Before I started dating my wife, Elvia, my future mother-in-law actively tried to dissuade me from dating her daughter. Standing in line to buy a burger, she turned to me and said, “mi hija es muy cara” (my daughter is very expensive). She was attacking what she knew was a sensitive area in my life. I had grown up in a lower-middle class household. My parents were divorced and neither of them had much money. My father was a carpenter turned teacher and my mother a bus driver turned environmentalist. Through a series of scholarships, I managed to escape to Yale and Harvard Law, where among other things I learned to love brie and even, in what should be a relief to David Brooks, prosciutto. But the idea that Elvia is expensive was cause for concern.
I should admit my mother-in-law was right (I can acknowledge as much in part because my mother-in-law lives in El Salvador and is unlikely to read this op-ed). I probably should not be surprised, after all Republican Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa recently explained, “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it's on booze or women or movies.” Since I am unlikely to reach the $5 million bar for applicability of the estate tax in my lifetime, it must be because I am putting my pennies into the wrong things. I don’t drink and neither does Elvia so it can’t be the booze. We also have two children, one who is eight and the other who just turned two, so we basically haven’t gone to the movies in almost a decade. That only leaves women as the possible explanation.
Putting aside my qualms about a conservative male politician once again deflecting attention from social problems by blaming women, however much it cost us to buy my wife’s used 2009 Toyota Camry really, we could have gotten by with the 2006 Corolla that I found), I have a hard time blaming her for our inability to accumulate wealth. But perhaps I am being too generous to my wife. Maybe Grassley is right, maybe the amount spent on women creates the divide between obscenely rich who are subject to the estate tax and the merely comfortably rich (to say nothing of the poor, working poor, and middle-class). Certainly we can all think of people—women and men—who spent a lot of money on booze, women, and movies. They often are easy to identify because of their popularity, at least in high school and college.
But at the risk of taking Senator Grassley too seriously—and there is a real risk given Grassley’s rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change—perhaps my life, as a life in progress, is insufficiently defined to use as a basis for rejecting Grassley’s theory of wealth. Perhaps some sort of toxic elixir of booze, women, and movies really is the dividing line between the top 0.1 percent and everyone else.
To address the fact that our life stories are still being written, it is perhaps worth considering members of the greatest generation. My grandparents for instance. Their estate, while tremendously helpful in the lives of their children and grandchildren, fell well short of the estate tax line. So, again, it must have been Senator Grassley’s powerful elixir. They were married just before my grandfather shipped off to serve in the Pacific during World War II. My grandmother worked as a bookkeeper for Willys Jeep while my grandfather was away but when the war ended she made sure her husband started working immediately. Family lore has it that he returned from the war on a Sunday night and on their first night together was told by my grandmother that he had an interview the very next morning. What is certain is that he got that job, as a pharmacist, and spent his entire life working the same job. Big pharma companies occasionally changed the chain name and logo on the store, but he never had to create a resume in his life. They didn’t drink and I doubt they saw a movie or rented a video in their entire lives.
Grassley’s third possibility—women—also rings hollow. Unlike Elvia, grandma was cheap. She didn’t think you should use more than three squares of toilet paper to go to the bathroom and allowed her husband to go to Arby’s only on special occasions and only when he had a coupon. Yet when they died, the last thing their kids had to think about was the estate tax. One could quibble that they could have done more to make money. After all, my grandfather only worked six days a week, not seven, and my grandmother took a few years off from working when her kids were young. But these critiques strain credibility, leaving us with really only two possibilities: either (a) my grandparents led a bad life and Senator Grassley is correct that they were not fabulously wealthy because of personal failings or (b) the worldview of Senator Grassley, and of many other powerful Republicans, is hopelessly removed from the struggles and lives of ordinary Americans.