I think April 15 should be declared a national day of mourning. Sure, government performs essential functions that private citizens can’t do alone. And sure, Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
We live in a great country with a great heritage, and I don’t grudge resources that make it great. But that’s not what Tax Day is all about.
1. Withholding Blinds Us to the Real Cost of Taxes
April 15 is the deadline for Americans to “file” their taxes. Year after year, we provide a signed form summarizing income and approved expenses in order to calculate our tax bill. Yet the focus on filing—burdensome as it is—belies the fact that we are paying all year long.
For Americans who work as employees (as opposed to being self-employed), estimated taxes are withheld every paycheck. Apparently the feds don’t trust us to save up for yearly or even quarterly tax payments—perhaps with good reason. But more insidiously, withholding hides the true cost of taxes.
The money never hits our bank account! And who really reads his pay stubs? We don’t think of the money as ours, even though we earned it. Funny how the prospect of a refund makes us happy, as if the government is giving us a gift. In reality, we have been loaning the money to the government, interest-free.
2. The Tax System Is Far Too Complex
I took the recommended tax class in law school and I was astonished by the intricate detail in the tax code, including a vast array of carve-outs and exceptions. After law school, gluttons for punishment can even earn a special, advanced degree in tax. In my law practice, I have consulted with such attorneys on behalf of my clients. Amazingly, even the uber-educated can rarely provide a black-and-white answer. The tax system is mired in pages and pages of fine-print gray.
Because of my religious upbringing, I lean toward scrupulosity. Even though I am an attorney, I have an experienced accountant prepare my taxes. Yet I tremble to think that I may have inadvertently violated some arcane tax provision or that my accountant’s interpretation of an ambiguous law may differ from the interpretation of an IRS agent or that my documentation may be deemed insufficient if I’m audited years later. Not only does the complexity of the tax code generate an enormous paperwork burden, it puts all of us at risk of breaking the law.
3. The Tax System Favors Special Interests
We can easily imagine an income tax using one or more straight percentage rates, without deductions. Sen. Ted Cruz once suggested a system so simple, Americans could file taxes on a postcard. Why hasn’t that happened yet? Where did these complex carve-outs and exceptions come from?
Since the creation of the income tax, corporations and special interests have lobbied Congress for loopholes. Their millions invested in lobbying become billions in tax breaks. Our tax code has winners and losers, and the winners fight tooth and nail to keep their subsidies.
We rightly criticize tax concessions for multinational corporations. At the same time, those of us who are homeowners love our mortgage interest deductions—as do mortgage lenders, home builders, real estate agents, and home improvement stores. But if we are being honest, why should home owners get a tax advantage over renters? The tax code should focus on fair collection of revenue, not social engineering or, worse, buying votes.
4. The Tax System Is Easily Weaponized
Because of the tax code’s ever-expanding complexity and paperwork requirements, the IRS can pick almost anyone and find an irregularity (see point 2). You can’t audit everyone, so how do you choose? The temptation for tax authorities to play favorites—and target enemies—must be extremely strong. In 2013, the IRS admitted targeting conservative groups for heightened scrutiny and delayed approval of tax-exempt status. We can only imagine what goes on under the radar.
When Special Counsel Robert Mueller decided to investigate Paul Manafort, President Trump’s campaign advisor, he was ostensibly looking for evidence of collusion with Russia. Yet Manafort was indicted, not for collusion, but for tax fraud. We many never know how many other wealthy political consultants are gaming the tax system. But it’s a good bet that, without his Trump association, Manafort’s tax irregularities would have gone unnoticed.
5. Too Many Americans Are Free Riders
We have all heard the Democrat rallying cry: “The rich must pay their fair share!” I agree. It is unconscionable that wealthy individuals and corporations can finagle lower tax rates than middle-class Americans.
