If there is anything that unites Americans, it is hatred of them taxes. For them, the tax burden is the great demon to fight. Leaving aside great economic treatises, or authoritative financial experts, films are enough for us to have an idea of how delicate the issue is. It is no coincidence that even the ramshackle group of drillers in the film Armageddon ask as a reward for not paying taxes anymore. Not only even their escape becomes the engine for other events. This is the case of the story of Al Capone immortalized in Brian De Palma’s film gli Untouchable. Master of Chicago in the 1930s, the Italian-American boss was in control of large sectors of the city’s organized crime. Yet, as the film demonstrates, it is a Treasury Department agent who frames him, Eliot Ness, who uncovers his mechanism for evade taxes.
An atavistic aversion
The aversion to the tax burden has its roots deep in the history of America. The very spark that ignited the great fire of the Revolution against the British towards the end of the eighteenth century it was linked to taxes. The revolt started in the port of Boston in fact, it started from the fact that the settlers were harassed by taxes without having anything in return, not even a representative in the parliament of Westminster in London. From the Boston Tea Party onwards, the protest spread quickly, the rest is a well-known story. Other historical episodes also go in this direction.
As the historian Robin Einhorn on tax and fiscal policy reminded, no one in the US has ever looked favorably on taxation. In the nineteenth century the great owners of plantations and southern slaves were opposed to any property tax. At the same time further north, the philosopher and writer Harry David Thoreau he is remembered not only for having “invented” civil disobedience, but also for refusing to pay taxes as a form of protest against slavery.
Even today, after the fiscal scissors of George W. Bush e Donald Trump most Americans feel oppressed. According to a poll of April 2021, about 66% of Americans say they are very or quite “annoyed” by the amount of taxes paid. On the other hand, only 10% say they have no problem writing a check from the government. However, if we look at everything from the side of the wallet, we see that not all Americans are compact. 54% of those who earn over $ 100,000 said they were convinced they were getting very little from the government compared to what they paid in taxes. The percentage drops to 27% if, on the other hand, we consider those who earn less than $ 30,000 a year. It is the clear sign that America too must cohabit with social classes. Hence, the country is not only smashed by the color of its skin, but also by its wallet, especially after the Great Recession of 2008.
The analysis of why
From Boston Tea Party onwards the hostility towards taxes has practically remained unchanged. It is no coincidence that in 1978, among the tracks of the 57th album of Johnny Cash there is a very clear trace: After Taxes. “You can dream of a honeymoon for two. You can dream, but that’s all you can do after old Uncle Sam is done with you“. Yet it is not that government activities are deficient or ineffective. Of course there is no shortage of waste, but more than a few experts have pointed out that there is widespread fiscal ignorance among citizens. According to a Cornell Survey Research Institute poll, 57 percent of Americans say they have never been part of one of the federal government’s many social programs. But actually 94% of these had benefited from some form.
The bad name of taxes, paradoxically, is also linked to the fact that often the effects of taxes are not “visible”. In fact, experts have coined the term “submerged government”To indicate that phenomenon for which the authorities never publicize the results of public spending. Perhaps for fear that people have the feeling of a waste of public money. Yet the state machine is more generous than it appears. Last year the Department of the Treasury it returned to the Americans some $ 320 billion in exemptions and reimbursements for over 125 million tax bills, averaging $ 2,500 per citizen.
Another problem is the maze of bureaucracy, as the film also demonstrates The wings of Freedom. Frank Darabont’s film, which chronicles the ten-year incarceration of innocent accountant Andy Dufresne, shows this very well. There is a key passage in the film where Andy overhears a conversation between warders. Their boss is saying he inherited some money from a relative and complains that the bequest would be devoured by taxes. At that point Andy approaches and suggests that the jailer donate the money to his wife to avoid paying taxes. At that moment the narrative machine of the film is also triggered, with Andy entering into the good graces of the director of the prison becoming his private accountant.
The moral offense
According to the Americans, taxes, in addition to the wallet, undermine other deeper values. A few years ago a group of psychologists, talking to a group of small business owners, discovered that according to many, taxes are only a means of rob hard-working citizens of theirs dignity. A slice of the middle class is convinced that the government’s hand is immoral and that it helps only the ultra rich and the poor. For them, taxes clash with a founding principle of America, which is that hard work must always be rewarded. We may never know, but it is likely that John Landis also drew from this experience to fix the script of the cult film The Blues Brothers. The idea for the film with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd came from a set of scenes created by the comic duo at Saturday Night Live, the problem is that they lacked a glue and a plot that would make them useful for making a feature film. In just under two weeks Landis rewrote the structure of the film and found the engine of events precisely in taxes, or rather the non-payment of taxes. Jake and Elwood Blues have to put the band back together to raise $ 5,000 to donate to their old orphanage which risks closing for not paying taxes.
This horror of Uncle Sam putting his hands in the pockets of Americans is the other side of what many have dubbed the “American dream”. An almost miraculous element that has always made the United States the land of opportunity. It is the promise that if everyone works hard they can succeed. In this way, for everyone, taxes become the antithesis of that dream.
The relationship with taxes and especially the federal state has worn out even more with the crisis of 2008, the subsequent recession and above all the chain bailouts of the big banks. A mix that has slipped into the great American rift. On the right, the flare-up of the anti-tax movement Tea Party asked to cut everything possible and imaginable, left he found in Bernie Sanders and ultra liberals Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fertile ground to the cry of “Tax the rich” tax the rich.
In recent years the inequalities in America they have imploded with Americans getting richer and others getting poorer. This spread has increased in tandem with the gradual decline in the tax burden. In the America of the 1940s, incomes over $ 200,000 were taxed at 94%, then over the years they slowly fell to the leaps of the Reagan administration. Bush Jr. and Trump. While this tax cut has had immense benefits by launching an economic and financial development that is unparalleled in the world, on the other hand it has dented one of the pillars that have always made America great: social mobility.
Born without aristocracies, the United States has never come to terms with real social classes, as demonstrated by Martin Scorsese’s film The age of innocence, in which the remnants of the aristocracy are all “imported” while the protagonist of the story, an American, is a self-made lawyer. For a long time America has shown greater social mobility than Europe. Today that ability to pass from one generation to another from extreme poverty to wealth seems to have stalled. Despite this, resistance to taxes remains, but why?
In an episode of the TV series The West Wing, which recounts the vicissitudes of the democratic administration of the fictional President Bartlet, there is a key passage. The administration seeks the support of several congressmen to pass a law in support of the tax hike for the richest. A group of deputies, however, gets sideways led by an African-American parliamentarian. At one point an exasperated member of the president’s staff asks: “Among the beneficiaries of this law there would be mainly African Americans, the poorest, why are you opposing?”. When asked, the deputy replies: “Because even African Americans dream of becoming rich and do not want to pay more taxes when they become rich.”