Death and taxes and childbirth! Theres never any convenient time for any of them.
- Margaret Mitchell, embellishing Benjamin Franklin
Its April 10th. Do you know where your tax forms are? Your 1099s and W-2s?
The aspirin bottle? The nearest tax preparer?
I jest because my taxes are already e-filed, and all those receipts, canceled checks and piles of semi-pertinent information have been swept off the dining room table, shoveled off the floor and stored in their neat, little, wait-until-the-threat-of-an-audit-is-past container.
But I havent always faced the betaxing hour with even a hint of a smile.
About 20 years ago, the first year I filed as a single-again taxpayer, I was hit with a $98-penalty because most of my earnings were from self-employment and I hadnt filed estimated tax the year before. (I thought extimated tax was an option, not a law.)
A few months later I received a second blow: the IRS audited my return because they didnt believe someone with my income would give a 10th of it away.
I owe my unblemished record with the IRS - and perhaps the lack of a criminal record - to the wonderful tax preparer who went to bat for me then, and still adds up all my numbers each year - after I cart all my stuff to him.
Ah, taxes. Does anyone ever say the word, or think of the approaching Ides-of-April deadline with a smile? Did any legislator ever thrill to the task of raising taxes on the people he or she represents?
No to all the above, but yes to the need for some way to fund the services none of us would want to be without. As economist David Bradford writes: Taxation is a political act involving controversial decisions arrived at through the democratic process. Fairness at any given time is what the law says it is, though we shall never be certain we are not paying too much, and someone else is paying too little. That is why Edmund Burke once reminded the British Parliament, "to tax and to please, no more than to love and be wise, is not given to men.
Although a continuous income tax in this country has only been around 90 years, taxation and its quibbles about fairness are as old as time. As early as 400 BC, the Greek philosopher Plato lamented, When there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income.
Others say the Biblical tithe, first mentioned during the time of Abraham (Genesis 14:20), was essentially a tax.
But if, as Benjamin Franklin first said, Nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes, the same cannot be said for tax rates, nor for defining what is meant by high rates or low.
Though the U.S. government considered an income tax during the War of 1812, it wasnt until 1862 and the Civil War that Congress levied a tax ranging from 3 to 5 percent of a persons income was first levied by Congress. By 1872, however, Americas first income tax was phased out. It may have been the mindset at the time that income taxes were only to be used in times of war, but a window had been opened and it wouldnt be long before new ways of using this kind of revenue would amend their thinking.
It was during the economic downturn of the 1890s that Congress passed the first peacetime tax law that included an income tax. To make the tax as palatable as possible, the personal exemption was a high $4,000, and the rate was a uniform (flat) 2 percent. Even then a conservative U.S. Supreme Court declared the tax unconstitutional because it posed a communistic threat to property.
But the idea of an income tax became so popular that by 1909 President Taft proposed amending the Constitution to make the tax permanent and legal. It took four years, but by 1913 the necessary 3/4 of the states had ratified the proposal, and the 16th Amendment became law. Rates, exemption amounts, and thousands of rules have been made and amended since that time, but American taxpayers have been grumbling, gathering information and eyeing that formidable tax-due date ever since.
Things could be worse. We could live in a land where un-elected dictators make the rules, and the benefits we consider synonymous with rights are drastically reduced.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to seabara@aol. com.)
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