A Century of Bedeviling Income Taxes; Levies Have Become Both Higher and More Complex

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In all this excitement over the Internal Revenue Service scandal, a key milestone in American history has passed with little notice. This year, the income tax turns 100, and that brings up issues of major importance.

A tax on what Americans earn through their labor was not, as some imagine, always a feature of American life. This means that a modern country can not only operate, but thrive, without taxing the income of workers.

The federal government previously relied heavily on excise taxes, specific sales taxes on such things as alcohol, and tariffs on imports. The government imposed income taxes to assist in financing the Civil War, but these taxes were temporary.

The 16th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1913, made the personal income tax a permanent fixture of the U.S. tax system. It bore little resemblance, though, to what we have now.

In a word, the 1913 income tax was quite simple. It had, count 'em, three pages of forms and a single page of instructions. American workers could handle that with little difficulty, all by themselves.

The 1913 income tax was also low. An individual or married couple earning taxable income under $20,000 ($458,000 in 2011 dollars) paid only 1 percent of their income in taxes. Just about everybody then could truly say they were part of the 1 percent.

Even then, the tax rates were graduated, with higher tax rates applied to different ranges or brackets of additional income. The highest marginal rate, 7 percent, applied only to any income in excess of $500,000, or more than $11 million in current dollars.

In 2013, by contrast, taxes are now infinitely more complex. There are now more than 500 separate tax forms and more than 7,000 pages of tax-preparation instructions. In 2009, the IRS estimated that between 900,000 and 1.2 million Americans paid tax preparers to help them get through the quagmire.

Current income taxes are also high and, therefore, costly. Just two years ago, the lowest income bracket for a married couple filing jointly was subject to a 10 percent tax rate. …