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TIME Magazine, March 10, 1952 (cover story):|
TAXES: The Big Bite
...The process of gathering the American income tax is so efficiently organized, so highly buttressed by every device of triumphant capitalism that it costs only 50¢ for every $100 disgorged. And the American taxpayer has reached such a high standard of living that he sometimes pays more in taxes than it costs to feed himself and his family.
He has just footed a large part of the bill for the greatest war in history. He is riding the crest of the greatest boom in history. In 1952, he is about to attempt the greatest feat of all. He is going to give up $62.6 billion, more in a single year than the U.S. Government collected in the whole leaf-raking decade of the '30s--and almost a third again as much as in the most expensive year of World War II. Of this $62.6 billion, almost half ($29.3 billion) will come from the individual income tax, not an American creation, but one which the Americans, with their genius for large-scale organization, have brought to its fullest flowering.
...when the American income tax began, the mass of American voters thought they were taking a swing at a fellow named Pierpont or Cornelius. The blow, in full and crushing measure, now lands each March 15 on the chin of a fellow named John Q.
From Little Acorns. How modestly it all started! To help support the Civil War, Lincoln's Congress in 1861 adopted a 3% levy on all incomes over $800. The New York Herald applauded: "Millionaired like Mr. W. B. Astor, Commodore Vanderbilt... and others will henceforth contribute a fair proportion of their wealth to the national Government." This act was never enforced, but in 1862 Congress passed a 3% levy, plus a 5% tax on incomes over $10,000, thus introducing the now famed principle of taxation according to ability to pay. There was little dissent. In 1864 more gradations were introduced. Was Representative Justin S. Morrill (R., Vt.) the voice of reaction or of conscience or of ironic prophecy when he opposed the bill? He said: "This provision goes upon the principle of taxing a man because he is richer than another. The very theory of our institutions is entire equality, that we make no distinction between the rich man and the poor man. The man of moderate means is just as good as the man with more means, but our theory of government does not admit that he is better."
The Civil War tax was collected from about 250,000 people in a population of 39 million. The tax, which had been voted for a limited period, was dropped in 1872.
After the Civil War, U.S. capitalism began to spawn millionaires, and millionaires begot mass envy and a burning sense of social injustice. The eyes of Southerners and Westerners saw hundreds of cigar-smoking millionaires swarming like cuttlefish around New York and Newport harbors. This contrast tells the story: in 1843, there were only 20 millionaires in the whole U.S. In 1909, the 92 members of the U.S. Senate included 17 millionaires--15 Republicans and 2 Democrats.
The rise of the millionaires revived sentiment for an income tax. It was strictly and frankly a soak-the-rich measure. In 1893, a St. Louis editor urged William Jennings Bryan to lead a crusade for a graded tax of 5% or 10% on incomes over $10,000. "There is nothing those Eastern plutocrats dread as much as that."
Bryan heeded the call. In 1894, he tacked on a Republican tariff bill an amendment levying a 2% tax on incomes over $4,000...
The Bryan-sponsored tax became law in August 1894. The Supreme Court, reversing a "century of error," quickly found it unconstitutional. The New York Sun fairly panted with relief: "The wave of socialistic revolution... breaks at the foot of the ultimate bulwark... of our liberties. Five to four the court stands like a rock."
...The Democratic platform of the 1908 (candidate: W. J. Bryan) declared for a constitutional amendment permitting an income tax. The Republican platform did not, but the candidate, William Howard Taft, announced that he was for it. In the heavily G.O.P. Congress of 1909, the income-tax group, led by a fiery Tennessean named Cordell Hull, introduced their measure-- aimed, as Hull said, at the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, the Morgans and the Rockefellers. The leading "plutocrat" of the Senate, Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, first tried desperately to stave off the bill, finally offered the constitutional amendment legalizing an income tax. Hull and his group thought that Aldrich was trying to trick them, that the conservatives would kill the proposed amendment in the state legislatures.
If Aldrich was up to tricks, they did not work. The amendment passed the Senate unanimously, passed the House 318 to 14, and was soon ratified by the legislatures. John D. Rockefeller was one of the few dissenters. Said he: "When a man has accumulated a sum of money within the law, that is to say, in the legally correct way, the people no longer have any right to share in the earnings resulting from the accumulation."
The Payoff. Under the tax passed in 1913, a married man with two children and $10,000 a year paid $60. There were a good many complaints. The tax brought in $28 million. As a weapon against the rich, the income tax was little better than a flintlock. In 1902, there were 2,000 U.S. millionaires. In 1920, there were 42,000. Reason: millionaires rarely get to be millionaires by thriftily saving income; they do it through increasing capital values.
Almost from the beginning, however, the tax began to assume a form and function which its sponsors never intended--a broad and major levy against the people as a whole.
The charts which record this transformation make nostalgic reading for the American of today. When the citizen of 1916 paid his local town or city taxes, he satisfied almost three-fourths [TIME meant to say two-thirds] of his years tax bill--the states took 11%, the Federal Government 23%, and the whole shooting match came to only $3 billion. Even as late as 1939 (when, despite New Deal spending, all taxes totaled only $12.3 billion), Washington took little more than a third. In fiscal 1950, the Federal Government gulped up 70% or the $53 billion tax pie. The percentage is still rising. Trying to tag along on the gravy train, 29 states now have income taxes of their own on the books.
On the forms now being made out for 1951 incomes:
-- 1,526,000 people with incomes under $1,000 a year will pay an average of $25 each.
-- Nearly 6,000,000 taxpayers between $1,000 and $2,000 will pay $125 each-- twice as much as the $10,000-income man under the 1913 law.
-- The whole group of 33,900,000 taxpayers with incomes under $5,000 will pay more than $8 billion, as much as the whole federal budget in 1938.
-- Another $5 billion will come from the 6,300,000 taxpayers between $5,000 and $10,000, who will have an average tax of $811.
-- As for the "millionaires," the 95,000 with incomes over $50,000 a year will kick in only about $4.4 billion.
Most of these, of course, are not millionaires at all, but high-salaried executives who live for a day, like gaudy moths, in the bright light of the tax collector's investigators. Surtaxes consume their substance. They have no more chance of getting rich by saving than a Nebraska hog farmer of Bryan's day had of eating oysters with Ward McAllister.
Taxes, federal, state and local, will take about 32% of all the money made in the U.S. in 1952. The American taxpayer who consoles himself that he is far better off than his British cousin may find it an interesting fact that Britain takes about the same percentage (not counting another 4% for social security). The American income tax provides 45% of all federal revenues. The British income tax amounts to only 30% of current British government revenues...