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On the Basis

The last movie I saw in 2018 – on New Year’s Eve, in fact – was the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex. It leans just a little too heavily on the hagiography for my taste, but it’s well worth seeing, with lots of rich details throughout the film. The myriad of contrasts between Harvard Law School (the stultifying world where Ginsburg has to prove herself as a student) and Rutgers Law School (the far more freewheeling place she winds up teaching, and where students actually appear to be learning things). Kathy Bates as a cantankerous mentor. And a shockingly riveting speech by Armie Hammer (playing Martin Ginsburg) about tax laws. It’s a discussion he’s having at a cocktail party, about how Swedish tax laws wound up inadvertently suppressing the marriage rate, and in explaining how this chain of events happened he points out that “how a government taxes its citizens is a declaration of that country’s values.”

(Seriously, it’s riveting! Armie Hammer can somehow make Swedish tax laws into riveting cinema! Are you listening, Hollywood? Throw the guy a freakin’ bone already!)

I kept thinking of this throughout last Thursday, when I make my yearly trek to the VITA offices in the Actors’ equity building to get my taxes done. Once again, I woke long before dawn, shivered in the cold outside the building alongside my tired and surly comrades, then waited the entire day for a walk-in appointment. And all through that long wait, I couldn’t help but think on everybody who has discovered that under the newest tax laws, the refunds they’d been counting on had been wiped away. (Who knew so many Americans filed their taxes early? I thought we all waited until the last few hours of April 14th. But I digress.)

Well, Gentle Reader, you don’t need to worry about my wallet at present. I wound up with a refund this year. In fact, to my surprise, I did better this year than I did last year.

I don’t think this is a cause for celebration, however.

I spent the bulk of last year holed up writing, stockpiling a bunch of new scripts. (Trying to figure out what the heck to actually do with them is high on this year’s agenda.) I therefore didn’t have any performance income, or anything from any outside sources – just a single W9 from my day job. Since the standard deduction has been expanded, my refund was just the slightest bit larger. But if I’d produced my own work this past year? Or founded a theater? My friends who did so this past year were the ones who took the biggest financial hit. For that matter, what if I bought a house or started a family or done any of the other things we think of as necessary activities for society to function?

I would have been creamed.

“How a government taxes its citizens is a declaration of a country’s values.” Our problem is that we declare our values a lot, but keep contradicting ourselves in the process. We believe deep in our bones that we value individual enterprise, but this most recent iteration of the tax code clearly penalizes it. The people who benefit from the code are those whose wealth is built on the (pretty shady, frankly) enterprise of their grandfathers, or those wage slaves who sacrifice else in their lives for the sake of that one paycheck coming in.

On the basis of the return I filed this year, I would seem to fall in the latter category.

Those scripts I was holed up writing, of course, might tell a different story once they’re out there in the world. Hopefully that’s what I’ll be explaining to the VITA folks this time next year.

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