From ScienceWriters: Writers expound on taxes

ScienceWriters Winter 2017-18 cover

By Julian Block

Writers will soon be facing the deadline of IRS 1040 forms, an annual chore that is one of the few constants in our continually changing society. In recognition of that shared ordeal, here are some quotations (invariably negative; seldom positive) about America's tax system that bring to vibrant life a dry subject that has long been the source of fierce political contention.

As Plato foresaw in The Republic nearly 2,500 years ago, "When there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income."

Count the day won, when, turning on its axis, this earth imposes no additional taxes.
— Franklin Pierce Adams, American columnist, author, and member of the Algonquin Round Table

Dear Mr. President, Internal Revenue regulations will turn us into a nation of bookkeepers. The life of every citizen is becoming a business. This, it seems to me, is one of the worst interpretations of the meaning of human life history has ever seen. Man's life is not a business.
— Saul Bellow's character Professor Moses Herzog in the novel Herzog (1964)

Of all debts, men are least willing to pay the taxes. What a satire is this on government!
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Politics (1844)

Fran Lebowitz on dogs: "A dog who thinks he is man's best friend is a dog who obviously has never met a tax lawyer." On children: "If you are truly serious about preparing your child for the future, don't teach him to subtract — teach him to deduct."

If Patrick Henry thought taxation without representation was bad, he should see how bad it is with representation.
Old Farmer's Almanac (1980)

Mark Twain received an income tax bill in 1864 for $36.82, plus a $3.12 delinquency penalty. But this was all right with Twain. He wrote his editor, "I am taxed on my income. This is perfectly gorgeous. I never felt so important in my life."

Income tax returns are the most imaginative fiction being written today.
— Herman Wouk

The Firm, John Grisham's best-selling thriller, became a 1993 film that starred Tom Cruise as a young lawyer seduced into working for a snazzy law firm that launders money for the Mafia. In the movie version, a mob mouthpiece describes tax law as "a game we teach the rich how to play so they can stay rich. The IRS keeps changing the rules so we can keep getting rich teaching them."

From a 1974 novel, The Partners, by Louis Auchincloss, a practicing lawyer who writes polished novels of manners about the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, American upper class:

You are behind the times, Ronny. Everything today is taxes. Common law, constitutional law, even criminal law. They are all soaked in tax questions. What better seat on the grandstand of life can I offer you than that of tax counsel? … Public and private morality, where are they? Submerged in a sea of exemptions, of write-offs, of loopholes, of fabricated balance sheets and corporate hocus-pocus. What is hospitality but deductibility? What is charity, charity that was greater than faith and hope, but the taxpayer's last stand? Who is the figure behind every great man, the individual who knows his ultimate secrets? A father confessor? Hell, no. The tax expert!

Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel, Gone With The Wind, is a romantic, panoramic portrait of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods in Georgia, not about taxes. But Scarlett O'Hara grouses that "Death and taxes and childbirth! There's never any convenient time for any of them!"

Our tax laws reflect a continuing struggle among contending interests for the privilege of paying the least.
— Louis Eisenstein, The Ideologies of Taxation (1961)

Abracadabra, thus we learn,
The more you create, the less you earn,
The less you earn, the more you're given,
The less you lead, the more you're driven,
The more destroyed, the more they feed,
The more you pay, the more they need,
The more you earn, the less you keep,
And now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to take,
If the tax collector hasn't got it before I wake.

— Ogden Nash

The avoidance of taxes is the only intellectual pursuit that still carries any reward.
— British economist John Maynard Keynes

The income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf has.
— Will Rogers

Julian Block is an attorney and author based in Larchmont, N.Y. He has been cited as: "a leading tax professional" (New York Times); "an accomplished writer on taxes" (Wall Street Journal); and "an authority on tax planning" (Financial Planning Magazine). Information about his books is at

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Mar. 1, 2018

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