TAXES: The Big Bite

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This week once again the great American taxpayer—that irascible and yet docile composite of the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Senator Taft, John L. Lewis and the fellow next door—was working over his income-tax return. He did not do the job happily, or—in a year when he couldn't quite decide whether his country was at peace or at war—even very patriotically. The feeling that an enormous eye in Washington watched him as he wrote down his deductions was often all that kept him from cheating—and sometimes that didn't quite keep him honest.*

He hated the dreary toil of filling out his complicated, sometimes incomprehensible income-tax form, and was inclined to have wild, triumphant daydreams about finding on the street a big bundle of unmarked small bills which he could bury without the knowledge of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. As he entered item 6, added items 2 and 3, and fumbled distractedly with old dentist's and gasoline bills, he sometimes stopped to stare for long intervals at the ceiling—as if he expected to see a little loudspeaker push through the plaster and hear President Truman's voice saying softly: "Oh, pshaw, Jim, we've decided to call the tax off this year."

Look, No Clubs! Such remission from on high could no more come to the American taxpayer than to Atlas, the Greek weight lifter. On the taxpayer's shoulders rest the defense of the free world, the salaries of 2,500,000 U.S. Government employees, the care of Eskimos, and the spaghetti supply of Naples. The American taxpayer is the latest product of aeons of human progress. From his forefathers, despots were able to extract, under club or sword or torture, a livre here and a bushel of turnips there. But every dime the American taxpayer gives up has been voted out of him by his duly elected representatives.

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 him 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.

The biography of the American income taxpayer is a story of surprises—and the biggest surprise may be still to come. It can be viewed as a victory of human progress or as a bitter historical joke—the joke being that 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.

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