Monday, July 11, 2022

Teaching Tax Through Movies -- Loverly (7/11/22)

 I was in my former life an Adjunct Professor at University of Houston Law School where I taught courses in Tax Procedure and in Tax Crimes.  Often in the courses, I would mention My Cousin Vinny to illustrate (often by stretch) some point relevant to the classes.  

This offering caught my attention.  Alice G. Abreu (Temple), Teaching Tax Through Film Is Not As Crazy As It Sounds, 19 Pittsburgh Tax Rev. 183 (2022), here.  I was intrigued to see what Professor Abreu offered her students in the way of teaching tax law through the movies. I offer the relevant portions (pages 205-207 of the article (pages 24-26 of the pdf), footnotes omitted).

The films for this course were chosen for a breadth of genres and eras from the 1960s to last year. Some were animated; some were about superheroes; some were musicals. I aspired for every student to enjoy at least one film, and I hope they enjoyed many more. At the same time, an underlying need was to choose films that highlight specific tax topics. Although all films raise important tax issues, some are more clearly on point for the topics we covered.

I disclosed in the syllabus and in the first meeting that many of these films have elements that I would change if I were their producer or director. Some had foul language, violence, stereotypes, and troubling subject matter. Some movies approached topics in ways that are insensitive or that we recognize as inappropriate today. For example, My Fair Lady has many troubling issues of abuse, but it also raises many opportunities for synthesis of tax issues: a dress imported from France is worn in England, Eliza Doolittle sells either stolen or waste flowers, Henry Higgins likely lives off an inherited estate and wins a wager, Alfred Doolittle inherits money from someone who died in another country. With so many tax issues in one movie, the choice seemed worth it. While I expected students to raise concerns about the nature of emotional and psychological abuse, I had not noticed the film did not have subtitles and the accents were problematic for at least one student.

With several of the films, we discussed many of the things that may make students cringe and tied those issues to tax. With My Fair Lady, we discussed if the tax system could, or should, offer remediation for private abuse. Several times throughout the semester students proposed or discarded tax as a solution to the societal problems that were raised. However, before the semester I did tell students that if they ever had particular difficulty with an issue raised in a film, to talk to me before class to discuss how best to handle the difficulty and whether we should fashion them a personal accommodation.

In the end of semester survey, only three students felt the films were not on topic, one arguing that films needed realistic plots to be the basis of legal discussions. When asked for suggestions, students offered some great choices that showed they had learned tax could be found everywhere: Airplane!War DogsMr. DeedsThe AccountantWilly Wonka and the Chocolate FactoryIron ManIndiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost ArkElf, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Dark NightLes Misérables (albeit noting it was a little lengthy), Happy Gilmore, Good Will Hunting, and The Intouchables.  I was particularly pleased when students told me they could not watch a movie after the course without thinking of its tax implications as the ability to see tax everywhere was  the course’s first goal. 

To which I have to say, "Wouldn't it be loverly?" I suspect that most will recognize the quote from My Fair Lady, but for a refresh or introduction here is Julie Andrews' original Broadway version (from the Ed Sullivan show in 1961).

Also, the only movie mentioned that I can recall was offered as a movie and a musical is Les Miserables.  The book, movie and the musical are both wonderful. I don't know whether the musical could equally serve for the potential tax lessons, but if so, just see and hear the musical.  (I like the 10th Anniversary concert edition offering most of what is in the musical, on YouTube here.)

Note: This blog entry is cross-posted on the Federal Tax Procedure here.

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