Happy birthday, bra and zipper!
The bra has its critics (irritated feminists, on a symbolic level, and maladroit teenage boys, on a more practical plain). The zipper, apart from snagging, bears tangible testimony to expanding waistlines. But the federal income tax, that’s something special.
Little else can match its purchase on the mind — and the wallet. The bra and the zipper have better odds of being commemorated in centennial celebrations than does the handiwork of the IRS and Congress.
Still, the income tax can claim admirers, of a sort. They’re part of a vast archipelago of lawyers, accountants, lobbyists and tax-shelter fabulists. They occupy gleaming towers on Washington’s K Street. They dispatch cash to sunny tropical isles, havens from paying unto Caesar that which otherwise would be due.
Given their discretely veiled prosperity, the 100th anniversary of the income tax may inspire a few Dom Pérignon toasts after all. In quiet rooms, perhaps.
* * *
“It’s income tax time again, Americans: time to gather up those receipts, get out those tax forms, sharpen up that pencil, and stab yourself in the aorta.”
* * *
One hundred million federal taxpayers in fiscal 2013 together will part with $1.7 trillion in personal income taxes — reflecting 47 percent of all U.S. proceeds, the largest source of Uncle Sam’s revenue.
Americans this year will spend more than 6 billion hours preparing income tax returns — collecting records, visiting accountants, fumbling through TurboTax and printing forms. Forbes magazine figures all that effort represents the equivalent of a year of full-time toil for 3 million workers. Well, at least the average Joe can count on one job not to disappear.
The IRS employs 90,000 workers and spends about $12 billion a year to gather more than $2.5 trillion in individual and corporate income taxes. That works out to about $208 in taxes collected for every $1 spent by the agency.
Nevertheless, the IRS lost 780 agents in congressional budget cuts last year. Republicans long have championed paring the agency’s budget. Can’t think why.
* * *
“The wages of sin are death, but after they take the taxes out, it’s more like a tired feeling, really.”
* * *
Marginal tax rates have bobbled up and down over the years. In 1913, the top rate was set at 7 percent on incomes of more than $500,000 (or $11,837,044 in today’s dollars). During World War I it climbed to 77 percent on incomes over $1 million ($15,551,861 in 2013 dollars). In the early 1950s, the peak rate hit 91 percent.
The top marginal rate on personal income today is 39.5 percent on individual incomes over $400,000. But for all the often-emotional debate over income tax rates, the tax haul’s share of GDP has been relatively consistent for decades. In fiscal 2013, individual income tax collections will amount to 8.3 percent of the total U.S. economy, according to IRS estimates. In 1990, they were 8.1 percent — about the same level of the early 1950s, when marginal tax rates peaked.
What’s more, despite the caterwauling from the right, the effective tax on the “rich” has plunged even as their fortunes have soared. The effective individual income tax rate for the top 1 percent fell to 28.9 percent in 2009, from 35.1 percent in 1979. Over the same period, the effective income tax rate slid from 22 percent to 17.4 percent overall, by the calculation of the Tax Policy Center.
So much for the myth of a crushing federal tax burden.
* * *
“Indoors or out, no one relaxes in March, that month of wind and taxes, the wind will presently disappear, the taxes last us all the year.”
* * *
Like the hero in an Horatio Alger hero, the U.S. income tax started small.
A product of the Progressive Era, the income tax was a way to finance a fast-growing nation in need of new roads, bridges, ports, and less-benign assets, such as guns, tanks and a standing army.
The new tax code made light reading for an accountant. It was 400 pages, shorter than many a Dickens novel. That changed. The law grew more and more complex over the decades. By 1945, the tax code numbered 8,200 pages.
Anyone who thinks Congress is a do-nothing organization hasn’t been paying attention to tax law. The U.S. tax code today comes to 73,954 pages, by the estimate of the CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter, a publication that keeps tabs on the topic.
In the first decades of the federal income tax, Americans were expected to write a check to the IRS when payment came due. But, as any loan shark would attest, collecting can be difficult.
What to do? In one of the great innovations in tax history, Congress introduced federal income tax withholding in 1943, affording taxpayers a way to show their patriotism year-round, during the World War II struggle against fascism. The practice continued, of course, long after Hitler and Tojo were in the ground.
* * *
“Rich bachelors should be heavily taxed. It is not fair that some men should be happier than others.”
* * *
Talk of scrapping or reforming the income tax is as familiar in Washington as hypocrisy.
Almost any economist favors alternatives, whether in the form of a national sales tax, a value-added tax or a less complex income tax code. Reformers are dreaming.
Over the years, one person’s shameless loophole has become another’s sacred benefit. For the middle class, tax breaks like the home mortgage deduction and retirement savings accounts have taken on the cloak of the politically untouchable. What? Are you against homeownership or retiring with dignity?
Top income earners, represented by legions of lawyers and lobbyists, pick a la carte from a munificent buffet of tax shelters, foreign partnerships, offshore accounts, tax deferrals and other examples of “preferential treatment.”
Tax benefits designed for the middle class can mean even more savings for upper-income filers. Witness suburbs filled with McMansions. How many wealthy have tax-deferred retirement plans stuffed with millions, tens of millions or even $100 million?
* * *
“Even when you make a tax form out on the level, you don’t know when it’s through if you are a crook or a martyr.”
* * *
Years or even decades may pass before Americans are ready to shake the habit of creative accounting and imaginative reporting of income.
Who wants to bid farewell to tales like that of “Chesty Love,” a stripper who claimed — and won — deductions for breast implants? A business expense is a business expense.
Does the story of a tax-deductible swimming pool for a patient whose doctor prescribed exercise inspire anything but admiration?
If the future is anything like the past, don’t bet against taxpayers who make their own decisions about what income to report to the IRS.
At lunch years ago with a wealthy, renowned money manager, a reporter remarked, “Your mother must be proud of you.”
His reply: “Actually, my mother has more to say about my brother’s success.”
And what did his brother do for a living?
“He owns a chain of dry-cleaning shops,” said the Master of Wall Street.
Mike Meyers, a former Star Tribune business reporter, is a Minneapolis-based writer.