Tax the Peasants with this One Weird Trick!

Taxes are universally despised by everyone who pays them; shared resources are universally used by everyone who pays taxes. These are common unpleasant truths like waste disposal and knowing where hamburgers come from. No one is pleased when April 15th approaches.

While the income tax in the US is a phenomenon that started in the middle of our young history, taxation in general goes back to the dawn of civilization. The notion of paying resources into the central governing body is at least as old as the development of writing. Many of the earliest forms of writing – cuneiform on clay tablets from Lagash, Sumeria ( now modern Iraq) – reflected accounting for taxes paid by the farmers and peasants.  Some of these predated coinage, so many taxes were paid in kind. Farmers paid with chicken, livestock, or grains and if they didn’t have the goods, they paid in labor.

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SeverusTare, Deviant Art

The Egyptians, of course, had a massive central government full of priests, scribes, soldiers, and the Department of Agriculture – they had a huge granary. This naturally required a large number of tax accountants and tax collectors. The text on the Rosetta Stone, which provided the earliest clue to translation of hieroglyphs, is a decree by Pharoah granting a tax concession to the priesthood in exchange for proper homage and feasting dedicated to the ruler.

One of the unusual items taxed in Egypt was cooking oil, and people had to buy their oil from the Pharoah. This may seem an odd item to tax until you consider that current laws apply unique charges to a number of common products that many people use– soda, candy, cigarettes, and gas. Avoidance of such taxes is sometimes peculiar. The term “shortbread” was invented by Scottish bakers because desserts were taxed and bread was not, so they simply slapped the label on the product and avoided licking the sugar off their lips in front of the tax collectors.

Many rulers collected from the population in order to help feed them during bad harvests or provide protection like armies or moated castles. But a great deal of resources always went to finance wars, particularly of conquest. Peasants had to pay portions of their harvest and/or (usually and) serve in the military. Henry I required knights to fight, but also instituted a system called “scutage.” The knight could pay in lieu of military service.

King John became famous in the Robin Hood stories for gouging the peasants allegedly so that he could pay what he called a ransom for his captured brother, King Richard II. (At least in terms of history according to Erroll Flynn movies). Where John really ran into trouble, though, was by raising scutage threefold in 1214. That ticked the barons off enough – along with a few other atrocities and arbitrary decrees – that it led to a minor civil war and, ultimately, concessions by John. Those concessions were documented in the Magna Carta which outlined that tax policy had to be made in agreement with the barons, along with many of the civil rights we now have.

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Historiam Olim

England was further notorious for exacting unfair taxes from the Colonies, especially here in the U.S. As American children learn in civics class, England passed all these nasty little acts – the Townshend Act, the Molasses Act, and the Stamp Act. Taxes were levied on everything from playing cards to sugar to tea; the reason for the Boston Tea Party was that the British East India Tea company was granted tax-free status which made colonial taxed tea more expensive. Hence, the liberation of the British tax-free tea into Boston Harbor.

But Britain was infamous for also taxing its own citizenry for all sorts of crazy items in the same time period. Between the mid 17th and 19th centuries, while the colonies were growing, Parliament passed taxes on fireplaces, wallpaper, hats, candles, bricks, playing cards (again with the playing cards?), and wig powder. Because windows were taxed sometimes only on the ground floor, some Tudor-style houses only put them on the second floor. Perhaps the English government wasn’t only picking on the Americans; they just weren’t very good about enacting sensible tax policy.

England wasn’t the only country to tax odd items. Peter the Great taxed men who wore beards. The Japanese taxed alcohol. The French taxed salt, in a tax called “gabelle.” The gabelle came to comprise nearly 10% of the government’s intake, although it was exempt from payment by the clergy, persons of privilege, and the nobility. This was one more key grievance by the peasants which led to the uprising that became the French Revolution.

So, history is a long stream of attempts to collect taxes from as many as possible by taxing something commonplace (salt, oil, cards) which leads to either fewer people using the thing (houses with no windows) or pitchforks and muskets. But taxes are also used as disincentives and that policy isn’t limited to the dusty paths of the past, either. Peter didn’t want men to have beards. Today, some countries like Ireland and Denmark, tax cattle because they produce methane. This tax on “flatulence” seems bizarre until it’s pointed out that methane contributes almost 20% of the greenhouse gases that are driving climate change.  One more reason to shift to a more vegetarian lifestyle.

Moreover, we have plenty of odd taxes in America to contribute to the long list of the weird. Maine taxes blueberries, but then Maine produces 99% of the countries blueberries so it seems only fitting. The money apparently is used to create research programs to help maintain and improve blueberry production.  Kansas treats hot air balloon rides as a kind of air transportation which are therefore not subject to sales tax like other entertainment. Is that what prompted the Wizard of Oz to use balloons?

Finally, many states have instituted a “Jock Tax” on athletes. Allegedly this started as a bit of a joke when California began taxing Chicago Bulls players after the Lakers lost to Chicago in the playoffs. Illinois retaliated, although they only taxed athletes from states which taxed Illinois athletes.  (Really? This is what legislators spend time writing into the tax code?)

Since then, 47 states have created such a tax – players are taxed when they play a game as a visitor in other states which happens half the time. (The states without that tax – Florida, Washington, and Texas also don’t have personal income tax). While the tax was originally aimed at highly paid, high profile athletes, it applies unfortunately to more lower paid athletes, trainers, scouts and others in the profession which makes the tax excessively burdensome. Especially when it requires filing 20 separate state income tax returns each year.

This little slice of tax history was dedicated to those of you who have waited until nearly April 15th to finish your tax returns. The IRS estimates that approximately 150 million returns are filed each year, but almost 5% of that total are filed right around the deadline.

If you’re in that 5%, frantically digging through the shoeboxes for receipts or clicking online ads to see if any of the software really is free as advertised, here’s a couple things to know:

  • The best site for accurate tax information is Beware of other “clickbait” sites offering answers to questions which might be incomplete or designed to make you purchase their software.
  • You don’t have to file your return by April 15th or this year April 18th. You have to pay 90% of what you owe by that date in order to avoid penalties and interest. You can send the IRS a check and file a simple extension form (1040X), and then file your return by October 16th. If you overestimate what you owe, you’ll get it back as a refund. Almost 20-25% of households file extensions, so you’d have company.

And, if you have a beard, enjoy salty potato chips, play canasta, gaze out the window, or warm your hands by the fireplace, just remember things could be worse. At least the tax collector isn’t counting your Ruffles.

Today’s Daily Post word: Pleased

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