Tortuous tales of 1040 taxes

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

Thomas V. DiBacco

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.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University. © 2017, Washington Times

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