Let Me Tell You How It Will Be

The two inescapable things in life, it is frequently asserted, are death and taxes. Sometimes I’m uncertain as to which I’d prefer, given a choice, and sometimes they seem like the same thing. But they’re not. And the surest way to discern between the two is that, if you have done well enough in life, there is such a thing as an estate tax. When you close your eyes forever, those of the Taxman remain watchful.

Let’s be clear: we’re talking Tax with a capital T. Not the many irritating minor levies we each face on a daily basis–because, depending upon where you live and what you purchase, taxes are different–but that which is exacted by Washington. Namely, the Federal Income Tax. Most of us grapple with this vicariously, through an accountant, or personally–if you’re brave enough. I say “most of us” because the threshold income, if you’re single and under 65, is $10,000 annually. If you fit that demographic then, and you earn more than $833 per month, you will be making a check out to the United States Treasury. You’ll likely qualify for a refund–but why go through this charade at all?

The tax threshold should be higher. Even here in the Valley you’d be hard-pressed to pay your rent and utilities–let alone eat–on $833 each month. In San Francisco, say, your situation would be positively Dickensian.

Where’s George Harrison when you need him?

We first got into this mess early in the Civil War, in 1862, when an income tax was established to bolster the coffers of the Union’s war effort. Perhaps to help with Reconstruction, it lasted until 1872. Briefly revived in 1894, the Federal Income Tax was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court a year later. In 1913, finally, on the eve of the First World War, the 16th Amendment made the Tax we know today a permanent fixture. Or affliction.

There floats about our country, in some circles, the notion that paying your Tax is, somehow, a patriotic action. I wonder if that isn’t because the permanent implementation of our Federal Income Tax was in preparation for wartime to come. Although it had not yet arrived, the First World War could safely say to have been anticipated so early as the First Moroccan Crisis of 1905. Death and Taxes, indeed.

I say the Tax is theft. Sure, it could be much worse, as in Europe, for instance, where you’ll find eight of the world’s top ten Tax rates. But the citizenry of those countries gets–has paid for–something in return: single-payer healthcare, university tuition for those who qualify academically, and a whole bevy of things I’m sure don’t even occur to the average American.

We get the biggest military in the world.

Let me tell you how it will be. You’ll pay your Tax, vote, sit on a jury, perhaps, volunteer occasionally, participate in school events–and still there will be a struggle over bad roads and bridges to contend with a job that just may allow you to pay all your bills. Is this any way to live? And now corporations are “people.” Something tells me they don’t wrestle with the same dilemmas the average Joe does. Something tells me they don’t wrestle with Tax the same way an individual–or even a family–does. Gone are the days when rent was a manageable fraction of personal income; departed, too, is the time when tuition was not astronomical. How many otherwise middle-class families are forced to have their children assume student loans? Of course, this debt is foisted onto the next generation. I’m 51 years old, and there are peers of mine yet saddled with these payments. Some of them have children now approaching university age themselves. There currently is no Tax respite that adequately breaks this vicious cycle. And while income inequality in our country is only worsening, corporations are doing especially well.

It is true that ours is a “progressive” Tax system, wherein the wealthiest of us shoulder the greatest burden. It’s also true that nearly half of us, after refunds and credits, pay next to no Tax at all. But who among us comprehends the truly arcane mechanisms that make up the clockwork of it all? And why should we have to pay someone to tell us how much we have to pay someone else? Can someone tell me our entire Tax system is not seriously askew?

Some propose a flat Federal Income Tax, a small percentage that everybody must pay. The assumption of fairness here is that, while the wealthy would still write the larger checks, all Americans would contribute something. Proponents of the complete elimination of Income Tax argue that our country’s financial needs could be met by leveling a roughly 15% national sales tax on, literally, everything. I don’t have any solutions, myself. And though there is much debate about the precision of the figures, little doubt remains that the status quo is woefully insufficient. Woefully inefficient, too.

But here’s why the Tax is theft. You’ve heard of the howl raised by our forefathers over their lack of a presence in London: “No taxation without representation.” Well, we’re represented in Washington, alright–but there’s a disconnect with our Tax. Come 15 April, I’d much prefer to check a box for “Healthcare,” “Education,” or “Infrastructure” rather than the munitions I’ll probably purchase.

— Joseph Oldenbourg

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