic students don’t need it, and students just trying to get by will find it overlong and complex, compared to the Nutshell series.” Chirelstein was taken aback. “But I was really counting on the royalties,” he replied. I shook my head and sadly explained again why he would need to to reset his consumption appetites downwards. 

Of course I was hugely and egregiously wrong, as the facts that the book is both in print and in its 12th edition, now with Larry Zelenak at the helm, amply demonstrate. When the first edition of the book finally came out and its future commercial success was already obvious, Marvin gave me a copy. I opened it and saw that he had inscribed the title page with a personal note: “To Ed Kleinbard, without whose active assistance this book would have been finished much sooner.”

Michael Knoll (Pennsylvania):

I always enjoyed talking with Marvin Chirelstein.  He was filled with interesting stories and insights about taxation, law practice, and so much else.   I’d like to share an anecdote about Marvin.

Like many of us, I strongly recommend his “little” book to students in my basic tax course.  I greatly admire the deep and sophisticated manner in which it explains the basic tax concepts and applies those concepts to the leading cases.   I try to teach in that spirit, and I hope my students develop an intuitive understanding of the foundations of the income tax. 

Because proper timing of income and expense is one of those basic concepts, I cover economic depreciation.  I use the example from ¶6.09.  Some years ago when I was teaching tax at USC, a student came to my office and said she had been working through the example and was having trouble.  We looked at the example, put it into a spreadsheet, and discovered Marvin’s numbers were wrong.  I wrote to Marvin, explained the error and offered a corrected answer.  A week or so later, I received a handwritten letter.  Marvin thanked me for writing, explained he had worked the example out by hand while on vacation, and acknowledged that he had made an error.  However, he went on to explain while he realized his error shortly after publication, over the years he had come “to love [his] wrong numbers the way you love an ugly dog because he is ugly.”  Marvin never changed those numbers.

I’ll miss Marvin’s wit and intellect, but his many contributions will not be forgotten.

Al Lauber (Judge, U.S. Tax Court):

Marvin Chirelstein was perhaps the most popular professor at Yale Law School when I was there.  Apart from being a tax genius, he had the stand-up comic skills of a borscht belt professional.  Most Yale students in my day took great pains to avoid tax.  But they signed up for Corporate Tax for the simple reason that Marvin Chirelstein was teaching it.

Michael Livingston (Rutgers-Camden):

A further exchange, at a student-faculty reception:

Livingston: Prof. Chirelstein, do you think we could do more to promote student-faculty contact?

Chirelstein--Of course--but if we did I'd go to another law school.

Despite, or perhaps because, of such bluntness he was an extraordinary teacher and colleague. They don't make them let any more do they?

Jim Maule (Villanova):

As I told my tax colleagues yesterday when we received the sad news:

His was THE hornbook when I was in law school. And ever since I first taught the basic federal income tax course, I but recommended it to students.

And I’ll add:

I can only imagine what it would have been like to be in his course. Surely his classes were as clear, organized, and helpful as was his hornbook.

Philip Oliver (Arkansas-Little Rock):

I was Prof Chirelstein's student in Corporate Tax at Yale Law School in the spring of 1976.  I was in my last semester, and quite laid-back.  Despite my third-year malaise, Prof Chirelstein managed to give me sufficient information that I got through his course and was later able to teach Corporate Tax, perhaps even competently.  I recall the dry sense of humor that others have noted.

I have not seen Prof Chirelstein in the intervening 38 years.  Nonetheless, his influence has continued, as his Law Students Guide has guided many of my tax students over the years.

Alex Raskolnikov (Columbia):

For his students, Marvin made tax both fun and funny. To his colleagues, he offered warmth, insight, and an endless list of experiences to learn from. I will miss Marvin very much.

David Schizer (Columbia):

Marvin was devoted not only to his students and colleagues, but also to the tax system and the country. Not long after I joined the faculty, Marvin involved me a bit in some tax advice he was giving the Justice Department. He was amused that they kept writing to him, asking for an invoice. "We don’t want to be paid, young Schizer" (the name he always used for me). "Why do they keep hounding me for a bill?" He could not resist poking fun at "the collection agents," even as he was doing his best to help them. It was quintessential Chirelstein.

Dan Shaviro (NYU):

Marvin was my tax (and Corporate Finance) professor at Yale Law School back in the day – I never took a course with Bittker, who was reputed to dislike having to deal with students’ vastly lesser state of intellectual attainment (both in tax and generally) than his own.

My intellectual inspiration in tax didn’t really come from Marvin – mainly through my own fault; at that stage I wasn’t very receptive to the Yale law professors’ intellectual interests.  Combination of burnout (I had gone straight through from nursery school to law school without a break) with disdain, at that callow stage in my personal development, for non-Ph.D. academic disciplines (I had planned until late junior year to go to history grad school).  But he had very few peers at the time in tax law scholarship.

