Sunday, April 06, 2014
My brother and I have a small contracting business that we’ve operated for 40 years. We’re just now finishing up building a garage. Nothing unusual, except that we started the garage last October. Sort of. What happened was that our customer wanted a garage this spring, so we juggled the schedule a little in order to get the foundation and concrete work done last fall before the weather turned off bad.
Then we had the lumberyard deliver a load of material to the job, expecting sometime in December we would have a few days of warm enough weather when we could get the building under roof. When that failed to happen, we held the same expectations for January. We had the same expectations again in February. In a normal winter, those would have been reasonable expectations. This last winter, not so much. This most recent winter didn’t seem to give us much of a break in the form of moderating temperatures or quickly receding snow piles.
So I was glad to see March get here, even if it took longer in doing so than normal, and even if it still smacked us around with a few remnants of winter after it did. I know there are people who are fond of winter, but I think those of us who don’t share that fondness, find tolerating it a bit easier if it gives us at least a few breaks along the way, along with the knowledge we’ll have a summer without it if we can just hold out a little longer.
And as usual, it got me to thinking about the government. Somewhere between the winter season and the summer season is something we call the “tax season”. If you are like many Americans, you started in January gathering information about your finances which the government probably already has anyway, and taking them to someone, or some computer, in order to figure out if you are going to have to pay the government more money, or if the government is going to give you back some of the money you already paid them, or if the government is going to give you some of the money somebody else paid them.
There are about 73,954 pages of tax code we have to sort through in order to spend billions hours filling out millions of forms at a cost of billions of dollars. It wasn’t always like that. Before the current income tax was permanently adopted in 1913, most income taxes only hung around long enough to finance a war while it was in progress, and maybe a little longer until it was paid off. Then we got a break until the next war. The federal government, more specifically congress, was sort of in the same position. Up until 1913, unless we were at war, most people in the country had little reason or desire to interact with it. It was constitutionally limited to 20 or so specific duties, and unless you wanted to loan the country some money, or print some of your own, start or finish a war, be a pirate, or a few other activities that most people didn’t worry about anyway, the common citizen could almost forget that it even existed. Conventional wisdom was that we would deal with the federal government when we were at war, and our state government when we weren’t.
But just like taxes went from simple and occasional, to complicated and constant, so has the federal government. Those few original duties are increasing by thousands every year. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to name even 2 or 3 things the government doesn’t tax or regulate.
And even longer since the government has given us a break.