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Government Ownership of Railroads, and War Taxation Part 2

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Whilst the House Bill imposes luxury and semi-luxury taxes, it fails--as I have mentioned before--to resort to consumption taxes of a general kind--a deliberate but, in my opinion, unwarrantable omission.

My advocacy of consumption and similar taxes, such as stamp taxes of many kinds, is not actuated by any desire to relieve those with large incomes from the maximum of contribution which may wisely and fairly be imposed on them. I advocate consumption and general stamp taxes--such as every other belligerent country without exception has found it well to impose--because of the well attested fact that while productive of very large revenues in the aggregate, they are easily borne, causing no strain or dislocation, and automatically collected; and because of the further fact that they tend to induce economy than which nothing is more important at this time and which, as far as I can observe, is not being practised by the rank and file of our people to a degree comparable to what it is in England and France.

The tendency of the House Bill is to rely mostly on heavy taxation--in some respects unprecedentedly heavy--of a relatively limited selection of items. I am--as I have already said--in favor of the highest possible war profits tax and of at least as high a rate of income and inheritance taxation during the war as exist in any other country. But apart from these and a few other items which can naturally support very heavy taxation, such, for instance, as cigars and tobacco, I believe that the maximum of revenue and the minimum of economic disadvantage and dislocation can be secured not by the very heavy taxation of a relatively limited selection, but by comparatively light taxation distributed over a vast number of items. I believe such taxes would be productive enough to make good the impending revenue losses from Prohibition.

I think, for instance, the imposition of a tax of one per cent. on every single purchase exceeding, say, two dollars (the tax to be borne by the purchaser, not by the seller) would be productive of a large amount of revenue and be harmful to none. A similar tax was imposed in the course of the Civil War and appears to have functioned so well and met with such ready acceptance that it was not repealed until several years after the close of that war.

There is apparently small limit to the zeal of many politicians and others when it is a question of taxing business and business men, especially those guilty of success. We are, I believe, justified in inquiring to what extent there is a relation between this tendency and political considerations which ought to be remote from the treatment of economic subjects such as taxation.



Let us take, as an instance, the case of the farmer. I do not pretend to judge whether in these war times the farmers of the country are bearing an equitable share of taxation in proportion to other callings or not. I certainly recognize that they are entitled to be dealt with liberally, even generously, for I know the rigors of the farmers' life, the ups and downs of their industry's productivity, and fully appreciate that their work lies at the very basis of national existence. Everything that can fairly make for the contentment, well being and prosperity of the farmer is to be wholeheartedly welcomed and promoted.

Yet, we cannot avoid noticing that the average value of farm lands in this country is estimated to have increased between 1900 and 1918 more than 200 per cent., that the value of farm products has been vastly enhanced, but that according to the latest published details of income tax returns, the farmer contributes but a very small percentage to the total income tax collected. Of twenty-two selected occupations the farmers' class contributes the least in the aggregate, although it is numerically the largest class in the country.

Let it be clearly understood that I have not the remotest thought of suggesting "tax dodging" on the part of the farmers. I know well how fully they are doing their part towards winning the war, and am entirely certain that they are just as ready to carry patriotically their due share of the financial cost of achieving victory as the splendid young fellows taken from the farms, many of whom I met in Europe, have been ready to bear their full share of the cost in life and limb of achieving victory.

The point of my question is not the action and attitude of the farmer.

But here is a great industry exempt from the excess profit and war profit tax and apparently not effectively reached by the income tax, which is entirely natural, because in this case the income tax can neither be retained at the source nor are the large body of the farmers, many of whom do not keep and cannot be expected to keep books, in a position to determine their taxable income.

Is it conceivable that the politicians who are so rigorous in their watchfulness that no business profit shall escape the tax-gatherer, would not devise means to lay an effective tax if the same situation existed in a business industry?

The point of my question is, taking the case of the farmers as an instance, whether in framing our system and method of taxation, the steady aim has been to ascertain impartially what is equitable and wisely productive of revenue and to act accordingly, or whether considerations of the anticipated effect of taxation measures upon the fortunes of individual legislators or of their party, have been permitted unduly to sway their deliberations and conclusions.

V

Turning aside from this interrogation mark, I will only add, in returning to our general scheme of taxation, that there are numerous taxes of a tried and tested and socially just kind--some of them applied in this country during the Civil War and the Spanish War--which would raise a very large amount of revenue and yet would be little felt by the individual. Some of them have been suggested to our legislators, but have not found favor in their eyes. Their non-imposition, taken together with the entire character of our taxation program, the burden of which falls to an enormously preponderant extent upon the mainly industrial States and the business classes, not only proportionately, which, of course, is just, but discriminatingly, which is not just, seems hardly explainable except on the theory that the intention of those who were primarily in charge of framing that program was punitive and corrective and that they were influenced--though I am willing to believe unconsciously--by sectional and vocational partiality.

The fact that the revenue bill was passed in the House by a unanimous vote does not mean, of course, that it met with unanimous approval on the part of Congressmen. The debate shows this. The bill, as reported after months of labor, either had to be approved practically as it stood or rejected and returned to the Committee. It is not possible for a body of 400 men to deal in a detailed manner with a subject so complex as a taxation measure of the magnitude of the present one.

The bill could not be made over or materially amended in the House. In view of the urgency of the emergency and the vital need to raise the sum asked for by the Treasury, no patriotic course was open to the House but to accept the bill and pass it up to the Senate.

I know it is not popular to say things in criticism of war burdens of a financial nature. One's motives are liable to be misunderstood or misinterpreted and he is very apt to have it scornfully pointed out to him how small relatively is the sacrifice asked of him, compared with the sacrifice of position, prospects, and life itself, so willingly and proudly offered by the young manhood of the land.

It is a natural and effective rejoinder, but it is not a sound or logical one. Heaven knows, my heart goes out to our splendid boys, and my admiration for their conduct and achievements and my reverence for the spirit which animates them knows no bounds. But I am acquainted with hundreds of business men who bemoan their gray hair and their responsibilities, which prevent them from having the privilege of fighting our foe arms in hand.

And I know no American business man worthy of the name, who would not willingly give his life and all his possessions if the country's safety and honor required that sacrifice.

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Government Ownership of Railroads, and War Taxation Part 2 summary

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