December 3, 2023

Economix: Taxes Have Always Been Too Complicated

President Obama, like many Americans, has called for Congress to simplify the tax code.

Good luck with that.

With 14,000 pages of Internal Revenue Code and Federal Tax Regulations, today’s tax system is quite complicated. But Americans have been complaining about the complexity of the income tax system virtually since it was created.

Joseph J. Thorndike, the director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts, writes:

In 1915, Chicago lawyer Charles H. Hamill of Rosenthal Hamill made headlines with some vigorous complaints about the new income tax, then less than two years old. The law, he said, was “the worst piece of legislative draftsmanship I have ever seen placed upon a statute book anywhere.” Indeed, it was very nearly incomprehensible:

“It is so complicated that it is utterly impossible to understand its meaning save by consulting a palmist.”

The year before, editors at The Washington Post had reacted in horror to the publication of new tax forms. “Complicated as the individual income tax blanks were this year, the return blanks for 1915 are even more so,” the paper whined.

By 1920, lawmakers were beginning to wrestle with serious proposals for simplification. Which prompted The New York Times to pose some hard questions:

What are the whys and wherefores of the elaborate forms which cause so much bother?
Why can’t we have a simpler method?
What are the excuses given by members of Congress for the complications?
Will they try to simplify the procedure?

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