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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Ghosts of Tax Day Past

I was going through a long neglected desk drawer the other day when I stumbled across these:


I'm not sure how I got them. There's a set of the 1967 ones, too. Maybe they were left in the desk by a previous owner, or maybe someone else passed them along to me knowing my professional involvement with the tax system. Anyway, they weren't mine originally. In tax season for 1966 (spring of '67), I was a freshman in high school in New Jersey, hadn't had any reportable income yet, and had no clue that I would ever set foot in Oregon.

Holding these pieces of history in one's hands and leafing through them is kind of interesting. The obvious thing that jumps out at you is how much simpler the system was back then. The federal booklet (8¼ by 11¼ inches with a couple of staples in it) is only 20 pages long; the state instructions, which are three long pieces of paper folded together (not even bound), work out to eight pages of 8½ by 11. Today the comparable federal document is 105 pages long; the Oregon instructions have now swelled to 40 pages.

It's also interesting to note from whom the forms came:

Sheldon Cohen, now retired from a big-bucks Washington, D.C. law firm, is still around; these days he drops in from time to time on a tax law professor e-mail list serv to which I subscribe. And of course, Oregon's taxing bureau has long since been rechristened the Department of Revenue.

Back in 1966, there was little doubt who wore the pants in the family:

If the IRS owed you money, you mailed your return to Ogden, Utah; but if you owed the IRS money, you mailed it to a local office here in Portland:

People got by on a lot less in those days. Back then, the expanded federal tax rate tables went up to only $5,000 of taxable income:

But if you made a lot of dough (more than $100,000 as a single person, $200,000 as a couple) -- bam! The top federal income tax rate was 70%:

I remember when Mickey Mantle made $100,000 -- it seemed like a fortune. But Uncle Sam tapped the Mick hard, no doubt.

Of course, in the JFK years, the top federal rate had been in excess of 90%, but even 70% is pretty stunning. Today the Republicans have cut the top rate to half that much. (Reagan, who as an actor paid in the top brackets of the '50s and '60s, and never got over his bitterness about it, had cut it to 50% in 1981.)

In contrast, the 1966 Oregon rates don't look too much different from what they were in 2008. In the old days, there was a 9.5% rate, which kicked at $8,000 for a single person, and $16,000 for a husband and wife:

Here's what they look like today, 44 years later:

Back in '66, if you had questions about your state taxes, there were quite a few local numbers for you to call. The numbers were given in seven digits, without the old letter prefixes, which was probably still a pretty new feeling back then:

The real old timers out there could no doubt tell you the names that used to stand in place of the first two digits of some of those seven-digit phone numbers.

Ah, well. Tempus fugit, carpe diem, and all that. It's been fun chatting with the Ghosts of Tax Day Past, but our visit with the Ghosts of Tax Day Present is upon us now, and I hate like the Dickens to think about the upcoming encounter with the Ghosts of Tax Day Yet to Come. With the way the government is borrowing money these days, that one, my friends, is going to be mighty scary.

Comments (12)

The real old timers out there could no doubt tell you the names that used to stand in place of the first two digits of some of those seven-digit phone numbers.

Well, here goes, at least for the ones I remember in the Portland area:

23x = BElmont
25x = ALpine
28x = ATlantic
66x = MOhawk
77x = PRospect

We should make one up for today's 493 in NE Portland, a prefix invented in the '90s. How about "GYpsy"?

On the west side,

22x = Capitol

24x = CHerry

Can't remember the others...

Taxes are really the underlying concern with peak oil -- all our hopes and dreams of future comforts include an implicit assumption of continued economic growth (and growth in tax revenues) . . . a pretty bad assumption in an energy-tight world.

Good article by an actuary on this point here that you might find interesting:

"Social Security and Medicare Funding Issues: Even Worse when One Considers Resource Constraints"

Really interesting. Most of the younger people I know won't or can't do their own taxes. It seems as though over the years the complexity may result from an operational philosophy that puts greater emphasis on compliance, enforcement and detailed specificity with very, very little concern for simply making it easier to file returns.


I think that's an interesting statement. Maybe the powers at be want the system so convoluted that people can't question "the system" effectively.

If people were more engaged in their taxes by filling them out individually; maybe that would create better civic dialogue/engagement about taxes and city services.

I've heard interesting stuff being thrown around about letting taxpayers choose 5% or so of gov't services they want their dollars to go to as a form of involvement with government and feeling a sense of voice.

Obviously it wouldn't work for 100% of gov't services because they need to budget, but wouldn't that be neat?

We have now evolved to where no one does their own taxes with a pencil any more. It's all done with computer programs, professional return preparers, or both. Congress knows that. And so they don't feel the slightest need to simplify anything.

Indeed, their instinct has become to make things as complex as possible in a show of "fairness."

What about 63x and 65x? Anybody?

Can't find much on those two here:


However, the 28x exchange appears to have been both ATlantic and BUtler, depending on the third digit. Don't get me started on stories of our old three-party line with different rings for each party...

63X was Neptune and 65X was Olympia if I remember correctly.

Ours started out as 42 Garfield, then it was later changed to 28X Atlantic.

Little off topic but I'm having a beer at a friendly establishment ahead of my son's lacrosse game. A fellow patron is raging about some inconvenience created by those "dam tea baggers"protesting. His waitress, fishing for a tip I'm guessing, chimes in with "yeah those damn tree huggers". Of course, this generates reams of disconnected conversations depending on who heard what. Democracy is grand.

Fascinating tidbits Jack. I love these arcane historical posts because they bring back a flood of memories about those tulmultuous and interesting times.

Good though likely unintentional test of your legion of followers too. By virtue of the marginal tax rates being below the fold I think you changed a 40 or 50 comment debate into a dozen comment human interest story.

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