U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, joined at left by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, leads a hearing in July in Washington on attempts to influence American elections, with a focus on Russian meddling in the last presidential race.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

The amoral poor are too busy blowing cash on liquor and women. Just ask Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, whose entire political persona is built on a mythical caricature of the every-man.

Grassley, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, went full poor-shaming this weekend during an interview with Des Moines Register.

“I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” Grassley told the Register. “As opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

The mental math is pretty simple here, all of it ignoring the privileges of pedigree and access enjoyed by those atop the social food chain. But it's worth laying out, if for no other reason than better understanding how Iowa's most senior official sees the world.

  • The undisciplined poor people blow money on booze and other vices.
  • Rich people don't. They spend their lives hunkered down and forgoing vices so every penny can be stashed away.
  • Therefore, the rich are not only better off financially but morally superior to we loathsome, drunken plebeians.
  • Oh, and we're only talking about men here. In Grassley's world, women have yet to garner any semblance of economic independence. They're all just sitting around waiting for a free whiskey sour from yours truly.

Anyone who's seen a Ferrari on the interstate, a private jet at an airport or visited the extravagant Florida coast knows Grassley's assertion that the rich reject luxury is demonstrably false. In fact, in recent years, companies that cater to high-earners — think BMW, Tesla and Mercedes — have been on a research and development binge, rolling out a bevy of tech-heavy, big-money products targeted solely at those who can the afford cutting edge. Entire tourist economies are constructed upon the wealthy's penchant for a good time.

This is an economy based on the wealthy's desire for the ostentatious.

The estate tax — which Grassley targeted and Senate Republicans would significantly roll back in its tax bill passed Saturday — is regularly derided by conservatives as the "death tax." In fact, a minuscule number of estates end up paying the 40 percent of a deceased individual's wealth.

The tax isn't triggered unless the dearly departed passes on at least $5.5 million in assets. That number explodes to $11 million for married couples. I don't know about most of you, but that kind of inheritance isn't common. Midwest critics of the estate tax wrongly assert that it hammers "family farms," a slogan for the down-home, traditional nature of farming that those urban elites just don't understand. 

The claim, predictably, is bogus. Just 65 farms are annually hit by the estate tax throughout the U.S., reports the Congressional Research Service. No, by and large, it's those very urban types — the ones whom Grassley's made a career denigrating — that end up paying estate tax. 

The average American with a four-year degree will earn about $1.8 million in their lifetime, say researchers at University of Indiana. Again, that's total lifetime earnings, and only for the sliver of the population with a bachelor's degree. So even the middle class has a serious moral failing, under Grassley's framework. 

The ethos Grassley espoused isn't a new creation. The elevation of the nobility's genetic and moral phenotypes stretch back centuries. And it's this admiration for wealth that Grassley's tapping into when he tears down the spending habits of the vast majority of the country. But it's an odd argument coming from a man who made substantial political hay when, in 2014, Democratic Senate hopeful Bruce Braley lambasted Grassley as "just a farmer" unfit to run the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

Say what you want about the estate tax and the GOP's plan to gut it. Yet Grassley's ham-fisted attempts at defending the move say a lot about how he views the vast majority of Americans.

Grassley made a career likening himself to the hardscrabble blue-collar worker. But his apparent disdain for those who don't amass huge wealth leaves no doubt that Grassley is out of touch. 

Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at jalexander@qctimes.com

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Editorial Page Editor

Editorial Page Editor, Quad-City Times