The economic cockroach

I know what you’re thinking as the April 15 tax filing deadline looms: “If Kim Jong-un keeps rattling that saber, we’re going to have ourselves a nuclear war. NO NEED TO PAY TAXES THIS YEAR!”

First of all, enough with the shouting. Second, I have some bad news: It takes more than a nuclear catastrophe to keep Uncle Sam’s hand out of your pocket. Our taxes have been disaster-proofed and turned into the economic cockroach of Armageddon. In 1998, the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project released a report ensuring that the process of collecting and assessing taxes would resume within 30 days of a nuclear event. The report even details how generous our post-apocalypse government will be: “On the premise that the collection of delinquent accounts would be most adversely affected, and in many cases would be impossible in a disaster area, the service will concentrate on the collection of current taxes.” Just what you want to hear as you dig out from the rubble.

In 1980, economists working at secret relocation sites were tasked with the creation of a post-attack economy that would generate revenue and allow for the rebuilding of society. During an exercise code-named REX-80 ALPHA, they decided on tax-free cash grants for survivors rather than providing tax deductions. I guess they figured this would avoid all those deductions for things like, “Firestorms that destroyed my home office,” or “Lost revenue due to nuclear winter.” New money would be printed from presses stored in underground shelters by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The government would buy destroyed assets and pay off mortgages to prevent a collapse of the banking system — not that a giant government bailout like this would ever really happen.

That would be silly.

Our government has been in the business of skimming off the top since 1861, when a 3% income tax was first levied on incomes over $800 to help fund the Civil War. It was repealed in 1872 on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, then brought back at 2% in the Revenue Act of 1894. In 1913, the 16th Amendment to the Constitution paved the way for the income tax system we see today. Congress even declared illegal income taxable in 1916, following in the truly American tradition of finding ways to make crime pay.

In another uniquely American pastime, we’ve managed to take a practice that dates back several millennia (the earliest known tax was paid with livestock in Mesopotamia about 4,500 years ago) and turn it into an economic Rube Goldberg machine. The U.S. tax code contains seven billion words. To put that in perspective: The Bible has about 800,000. The song “Taxman” by the Beatles has 134. It says something when the “easy” 2012 tax return form, the 1040EZ, has a 46-page instruction booklet (not including the actual tax return itself).

Oddly, it is in the area of collecting our taxes that the U.S. government shows the most faith in its citizens. Normally, the government assumes we’re idiots. In Illinois, for example, there’s a law against driving with an un-caged bear. In Alaska, they actually had to create a law outlawing the waking of a sleeping bear for a photo opportunity. In our home state, there’s a law still on the books that states that a pickle cannot officially be considered a pickle unless it bounces (we make no mention of bears). When it comes to breaking down obscure calculations on earned income credits for quarterly estimated tax returns, however, they assume either we’re in MENSA or that our tax preparers are.

Even Albert Einstein once said, “The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.” If the Father of Quantum Physics is struggling with your math, there’s a problem — especially when one discovers why the most widely used Social Security number of all time is 078-05-1120. This number was included on a fake social security card placed in wallets on sale at Woolworth’s in 1938. It was actually Hilda Schrader Whicter’s Social Security number — she was the wallet manufacturer’s secretary. Because the card displayed no name, more than 40,000 people used Hilda’s number on their taxes, thinking it was theirs. She’s probably still on the phone with customer support today.

I don’t know much about North Korea’s plans, but I’d file my taxes on time if I were you. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is supposedly the only country that doesn’t levy taxes, but for us it’s as American as apple pie and King Jung-un’s Nike sneaker collection. Besides, our taxes will keep those auditors employed for when we really need them: the day after the zombie apocalypse.

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