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Tuesday, February 19 , 2019, 10:16 pm | Fair 41º


Harris Sherline: We Pay Our Taxes but Not Attention

Americans are paying an unbearable price for our tax system's burden on productivity

With tax season in full swing, this seems like a good time to reflect on the annual ritual of self-flagellation that Americans are forced to endure at the beginning of each year. The April 15 deadline has become a sort of rite of passage for citizenship, although as things stand today almost half of all workers don’t pay any income tax at all.

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

Following are some random facts — in no particular order — about our income tax laws, who pays and who doesn’t, and the impacts our system of taxation has on the nation’s productivity:

» When the 16th Amendment to the Constitution established the federal income tax in 1913, the intent was to tax only the very rich. Rates began at 1 percent and increased to 7 percent for taxpayers with income in excess of $500,000. Less than 1 percent of the population paid any income tax at all, compared with almost 50 percent of taxpayers paying as much as 35 percent of their taxable income today.

» The top 5 percent of wage earners pay more than 54 percent of total individual income taxes, while the top 10 percent pay almost 66 percent, and the top 50 percent pay approximately 97 percent. Translation: Just half of all taxpayers pay almost 100 percent (96.54 percent) of all income taxes, while almost 50 percent pay no income taxes at all.

» Estimates of unreported commercial activity in the United States amount to as much as $1 trillion a year, and the IRS Oversight Board report for fiscal 2007 notes that the tax gap, “the difference between what is owed and what is collected ... is estimated at $345 billion of lost revenue annually.” Question: If it’s an underground economy, how does the IRS know how much income is not reported?

» The Cato Institute reported that businesses and individuals waste more than 6.4 billion hours on federal tax compliance activities each year, which the Tax Foundation estimated amounted to $265.1 billion in 2005. That’s equivalent to more than 3 million people working full time, just to deal with tax compliance. This amounted to a 22 percent tax compliance surcharge on the total amount collected through the tax system.

» In the 1920s the federal tax code was about 40 pages of rules. Today, according to the Virginia chapter of the National Retail Sales Tax Alliance (Interesting Tax Facts), the tax code, regulations and IRS rulings now require more than 66,000 pages to document. Between 1986 and 1996, there were more than 5,000 changes in the tax code. In 1996 alone, more than 700 pages of tax law changes and regulations were adopted by the IRS.

» When General Electric Co. filed the corporation’s tax return electronically, it took 24,000 pages to document. The Associated Press (June 1, 2006) noted, “If GE had sent paper forms, the return would have staked up eight feet high.”

» In 1993, the congressional General Accountability Office audited the IRS for the first time in its history and found widespread evidence of financial malfeasance and gross negligence, including the fact that the agency was not able to account for 64 percent of its congressional appropriation.

» The federal income tax, currently as high as 35 percent of taxable income, is increased by as much as 11 percent in state and local income taxes, plus another 6.20 percent and 1.45 percent in Social Security and Medicare taxes, which makes the total tax burden for some taxpayers almost 54 percent, not including excise, sales and property taxes, along with a host of other taxes, assessments and fees too numerous to mention.

» Households in the lowest 20 percent of income received about $8.21 in federal, state and local government spending for every dollar of taxes paid in 2004, while those in the top 20 percent received only 41 cents in benefits, according to a 2007 Tax Foundation Working Paper No. 1.

» Our tax laws have become so complex and contradictory that no one, not even the most brilliant tax professionals, including IRS experts, fully understand them.

It’s worth noting, I think, that when I started practicing public accounting in the early 1960s, the filing deadline was March 15, not April 15, and only one 90-day extension was permitted.  Today, the due date for filing is April 15, and it is possible to obtain a six-month extension — to Oct. 15 — primarily because of the increased difficulty of obtaining the necessary information and the complexity of preparing and filing tax returns.

Many societies view taxation as a contest between tax collectors and citizens, with payment or avoiding payment of taxes as the prize. But we are different we are told, because Americans voluntarily, that is, willingly, file tax returns and pay their taxes.

Baloney! If that’s true, why do we hear so much about taxes not being paid by people who work or do business in the “underground economy”? Would you file a tax return if you were not afraid of the consequences of not filing?

Putting aside the government’s hype and public relations initiatives, the reason our income tax system is so successful is fear! Fear of being audited, fear of being assessed, fear of tactics employed to collect unpaid taxes, fear of intrusion into our personal affairs, fear of not being able to defend ourselves against the unlimited power of government in general and the IRS in particular.

I believe the IRS has carefully cultivated this image over a period of many years. Can you say you don’t have a sudden, albeit perhaps brief, fearful reaction when you find a letter or notice from the IRS in the mail? I know I do, and I’m a retired CPA. I don’t want to hear from them, ever! When I do get some sort of communication from my friendly tax agency (federal or state), I just know it’s going to cost me time, money and aggravation. Perhaps you’ve noticed over the years that around tax time it’s common to see a spate of media stories about prosecutions for tax fraud. In my opinion, that’s no accident.

For my part, I believe Americans are over-taxed and under-served by their government, while our politicians are constantly looking for ways to impose new taxes under the radar of public scrutiny and awareness. Will it ever end? Probably not, until we have allowed ourselves to be taxed into near or complete oblivion.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his own blog, Opinionfest.com.

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