'Cosby Show' Turns 30: Why Cliff's Monopoly-Money Econ Lecture Still Pays Off

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The Cosby Show premiered Sept. 20, 1984, with what Time called one of the "10 greatest TV pilot[s]" ever. Among the episode's highlights: the scene where Huxtable family patriarch Cliff (Bill Cosby) schools his teenage son, Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), on the financial realities of the world with a handful of Monopoly bills. Thirty years later, it's still on the money. Literally.

"It's a very simple analysis that is more accurate than people give it credit for," says Giacomo Santangelo, a lecturer in economics at Fordham University.

At the heart of the scene is Theo's argument that his school grades don't matter because he doesn't intend to go to college; instead, he aspires to be "regular people," perhaps a gas-station attendant or bus driver. Cliff's counterargument is that Theo is insane.

The stats were with Cliff in 1984, and they're with him in 2014. A recent Pew Research study, in fact, confirmed what we've been hearing since the Great Recession: The income gap between those who hold a bachelor's degree or higher and those who have no more than a high school education is ever-widening.

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To Santangelo, what makes the Monopoly scene so teachable and yes, he uses it to this day in his macroeconomics course — is that its numbers and ideas were so good. "It's trying to draw that specific distinction between having income and having disposable income and having money for consumption and having money left over to save," Santangelo says. "That's a lot harder to do than it sounds."

Indeed.

In the scene, Cliff doles out $1,200 to Theo, telling him that that's how much he'd make per month as "regular people." The amount works out to $14,400 a year, about 10 percent below the average annual income of 1984, according to numbers from the Social Security Administration. (Santangelo thinks Cliff was being generous, especially if Theo pursued his dream of becoming a gas-station attendant. Even today, according to stats at PayScale.com, that job earns a 40-hour-a-week employee, on average, just $15,820 a year. Santangelo says Theo would have better luck and earning power as a bus driver. The entry-level salary for a full-time MTA New York City Transit driver, as of 2013, worked out to about $43,500 a year.)

Bill Cosby as Cliff and Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Theo
Bill Cosby as Cliff and Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Theo

Of Theo's $1,200, Cliff takes away $400 for a Manhattan apartment (actually doable in 1984), $350 for taxes, $100 for clothes and shoes, $100 for food, $50 for a motorcycle helmet (Theo says he'll get by without a car), and $200 for miscellaneous expenses, mostly related to Theo's desire to have and entertain a girlfriend. And while Theo fusses with the numbers a bit (for one thing, he insists that he'll need to budget only $300 a month for rent because he'll live in New Jersey), the result is the same.

"Bottom line," Santangelo says, "it wouldn't work then or now... He couldn't afford a girlfriend in 1984, and he couldn't afford a girlfriend in 2014."

[Related: A New 'Cosby Show'? Bill Cosby Returning to NBC to Star in a Family Sitcom]

And what about health care, the one expense that the modern-day viewer will find notably absent from Cliff's lecture?

"Oh, forget health care," Santangelo says.

About the only break Theo would catch today is in taxes — Santangelo points out that the federal and New York state tax rates are lower than they were in 1984 for the income bracket that a gas-station employee would likely find himself in. Then again, food and housing costs have zoomed up (the average rent on a Manhattan apartment in 2014 is not for the faint of heart), so he still wouldn't win.  

And Cliff would still be right.

Even if Santangelo's students today aren't always familiar with The Cosby Show, the Monopoly scene makes its point. Economically. And comically.

"They think it's very funny," he says. "They get a kick out of it."