It’s the time of year again when most Americans will be filing their income taxes. As if that’s not painful enough all by itself, here’s a little more salt for your wounds.
First, some history: In 1913 the U.S. federal individual income tax was enacted following the passage of the 16th Amendment, which granted Washington the authority to take a piece of citizens’ paychecks. According to the Tax Foundation, the top tax rate that year (adjusted for inflation) was 7 percent on income above $11.5 million; the lowest rate was 1 percent on income under $463,826.
Oh, how things have changed. The tax code today is a 76,000-page monstrosity, and the current top marginal rate of 39.6 percent will hit all married filers with taxable income of $466,950 and higher.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government collected $3.249 trillion in taxes in 2015. Almost half of that amount came from the income tax, meaning that the average income tax per return was $10,300. Most of it is withheld from our paychecks during the year—thanks, Milton Friedman!—and the rest is owed come April. If you’ve over-withheld (i.e., if you extended an interest-free loan to the federal government), you will get a refund.
But don’t go thinking you can refuse the withholding, invest that money, let it grow in the market, and then pay your entire tax bill at the end of the year. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is eager to get its hands on your cash right away, so it penalizes anyone who owes more than $1,000 (after subtracting their withholding and estimated tax payments) or who’s paid less than 90 percent of their tax burden for the current year or 100 percent of their tax burden for the prior one—whichever is smaller. With the IRS, each time you play, you lose.
Not everyone owes $10,000 per year, of course. The federal income tax is progressive, which means the top earners pay a much larger share of the tab. According to IRS statistics, in 2013 the top 1 percent of households paid about 37 percent of federal income tax revenues collected, while the top 10 percent paid roughly 70 cents of every dollar collected through the federal income tax.