Republican lawmakers have said a lot of foolish things in the course of advancing their tax cut bills, but Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) set a new standard in silliness in his recent remarks about the repeal of the estate tax.
“I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” he told the Des Moines Register. “As opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”
This folksy bit of nonsense contains plenty of fallacies, among them the contentions that the poor are more profligate than the rich, that the rich all use their money to the benefit of the whole economy and the implication that the rich somehow earned what they have by thrift. And as a critic, I think there’s something particularly dopey and insidious about the idea that people without vast fortunes ought to forswear the movies of all things.*
Before we get there, let’s be very clear: The poor aren’t the only people who spend a lot of money on their pleasures. Whoever just spent $38.05 million on a New York City penthouse that didn’t even have the walls installed yet wasn’t exactly socking away that money for the future, much less using it to create jobs or give raises to anyone they might employ. People who spend $90 million a pop for “airliners configured as private jets,” a category of sales that saw increases in 2017, cannot make a plausible case that they’re pinching their pennies. (Spare me your lectures about how valuable your time is.) This fall, Town & Country put the price of having it all at $100 million, with “all” meaning everything from “a driver who can multitask” to “a trophy collection” of art.
Given figures such as these, the most sensible way to teach financial responsibility might be an all-out class war. Redistribute wealth from people who buy Warhols to stroke their egos to people who treat a trip to the movie theater or an evening at the local bar like a carefully-guarded indulgence, and the people at the upper end of the spectrum might learn a thing or two about restraint.
But if we’re really going to scrutinize the leisure spending of the people who have not yet amassed estates, there’s something odd about targeting the movies. In 2016, the average price of a movie ticket was $8.65; for a family of four, that means a trip to the movies cost $34.60, which stacks up favorably with a day at a theme park at a cost of $233.40 or tickets to an NFL game, which would cost that family $371.92 on average. Even if that family watches their movies via a streaming service such as Netflix, which runs $10.99 a month, a year’s-worth of movie watching still stacks up economically next to these other indulgences.
And for that comparatively modest price, American moviegoers get more than a few hours of entertainment: they get access to a broader cultural conversation. Huge numbers of everyday references emerge from the movies: if you don’t know what it means to “go to the mattresses” or what the Force is and what it means for it to be with someone, you’re going to be befuddled by phrases and metaphors that have an established part in the American lexicon. The effect isn’t only American; whether or not you think they’re banal, big franchises such as the Marvel movies provide a common story framework for millions of viewers not just here in the United States, but around the world, where movies are one of our most enthusiastically-embraced exports. Big controversies over the movies, like the discussions over the monochromatic nature of the Academy Awards, are proxy battles over who gets to be at the center of our national life, and whether America is actually a meritocracy.
Asking people to give up the movies (or other pop culture) isn’t merely a matter of preaching a frugality so strict as to be emotionally impossible. It’s asking people who aren’t rich to cut themselves out of the loop that helps to define who we are — or at least to define the debates over who we are. The Republican tax bill already looks like an attempt to further the financial gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of us. Grassley’s bad financial advice is just another way to widen that gulf.
*I’ll leave dining writers to defend alcohol and dating columnists to make the case for investing in courtship.