We again come to the time of year that calls for an examination of the horrific and the chilling. This website will join the rest of the internet as it concerns itself with frightening aspects of our usual areas of study, and as last year , we find the tax code no less terrifying than it was before. But, as any monster movie franchise will inevitably show us, we are far more interested in the origins of the beasts that scare us. Our tax code shares many similarities with the origin found in Mary Shelley’s classic tale, Frankenstein.
The book Frankenstein follows the gruesome and profane experiments of the ambitious yet shortsighted Victor Frankenstein. In his youth he became obsessed with the unchecked power found in ancient science, which mixed logic with the mysticism of achieving the impossible. As he grew into his studies, his obsession led him to action and he quickly learned that his actions could have unalterable and burdensome consequences. His experiments with the transformation of dead flesh into a living being were regrettably successful and his monster was created, doomed to walk the earth without name, purpose, or favor. This tragic creature tore a bloody path of revenge through all of Frankenstein’s life, reaching all those he knew up until his lonely and desperate end. While it is an excellent story, and an important lesson in recognizing limits, both personally and societal, it also sheds a little light upon our current tax problems. Just as Frankenstein, the creators of our tax code were looking back to the thinkers of long before. A direct tax upon incomes was not found in the writing of our founders, it was based more on the total control of government found in the monarchies of the past. It was predicated, ideologically, on the assumption that the government owned the money being distributed and that it was in charge of ensuring that it was equally given. As often as the term progressive is applied to it one would think that it is a relatively new idea. But the central control of power, and the absolute management of the money supply, is an old idea. The use of an income tax might be a new method, but the madness is ancient.
Not only were Frankenstein and our tax code creators looking back to the forgotten past, they were creating something far beyond their ability to comprehend. Both parties, the fictional and the regrettably real, were far more interested in temporal and petty concerns. Frankenstein’s ambitions and belief in his own abilities tasked him with superseding where others had failed and selfishly proving that he was right in the ability of science to achieve great monuments to mankind’s knowledge previously thought only the realm of the magical. In his success he proved himself right, but also disastrously wrong. Frankenstein proved the limitlessness of human achievement, but also every fault of humanity, from fear and pride to resentment and depression.
Likewise, those that created our tax code were interested with forgotten political goals and temporary election results. In generating a new stream of revenue, they were able to fulfill political ambitions that are known to none now. It was the outbreak of World War I that saw the brand new tax code utilized in its current fashion. Merely three years after its passage, the Revenue Act of 1916 altered the tax code to begin modifying the goals of society and its conversation. It created an excess-profits tax. This set the level that it deemed normal for corporate profits and taxed all corporations that were able to make money above that amount. The lion’s share of the funding for the United States during the First World War was taken by corporations that succeeded beyond the allowed limits of Washington.
It is this early example that shows the greatest similarity between our tortured Frankenstein and our political leaders of 1913. They both created monsters incapable of being controlled. Frankenstein’s creation took up a life of its own, learning to speak and to read of its own volition. Over time, the continued rejection of the community that he so desperately sought turned its heart cruel and malicious. It used its education and faculties to wreak havoc upon the race and person that created it and therefore was the cause of such torment and pain. Our tax code has also taken on a life of its own. It has outlasted all of those that have added to it and continues to shift and change. Over the past ten years it has undergone over 4000 changes. That averages to more than one per day. To challenge the idea that our code is not a shifting and growing beast is to ignore the reality that surrounds it. Merely three years after its creation it was already dictating to the American economy how much our corporations were allowed to make and began punishing them for failing to adhere to its strict rules. It has grown from a tool used for a new stream of revenue to be the greatest source of revenue for the government at the expense of the people. It has gone from a flat rate taxed above a certain income level, to a multi-faceted tax that affects people at all levels. It has grown from a law that was 400 pages in length to a complex labyrinth of 70,000 pages of exemptions, loopholes, and specifics. It is this slow strangulation of the liberty promised to our citizens that makes this practice all the more devious.
But the tragic tale of Frankenstein has a glimmer of hope for us today. In the story, Frankenstein achieved a short perfect moment in his long life of misery and regret. There was a point when he abandoned his pursuits and relaxed in the glow of his loving family and friends. Mary Shelley describes it far better than I am able, “It was a strong effort of the spirit of good, but it was ineffectual. Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction”.Frankenstein saw destiny draw him inexorably to ruin, his passions exceeded his discipline and brought sorrow and turmoil to the rest of his life. We face a moment of choice today. We can resign to our own self-appointed destiny to watch the monster of our own creation strangle all that we hold dear. Or we may take the initiative to create for ourselves our own destiny in the spirit of our founding. Thomas Paine wrote, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again”. While Frankenstein was unable to shake what destiny had planned for him, we are given the opportunity to shape our own. While the making of the monster was an event that was unavoidable and now is unchangeable, our future shows us that we can unmake the mistakes of the past to finally pacify the restless beast of our creation. Those that created our tax code acted as the young Frankenstein, believing they are above the established order of the day, reaching back to the past mistakes in an attempt to do the impossible. Today, we see the fruits of such past labor, in the unstoppable and unaccountable tax code that directs our society.
Unlike the horror story we have studied, the monster of our creation is not hidden from sight. While it may be just as despised, it is present for all to see and makes no attempt to flee. Our tax code is an amalgamation of dead ideas, stitched together by those who seek power and control beyond their ability, which gained a life of its own beyond the foresight of those that created it, which is destructive to the society it inhabits. Frankenstein’s monster is a tragic fiction that is entertaining to read about and valuable to learn from. Our tax code is a reality.