I was sitting in the office of our local tax accountant today while Marti bantered with him about our income tax return. Fortunately, Marti has a much better understanding of the income tax system that I do, or we would be in a highly precarious state.
The accountant had a flood of whimsical cartoons lining his walls in an obvious effort to ease the tension of his customers as they troop through his office seeking his help in the preparation of their returns. It is that dreaded time of year when we all sweat out both the income tax language and the financial bind that is sure to follow.It was not always this way. It was Abraham Lincoln who signed the first income tax into law in 1862 to finance the Civil War. It was geared to affect people with incomes of more than $600 who willingly paid the tax as long as the war lasted. That tax was repealed in 1872.
Income tax was one of the most popular issues debated in Congress from then on. Between 1895 and 1909, some 42 separate income tax bills were introduced and discussed. The magic year of success or inevitability, whichever you choose, was 1913, with the first Americans filing a Form 1040 to correspond to a March, 1914 deadline. The penalty for non-payment was up to $2,000 in fines and as much as a year in prison.
What is most surprising now, according to a revealing article in the latest issue of "American Heritage," is that most Americans apparently favored the income tax. You see, no one would have to pay any tax, or even have to file a return if he or she earned less than $3,000 ($4,000 if married) - and that was the equivalent of more than $35,000 ($47,000 if married) today.
The income tax was designed to affect only the wealthiest 1 percent of the population. In fact, one of the arguments behind the tax was that it would help reduce tariffs and excise taxes that seemed to burden the poor and middle class by adding significantly to the prices of food, clothing and other necessities.
Not only did many people think it a progressive idea, but there was talk of young men on the way up who were inclined to overstate their income so that they would acquire the status of the elite who are obliged to pay income tax. According to the New York Herald, "many a $12 to $20 a week clerk will be waving an income tax receipt from the stool of his favorite quick lunch to show his value and standing in the commercial world."
The first Form 1040 required taxpayers to report all sorts of income. Most dividends were exempt. Gain on the sale of most types of property did not receive any special treatment until 1921, and capital losses were not recognized at all.
In the beginning, there were only 6 categories of deductions allowed: business expenses, interest on personal debt, other taxes paid, casualty losses not covered by insurance, bad debts, and depreciation of business property. Medical expenses and mortgage interest were not deductible.
The income tax's basic levy of 1 percent on incomes between $3,000 and $20,000 was supplemented by a surtax of up to 6 percent on higher incomes. The estimate is that John D. Rockefeller would owe almost two million dollars in annual taxes, and Andrew Carnegie almost $600,000.
On the other hand, the average worker, whether man, woman, or child, working as many as 12 hours a day, earned about $800 a year, slightly more than 25 percent of the lowest taxable wage.
It had been a prominent argument for some time that the burden of taxation ought to rest squarely on those who had the greatest ability to pay. In the aftermath of the Gilded Age, when industrialists and moguls had risen to positions of prominence and wealth, it was popular to think that the rich should pay.
Once the income tax was in place it became an easy issue to debate as numerous changes were incorporated into its structure over the years. The once simple tax form took on an aura of complexity, and as the rich no longer bore the onus, the income tax became the single most resented practice of the federal government. It was inevitable. The class tax became the mass tax. But as a major form of revenue, it was impossible to look back. It was here to stay, even as its unpopularity grew.
Numerous tax protests and tests of the law have failed, and most of us now face it as resolutely as we face death. As April 15th approaches, we hire a tax accountant to help ease the pain and gaze at the cartoons on his wall. It's hard to believe that it started out as a great idea.