But at the same time, approximately 44 percent of Americans pay zero federal income taxes. In fact, the bottom 20 percent have negative tax rates, meaning they actually make money from refundable tax credits. This means many Americans have no “skin” in the income-tax game. Why should poor Americans care how our taxes are used, as long as none of their benefits are cut?
Instead, all Americans should be expected to contribute some modest amount to the funding of our government. Let’s share the pain together.
6. 42 Cents of Every Tax Dollar Go to a Pyramid Scheme
The tax system is not only broken on the revenue side. Let’s talk about how taxes are actually spent. Almost 20 percent of taxes—more than $667 billion in 2018—are redistributed in the form of direct Social Security checks to seniors, including wealthy seniors. Medical care for seniors—again, regardless of income level—swallows a similar amount of the federal pie. This means younger, poorer Americans are supporting older, wealthier Americans.
Reforming Social Security or Medicare is politically untouchable. No one wants to be accused of taking money away from grandma. In addition, grandma believes she earned those benefits by paying into the system. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam has not managed the Social Security trust fund wisely, and grandma voted for those spendthrift politicians. Instead, the trust fund loans out money for general federal spending. Social Security and Medicare trustees expect the trust funds (consisting largely of IOUs) to be depleted by 2034.
Social Security and Medicare are nothing more than a pyramid scheme, with a dwindling number of workers supporting a growing number of seniors. Yet together they account for approximately 42 cents of each tax dollar. What could be more depressing than that?
7. Taxes Support an Unaccountable Bureaucracy
Tax Day is a legacy of the Progressive Era. The original progressives (like progressives today) had a dim view of constitutional constraints on government. Centralized, consolidated government was considered the best way to get stuff done. To fund their proposed expansion of government, the 16th Amendment gave the feds new power to tax individual incomes.
Modern progressives have continued the growth of the administrative state. Congress delegates its lawmaking power to largely unaccountable bureaucratic agencies, which then use their power to issue tens of thousands of regulations (which they then enforce, obliterating separation of powers). All of these agencies are funded by income taxes.
Even if we strenuously disagree with the policies of an administrative agency, even if we ourselves have been embroiled in conflict with that agency, we are still forced to fund it through income taxes. That’s something worth mourning.
8. Taxes Undermine the Reserved Rights of the States
Federal power was originally limited to areas appropriate for national government: defense, international relations, trade between states, and similar responsibilities. The Founders believed Americans’ day-to-day concerns should remain at the state level. This is spelled out clearly in Article I(8) of the Constitution, as well as the 9th and 10th Amendments in the Bill of Rights. According to Federalist 46, if the national government ever tried to exceed constitutional limits, the states would undoubtedly sound a general alarm!
All that changed with the 16th Amendment. The Progressives gained a new source of revenue, directly from the people, without going through the states. This allowed the national government to bribe the states into compliance. On average, state governments receive about a third of their budgets from federal grants. Today, state and local governments hire lobbyists and approach the federal government, hat in hand. This is not a position of strength for keeping federal power within constitutional limits.
9. The Majority of Taxes Encourage Dependency
The lion’s share of the federal budget (over $2.5 trillion in FY 2018) is spent on “mandatory” payments. These flow from agreements with the American people (including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) to provide benefits at a certain level. Approximately 15 percent of the annual budget goes to defense spending. While reasonable minds can argue over the details, defense as a budget category is a non-negotiable federal responsibility. The remaining 16 percent or so is spent on the alphabet soup of government bureaucracy (see point seven).
James Madison considered it an insult to “the free and gallant citizens of America” to suppose that we would ever reduce ourselves to “a blind and tame submission to the long train of insidious measures” leading to the loss of our freedoms. Yet that is exactly what has happened. We blindly and tamely allow the federal government to create programs for our every desire.
We like all the payments, programs, and subsidies. Oh, we may resent money spent on other groups, but we just can’t give up the crumbs that are designated for us. As long as this situation remains, Americans will not be self-governing, but dependents on their government, just like the citizens of every other welfare state.
And that is why I find April 15 depressing every year.