Marvin was, however, by far my favorite professor at YLS.  I (along with all of my best friends among the students there) admired his humor, personality, and panache as a performer (if panache, rather than anti-panache, is the word for his brilliantly low-key comic style).  We all thought he was extremely cool - not an accolade that we extended, at the time, to many YLS faculty members, or, for that matter, to many people who were older than, say, John Lennon and Bob Dylan.

Word had it that he had been associated with the people in the Second City Theater Group in Chicago during the Nichols and May era, but didn’t formally join the troupe due to stage fright.  I honestly don’t know if that was true.  But he used to pace around nervously before class, sucking on a cigarette and narrowing his eyes, very much in his own head like a performer getting ready.  And, true or not, it was credible, because he was so hilarious in his distinctive style.  I thought of him, at the time, as a combination of Humphrey Bogart and Rodney Dangerfield.  I might now add, also with a touch of Stephen Wright.

Here is another story I heard about Marvin at the time, which I doubted was true but actually did later confirm.  Supposedly, when he was a student at the University of Chicago Law School, taking tax with my own subsequent mentor Walter Blum, two things became clear to Walter.  The first was that Marvin was intellectually gifted, and the other was that he was cutting a lot of classes, apparently because he detested the early morning meeting time.  Walter called Marvin into his office to discuss this, and Marvin made him the following offer: “How about you let me attend or not as I see fit, and if I get at least an A- on the exam you give me an A, but if I don’t, you fail me / lower my grade to a C” [I forget which].  I assumed that this story couldn’t actually be true, but when I asked Walter about it years later, he confirmed it.

Here are a few examples of Marvin’s comic style in class.  Disclaimer: You had to be there, it was a totally personal style that worked via his delivery and the character he played.

1) Marvin: “Feldman, this case says something about ‘old and cold.’  What’s the opposite of ‘old and cold’?

Student: “Uh, hot and fresh?”

Marvin.  “Hot and fresh … hot and fresh … I would have said young and warm.  Shame on you, Feldman.  You’re thinking about bagels.”

2) Student in the back: “Can you speak up?  We can’t hear you.”

Marvin: “Sometimes people don’t speak softly because they’re unaware.  Sometimes it’s because they’re so ashamed of what they’re saying.”

3) [To a student]: “Would you be able to defend this transaction?  … For a fee, of course.”

4) [Discussing a case that was decided in 1935.]  “Ah, 1935.  The best year of my life.  The Cubs won the pennant, and a boxer from my hometown became middleweight champion.”  He followed this with a toneless little laugh.  What made this funny, to Chirelstein aficionados such as myself, was the implicit suggestion that the point wasn’t that these things were so great, but rather that the rest of his life was so completely lacking in anything better.  But I should note that we didn’t think he was actually unhappy - rather, it was the character he played, like Jack Benny pretending to be cheap.  Indeed, if anything we figured he had to be confident and secure in his life, in order to be willing to pretend that he felt pathetic.

5) [Explaining why he wasn’t using Bittker’s casebook, in a year when Bittker was on leave and out of town.]  “He’ll never know.  He’s currently sailing down the Nile with a rose between his teeth.”

Whenever I saw Marvin in subsequent years, he would make a point of commenting on how awful my handwriting was on the exams I took in his classes.  He complained that it had permanently worsened his vision, and that surely I must have a physiological problem.  He also called me “young Shaviro,” well past the point when it was descriptively accurate.  And he would complain that I was publishing too much, pretending to demand that I stop so he wouldn’t look bad.

Early in my time at the University of Chicago Law School, I got a handwritten card from Marvin in which he suggested that I visit Columbia Law School.  He assured me that the head of the Appointments Committee, “Smiling Jack Coffee,” would be happy to extend a visiting offer.  Why not try New York, he wrote.  It has crime, dirt, and vermin – what more could you want? 

I’ll greatly miss Marvin Chirelstein, a brilliant and wonderful man whom I admired and wish I could see again.

George Yin (Virginia):

Following up on the recent posts involving Marvin Chirelstein, I share with your readers a letter about Marvin that I found some years ago in the National Archives. Colin Stam had been asked for a recommendation to fill a teaching opening at Montana, and Stam consulted with Laurie Williams, who was then at Treasury. A portion of Laurie’s response to Stam follows:

Chirelstein letter

I thought Laurie’s last two words, “unusual lucidity,” captured very nicely one of Marvin’s attributes that we have admired over all of these years. Not surprisingly, Marvin got the job offer. When I shared the letter with Marvin, he regaled me with some memories of that time in his life, including an exciting road trip he took with his new bride to Glacier National Park on their way to checking out the Montana opportunity.

Legal Education, Obituaries, Tax | Permalink


The most remarkable tribute is that Chrirelstein was apparently asked what he did and he said, "I see myself basically as an educator." There are a lot of funny professors (although few as funny as he was), but how many of us would say this? It's the use of humor as an integral part of his teaching that made him unique.

Posted by: mike livingston | Feb 20, 2015 4:46:20 AM