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If death and taxes represent two of life's certainties, then articles about taxes in the days leading up to April 15 come in a close third. And in this one, we've crunched the tax day numbers with enough exactitude to make your accountant jealous. Better yet, you don't need a sharp pencil or calculator to make sense of the facts and figures — past and present — that surround Uncle Sam's mandate.
Congress enacted the nation's first income tax law in order to support the Civil War effort, and it was a forerunner of our modern income tax in that it used principles of graduated or progressive taxation and withholding income at the source. This taxation only lasted 10 years, however, and a short-lived attempt to revive it in the 1890s failed.
In the 1895 Supreme Court case Pollock v. Farmers' Loan and Trust Co., the highest court ruled that income tax was unconstitutional because it lacked conformity in how it was apportioned among states. And so for 18 blissful years, hard-working Americans labored without fear of audits, itemized deductions, tax shelters, and the like. Income tax was later re-instated under the 16th Amendment in 1913.
The biggest perk of a 27-page long tax code? It's easy to follow. The Tax Foundation lists all the tax brackets from 1913 to the present, and notes that anyone making more than $11,595,657 in 1913 had to cough up a marginal tax rate of 7%. By the way, that applied to married couples filing jointly, married folks who filed separately, single people, or the head of a household. It's tempting to think that the accountants of the day, bored by all this simplicity, pressed for more exemptions, clarifications, and splitting of taxation hairs. Which brings us to 2013, and ...
The tax experts at CCH Group publish a softcover version of the Internal Revenue Code that covers income, estate, gift, employment, and excise taxes. The 2012 version of the full, unabridged text of the complete Internal Revenue Code spans two volumes. It is also said to contain far more words than the Bible, and certainly many more references to depreciation of assets, though sadly no miracles for late-filing taxpayers. As for 2013, the recent changes to tax law will no doubt throw the page count off, though we're pulling for a return to the 27-page version.
Until then, CCH publishes the Standard Federal Tax Reporter, which helps accountants break down tax law as shaped by committee reports, regulations and the like. This beast tips the scales in at an astounding 73,954 pages. Hey, there's nothing like a little light reading before filling out the 1040 EZ.
The I.R.S. had better be good at crunching numbers, right? According to economist Brett Collins, by 2013 the number of tax returns filed will hit almost 242 million. Figuring that the numbers will climb about 1% annually, Collins predicted that 253.5 million returns will by filed annually by 2018. For comparison, paper returns totaled about 101.3 million in 2012, while electronic returns came to roughly 137 million.
If the tax situation in the U.S. has you thinking about a move to Qatar, the Cayman Islands, or Saudi Arabia, you've chosen well, at least from an accountant's-eye view. According to Global Finance, those countries all boast a 0% marginal tax rate. (Other tax-free locales include Oman, Kuwait, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Bahrain, Brunei Darussalam, and the United Arab Emirates.) Not ready to relocate? The good news is that the U.S. is nowhere near the top of the list of countries with high income tax rates, as 10 nations hit or surpass the 50% mark; Sweden and Denmark both top 55%. But the world champion of taxes for now is Aruba, with a staggering 59% marginal tax rate. And that's actually down from 2006, when it was 60.1%.
Some people fight unfair taxes with signs and petitions; in Romania, witches threatened to use cat excrement and dead dogs to cast spells on the president and government officials after they levied a "witch tax" in 2011. Then they got really serious and talked of hurling poisonous mandrake plants into the Danube River. All this over roughly $1.60, the tax your average Romanian witch would pay on a consultation. Then again, any showdown pitting a witch with cat poop vs. a hard-nosed government auditor has all the makings of a reality show hit.
And so the figures do not lie, though many taxpayers will lie about the figures. We urge you to resist that temptation, and have a nice long chat with your accountant first. Legal deductions are numerous, and corners are the one thing you can't afford to cut this tax season. Be sure to also keep an eye out for any number of Tax Day sales. Free things are especially nice on April 15.
Also, while you file your last-minute taxes and grumble under your breath, you may take solace in this image: a government-hating Ron Swanson, wrestling Uncle Sam. We'd pay Swanson (in bacon) to "handle" our taxes!