Be the Ball

July 22, 2020

Forty years ago this weekend, Orion Pictures released a comedy producers pitched as “Animal House on a golf course.” The movie featured a scrappy bunch of misfit locals battling a group of rich snobs played by ad-libbing comedy legends. And while reviews were underwhelming, it went on to gross $40 million and claim a place in movie legend. Odds are good that if you grew up in the 80s, or anywhere near a golf course, there’s someone you know who can’t make it through the day without quoting from Caddyshack.

Naturally, that got us wondering . . . how can we spin this anniversary into a story about taxes? None of the characters in the movie mention a word about them, and none of the thespian geniuses playing them have gotten into any real-world tax trouble. Never fear — we’ll just look at the real world tax planning opportunities the snobs and the slobs would have enjoyed in the summer of 1980. (We think it’s a peach!)

Back then, the top federal rate was 70% on singles like Ty Webb earning over $107,700, or joint filers like Judge Smails and his loofah-loving wife earning over $215,400 (about $670,000 in today’s dollars). President Jimmy Carter had dismissed the tax system as a “disgrace to the human race” — a low-grade dog food of loopholes, shelters, and preferences that left few people actually paying that much. Republican challenger Ronald Reagan promised to drive rates down to 50%. Once in office, in an incredible Cinderella story, he spearheaded efforts to simplify the entire code.

In 1980, business owners like Al Czervik could still deduct 100% of what they spent hosting guests at Bushwood Country Club, including meals and drinks, greens fees, naked lady tees, and even the lowly caddies. (The world needs ditch diggers, too.) In 1986, Washington sliced the deduction for business meals in half and eliminated writeoffs entirely for “goodwill meals” without a specific business purpose. Three years ago, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 scratched deductions for “entertainment” expenses like greens fees entirely, telling golfers they’ll get nothing and like it.

The movie’s greatest scene raises profound questions over Section 83 rules governing noncash compensation. Bill Murray shares a memory of getting stiffed on a tip by the Dalai Lama: “‘there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.’ So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.” Naturally, cash tips are taxable, even from the Himalayas. But how do you give the IRS a share of total consciousness? How do you value it? Is it subject to the “income in respect of a decedent” rules? Is it includible in his taxable estate?

(Fun fact 1: in 2014, when Caddyshack director Harold Ramis died, the White House issued a statement offering prayers and hope that he “received total consciousness.” Fun fact 2: in 2016, the real Dalai Lama confessed to Fox News reporter Bret Baier that he’s never seen the movie, doesn’t play golf, and is not, in fact, a “big hitter.”)

The Zen philosopher Basho once wrote, “a flute with no holes, is not a flute. A doughnut with no hole, is a danish.” He was a funny guy. We think a financial plan that isn’t built around taxes is a bowl of Cap’n Crunch with no milk. It might taste good, but it’ll tear up the roof of your mouth. Call us to tee up the savings you deserve!

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