Tax Analysts Blog

Think Taxes are Too Complicated? They Thought So in 1915, Too

Posted on Apr 14, 2011

Other than "too much," the most common complaint about the income tax is probably "too complicated." Fair enough. But let's not turn this legitimate objection into another count in the indictment of modern American government. The income tax today is complex, but it was complex in decades past, too. In fact, if you take contemporaries at their word, it was always complex.

Consider this little historical gem. 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."
Hamill was hardly alone. 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. (Not convinced? Take a look at the 1915 form for yourself.)

Some of the early complaints about complexity probably stemmed from the novelty of the income tax -- people weren't used to paying it, so a certain amount of transitional confusion is understandable. But growing familiarity didn't do anything to quiet the chorus of confused taxpayers, who continued to carp for the rest of the 1910s. 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?
Plenty of Americans are still waiting for the answers.

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