Tor­tu­ous tales of 1040 taxes

Amer­i­cans have loved to hate those levies for more than a cen­tury

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Thomas V. DiBacco Thomas V. DiBacco is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

If you’re about to spend some eight to 22 hours to pre­pare your fed­eral in­come tax Form 1040 (that’s the range the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice and experts es­ti­mate) be­fore the April 18 dead­line, well, good luck. Re­mem­ber what ge­nius Al­bert Ein­stein said: “The hard­est thing in the world to un­der­stand is the in­come tax.” And if you need more so­lace from the past to sus­tain you in the task, here’s a smor­gas­bord of fa­mous and not-so-fa­mous in­sights.

My fa­vorite quote is at­trib­uted to for­mer Sec­re­tary of the Trea­sury An­drew Mel­lon, who served 10 years, 11 months in the post un­der Pres­i­dents Calvin Coolidge and Her­bert Hoover. Only two other men served longer, which meant that Mel­lon had a long time to think about the an­nual squeeze on our purses. “An in­come tax,” said Mel­lon, “is the price which the gov­ern­ment charges for the priv­i­lege of hav­ing tax­able in­come.” Re­ally?

Hu­morist Will Rogers noted that the yearly rite of get­ting sprung fi­nan­cially “has made more liars out of the Amer­i­can peo­ple than golf has.” Nov­el­ist Her­man Wouk fol­lowed a sim­i­lar track. “In­come tax re­turns,” he said, “are the most imag­i­na­tive fiction be­ing writ­ten to­day.” Then there’s the in­sight by for­mer IRS Com­mis­sioner Mor­timer Caplin. “There is one dif­fer­ence,” he pointed out, “be­tween a tax col­lec­tor and a taxi­der­mist; the taxi­der­mist leaves the hide.”

And three-time Demo­cratic Party pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Wil­liam Jen­nings Bryan said in 1896: “The in­come tax is just. It sim­ply in­tends to put the bur­dens of gov­ern­ment justly upon the backs of the peo­ple.”

An in­trigu­ing story about tax col­lec­tion con­cerns Congress writ­ing the first bill in 1913 after the 16th Amend­ment au­tho­riz­ing the in­come tax was rat­i­fied in that year (re­call that for­mer Con­gress­man and IRS critic Ron Paul, in a clas­sic un­der­state­ment, noted that “1913 wasn’t a very good year”). Some se­na­tors wanted to give teeth to the en­force­ment as­pect by ap­pro­pri­at­ing $1.2 mil­lion for the Bureau of In­ter­nal Rev­enue. Still oth­ers wanted civil ser­vice re­quire­ments for em­ploy­ees. Both sug­ges­tions un­der­went ma­jor com­pro­mises. To­tal ap­pro­pri­a­tions amounted to only $800,000, and civil ser­vice re­quire­ments were scotched on the grounds — note this — that rev­enue po­si­tions re­quired only “hon­esty, char­ac­ter, in­tel­li­gence, good com­mon sense of a rea­son­able sort, and also a rea­son­able de­gree of ed­u­ca­tion.”

But a cen­tury ago in 1917, rev­enue agents re­ally didn’t want your money on the due date of March 1. To be sure, Form 1040 had to be filed on that date, but Mark Eis­ner, the head hon­cho for col­lec­tion at 1150 Broad­way in New York City, put it this way:

“We can’t de­cline to take your money if you bring it in here,” an­nounced Eis­ner to the press, “but you will cer­tainly find that the clerk at the counter will try to dis­cour­age pay­ment if you ap­proach him, and un­less you in­sist, he will per­suade you to take your money home and send it after you re­ceive a bill. The rea­son is, of course, that these ad­vance pay­ments make a lot of un­nec­es­sary book­keep­ing for us.”

Fi­nally, if you’re hop­ing for a mir­a­cle — that the IRS will for­give all taxes — well, that ac­tu­ally hap­pened dur­ing World War II in 1943 when Rosie the Riveter and GI Joe faced their first tax. Be­cause there was no with­hold­ing sys­tem yet, that meant that av­er­age tax­pay­ers would have to come up with the dough all at once.

Congress and the pres­i­dent were in a pickle un­til one Beard­s­ley Ruml, chair­man of the New York Fed­eral Re­serve Bank, en­tered the scene. An economist who danced to a dif­fer­ent beat, he sug­gested that the gov­ern­ment for­give all taxes ex­cept for the high-rollers. “Things would move along,” ar­gued Ruml. “just the same as time moves on un­der day­light sav­ings.” Not sur­pris­ingly, Ruml be­came a can­di­date to re­place Un­cle Sam as the na­tion’s pop­u­lar sym­bol.

Chimed in an im­por­tant con­gress­man: Noth­ing will be lost “un­til the day of Judg­ment, and at that time no one will give a damn.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, most taxes were for­given.

As for what’s in store for us in next year’s 1040, I turn to base­ball sage Yogi Berra. “It’s dif­fi­cult to make pre­dic­tions,” opined Yogi, “es­pe­cially about the fu­ture.”

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY HUNTER

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