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Not-So-‘Mad’ Ideas About Taxes

This month, the Roosevelt Hotel, on East 45th Street, initiated a special offer in commemoration of “Mad Men,” whose return to television on Sunday night for a fifth season is something surely known now even to preschoolers of merely middling sophistication.

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Photo: AMC

For $495 a night, guests at the Roosevelt receive a room, a DVD of the fourth season of “Mad Men,” a “Mad Men” cookbook and period cocktails — the period, of course, being 1960s New York, when, in the show’s imagination, any Scotch consumed after 10 a.m. betrayed a restrained and focused temperament. (I didn’t call the hotel to learn how many drinks were included in the price for fear that any answer short of “unlimited” would have compelled me to accuse management of purveying historical falsehoods.)

Presumably, one could choose to stay at the Roosevelt because it is where Don Draper, during the show’s second season, temporarily relocated while experiencing an early chapter of marital strife. Or perhaps, more sanely, one could stay because the Roosevelt embodies mid-20th-century Manhattan urbanity at a price point considerably lower than the Carlyle’s.

Since “Mad Men” began, in 2007, it has been suggested over and over that the series’s appeal lies in the sublimated wishes of an upper-middle-class audience that longs for the kind of erotic abandonment and barfly afternoons that have all but vanished in a culture enraptured by third-grade soccer games and antioxidants. This argument ignores the extent to which sex is hindered by consequences on the show and the degree to which male regard for women is conveyed in an emotional range traveling quickly from lust to contempt. More significant, the thinking ignores the profound titillation of an era in which it was possible to live spectacularly well — in Manhattan — without the benefit of annual earnings in the tens of millions of dollars.

In a certain sense, wealthy people could live with a justifiable guiltlessness in “Mad Men” New York. Not because they were blind to the city’s mounting racial crisis or to the perils of smoking or sexism, but rather because, fiscally speaking, they were paying their due. In 1966, which is where the new season finds us, the federal income tax topped out at 70 percent on income over $100,000 (approximately $700,000 in present-day dollars), a figure reduced from 90 percent in a tax cut enacted two years earlier.

Absent were any obvious incentives for amassing perverse amounts of money (and thus there was more time for the languorous lunch). In April 1968, Fortune magazine published a list of those Americans whose net worth exceeded $100 million; the list ended at 153. Today, those in the highest federal income tax bracket will pay 35 percent.

Long-term capital gains taxes were higher than they are today, and so were New York State income taxes: the richest paid 14 percent in 1966; today they pay 8.82 percent, and current law has that figure reverting to 6.85 percent in three years. Moreover, beginning his mayoral tenure in 1966, John Lindsay delivered the city’s first personal income tax.

And yet well-off people hardly appeared to suffer. The new season has Don Draper living, at least in real-estate terms, very enviably, in a sweeping, modern apartment. “Mad Men” plays to libertine fantasies of louche living, but it also gives credibility to the liberal belief that high taxes won’t constrain the rich.

Conservatives have argued that the era of high taxes augured the city’s financial decline. James Parrott, chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, a group that studies New York’s tax and social policies, argues that that analysis ignores a confluence of events that included the suburban exodus brought about in large part by government subsidization of highways, like the Saw Mill River Parkway that Don once drove to his former home in Westchester County.

For those who remained in the city, it was not necessary to be Don Draper (who, in turn, was not Lloyd C. Blankfein) to live well. New to the market in 1966 were apartments in the city’s first high-rise condominium building, the St. Tropez, at 340 East 64th Street. One-bedroom apartments started out at $29,241, and three-bedrooms reached $79,811, which translates today to about $219,000 and $600,000 when adjusted for inflation.

Needless to say, that is not what it costs to buy an apartment at the St. Tropez today, when a one-bedroom is listed for $939,000 and a three-bedroom for over $1.8 million. (Traveling further back into the mid-20th century, to 1957, it was possible to buy a four-bedroom apartment on Fifth Avenue, with views of Central Park, for what today amounts to roughly half a million dollars. It, in fact, would cost 20 times that.)

In essence, the city’s upper-middle-class residents were the rich, and presumably there were far fewer stories in the press like one that appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek last month lamenting the pains of those in the financial industry forced to face smaller bonuses. “I feel stuck,” a marketing executive earning $350,000 a year said. “The New York that I wanted to have is still just beyond my reach.”

For radically contrasting ideas of domestic life in New York, it is worth pairing a screening of “Mad Men” with a viewing of the new film “Friends With Kids,” and not solely because both feature the actor Jon Hamm. Set in the Upper West Side and Brooklyn of right now, its financially comfortable characters are hardly spared the mess of unhappy marriages and the toll of heavy drinking. But what they get alongside all of that are worries about private-school tuitions, smaller apartments, moldings with chipped paint — the aesthetic unruliness from which “Mad Men” briefly rescues us.