Hacks Newsletter Week 123- History of Taxes


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A Brief History of Taxes

For this edition of #HacksTheNewsletter, we have a special guest hacker, Jay Clark, a fellow Stanford GSB classmate of Hal and I, and a dear family friend. Jay recently served as my Chief of Staff after deciding to switch to corporate America after he spent almost 25 years working in politics where he was on the front lines of leaders making history. 
The Tax Collector by Paul de Vos,  c. 1643
Monday was “Tax Day” and while the act of forcibly giving money to the government may still be loathed by many, our modern age has made the actual day a non-event.  Nowadays filing means simply entering our bank account numbers and hitting “send” online.  Gone are the days of mad dashes to the post office to endure long lines to mail our forms and checks in large manilla envelopes before 5:00 p.m. to ensure the proper postmark and avoid late penalties.   

Tax days have been with us on this planet for nearly five millenniums.  Not surprisingly, the Egyptians were the first to have organized taxes around 3000 B.C. when the Pharaoh would send ministers called viziers to take 1/5th of all grain harvests as a tax.  Even the famed Rosetta Stone (a clay tablet discovered in 1799), was an Egyptian tax decree from around 200 B.C.

Various forms of tax collection continued to develop as Greek civilization overtook large parts of the world. Taxes were levied on houses, livestock, wine, and hay, among other things.

From the Roman Age through all Medieval European history, new taxes on property, inheritance, and consumer goods were levied, and often played a role in wars, either by funding them or provoking them! Other early advanced civilizations, such as ancient China, also levied taxes under the authority of a strong government. These materials and funds raised were then used to support armies and build infrastructure and other civic projects. The Mongol Empire that took control of large parts of Asia around 1200 instituted tax policy designed to influence large-scale production of certain goods like silk and cotton.
The issue of taxation in the American Colonies by the British Empire is the most cited cause of the Revolutionary War. “No taxation without representation” is a battle-cry from the period that most children even today can recite.  After the Revolutionary War, Article One of the Constitution gave Congress the power to impose taxes and other levies on the public. It is still the central body that organizes the federal tax system based on recommendations from the executive branch. Most state and local tax laws are created under very similar systems.

Early on in our nation, most taxes came about thru trade and commerce.  As our nation grew, so too did the diversity of types of taxes. After the Civil War, and into the early 1900s, the American economy changed rapidly in a way that made the old tariff-based tax system less practical.  New patterns of capital and wealth accumulation brought on by rapid industrialization necessitated new forms of taxation. Thus, the 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913—the dreaded “Income Tax.”

To this day, most of the the federal government’s revenue comes from a tax on income, however, the 20th Century saw constant revisions and additions to the tax codes from estate taxes to the alternative minimum tax.  Two World Wars, the New Deal, and the expansion of safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare, caused our tax system to become much more complicated and detailed in the second half of the 20th Century.
Today, one’s opinion on the role of taxes has turned into a major political and social identifier.  It’s obvious that the history of taxes is one that’s still being updated and debated.  If “only death and taxes” are certain, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, then there is no doubt that debating, discussing, and arguing over them is equally certain.


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WHAT: Talk & Taste Finance & Wine
WHEN: Wednesday, April 20th, 3:00 p.m. Central / 4:00 p.m. Eastern
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There will be no end to the curveballs that life throws. As soon as you feel comfortable, another setback or new challenge will arise. Alyssa Rapp is driven to help people like her—the doers, those who keep swinging—seek to succeed in both life and career. Every challenge is an opportunity, are you making the most of yours?

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