Humor and History on Tax Day

Joel Fox

Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily


“April is the month when the green returns to the lawn, the trees, — and the Internal Revenue Service.” So observed Evan Esar, a collector of humorous sayings who understood that humor is the ultimate therapy. All of us need this therapy now that tax time is here.

Fortunately, a rich vein of humor and wry observations exist about taxes to help us through this time.

When tax day comes, most citizens pay what they owe … or what they think they owe. Discovering what you owe can be a challenge. Even one of the century’s greatest geniuses, Albert Einstein said, “The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.”

Humorist Will Rogers put it this way: “The income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf has. 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.”

Indeed, taxes and golf are comparable. You drive your heart out for the green, and then end up in the hole.

The first income tax in this country was levied during Abraham Lincoln’s administration. Money was needed to fund the Union war effort. That income tax was repealed in 1872, seven years after the war ended.

Later attempts to bring back an income tax were thwarted by the United States Supreme Court, which declared the tax unconstitutional because it represented direct taxation on the citizenry. During the Civil War the Court had ignored this concern.

A constitutional amendment was necessary to establish an income tax. In arguing for such an amendment, proponents asserted that the income tax would only tax the rich. (Sound familiar with some of the tax increase strategies here in California?)

Rep. James Monroe Miller of Kansas said, “I stand here as a representative of the Republican Party of the central west to pledge you my word that the great western states will be found voting with you for an income tax. Why? Because they will not pay it!”

It was generally believed that residents of perhaps six wealthy industrial states in the Northeast would pay nearly all of the new income tax.

Well, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Editors of The Nation magazine warned at the time: “It is possible for a government to increase repeatedly the rates of such a tax.”

Or as Will Rogers put it: “Noah must have taken into the Ark two taxes, one male and one female. And did they multiply bountifully! Next to guinea pigs, taxes must have been the most prolific animals.”

In 1913 the 16th Amendment was passed, which allowed Congress authority to directly tax a citizen’s income.

The first year under the income tax, 357,598 Form 1040s were filed. Yes, the form carried that famous number even then. (Jay Leno explains Form 1040: For every $50 you earn, you get $10 and they get $40!)

The tax rate was one percent on incomes above $3,000 and rose to seven percent on incomes above half a million. This first income tax affected only one percent of the population.

Before the 16th Amendment, tariffs and excise taxes provided 90 percent of the federal revenue.

By 1920, the income tax was the dominant revenue raiser for the federal government. Middle income taxpayers were hit by the income tax to help fund World War I. Top tax rates eventually climbed to 91 percent before President John F. Kennedy proposed cutting them.

Taxes increase and government expands in times of crisis. Great growth in government and taxes occurred when this country began, during the Great Depression and when at war, particularly, the Civil War, World War I and World War II. American Patriot Thomas Paine saw this clearly at the nation’s founding. “War involves … unforeseen and unsupposed circumstances … but one thing certain, and that is to increase taxes.”

As a people, we have always been wary of taxes. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall is often quoted from his groundbreaking decision in McCulloch v Maryland (1819): “The power to tax involves the power to destroy.”

However, 109 years later another Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendall Holmes, wrote: “The power to tax is not the power to destroy while this Court sits.”

On the façade of the mammoth IRS building in Washington, D. C., other renowned words of Justice Holmes are chipped in stone: Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.

It should be noted, however, that Holmes made his famous remark in 1904 before the income tax was sanctioned. Taxes at that time took about seven percent of average incomes.

But even in Holmes’ day there were complaints about taxes. Two years before Holmes issued his famous saying, Mark Twain wrote in his notebook, “What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin.”

Of course, we need money to run the government. The argument is over how much and how it is spent.

Will Rogers recognized the problem in his inimitable way. “Of course we know our government is costing us more than its worth, but do you know of any cheaper government that’s running around? … You can try Russia! There’s no income tax in Russia, but there’s no income.”

Still, today the IRS has hundreds of different tax forms, plus pages of additional information to explain how to fill out those forms. The original Tax Code had 11,400 words; today it has over 7 million.

Despite the complexity, taxes are not avoidable and woe to him or her who tries evasion. Al Capone got away with vice, and he got away with murder, but he didn’t get away with not paying his taxes.

So we have to pay our taxes.

For most of us, however, tax time has us simply agreeing with Mark Twain’s admonishment, “[I] shall never use profanity except in discussing (house rent) and taxes.”

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