Tax Analysts Blog

Kickin' It Old School: Tax Avoidance c. 1937

Posted on Mar 16, 2011

Think tax avoidance is worse today than ever before? Well, maybe it is. But consider this complaint from nearly 75 years ago:

    "The investigation of the income tax returns for each successive year reveals the increasingly stubborn fight of wealthy individuals and corporations against the payment of their fair share of the expenses of government. Although Mr. Justice Holmes said: 'Taxes are what we pay for civilized society,' too many citizens want the civilization at a discount."
This memo, from Franklin Roosevelt's Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, went on to identify nine popular methods of tax avoidance -- and to name a few of the the taxpayers using them. The techniques included:
  • multiple trusts for relatives and dependents (Amoco founder Louis Blaustein and Merrill Lynch patriarchs Charles E. Merrill and Edwin C. Lynch);
  • foreign personal holding companies (heiress Dorothy Whitney Elmhirst and electrical pioneer George Westinghouse Jr.);
  • domestic personal holding companies (financier Charles Hayden and General Motors President Alfred P. Sloan); and
  • incorporated yachts and country estates (Sloan again, as well as chemical titan Alfred I. du Pont, U.S. Steel chief Myron C. Taylor, San Francisco banker William H. Crocker, and numerous others).
Initially, Treasury and White House officials kept the names secret, but orchestrated leaks soon took care of that. Congress eventually called many of the accused to testify before a special, very high profile committee charged with closing loopholes.

I've written about this before, so let's just cut to the chase by posting a link to the memo in its entirety (Note: this link will take you to the website for the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts).

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