Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures

July 28, 2021

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan quipped that the government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases, including, “If it moves, tax it.” Well, Uncle Sam is already chasing income, payrolls, corporations, gifts, estates, imports, and gasoline and alcohol sales. Yet we’re still almost $29 trillion in the hole. So if we’re ever going to eliminate that pesky national debt (spoiler alert: LOL), we’re going to need some new gravy pipelines. (Cut spending? Bless your heart.)

Washington is already looking at carbon taxes, financial transaction taxes, and wealth taxes to fill the void. But none of those proposals are going anywhere. So we thought we’d take the next couple of weeks to look at some very real and sometimes weird taxes that different governments have used, in the past and around the world, to help fill their coffers. How well do you see these ideas helping to cover our trillion-dollar deficits?

  • Windows: In 1696, Britain’s Parliament levied a tax originally consisting of two shillings for a house with up to 10 windows, plus four shillings for each window over 10 and eight shillings over 20. It was a great back-door way of taxing richer people, who naturally had more windows, without requiring them to report their income. Over the next 155 years, the specific formula changed — but it was always easy to enforce because the tax man could just stand outside your house and count. (As usual, Californians would pay more for all those windows grabbing all that sun.)
  • Beards: In 1698, Peter the Great levied a tax on Russians with beards: 100 rubles for the wealthiest merchants, 60 for military and government personnel and other merchants, 30 for ordinary Muscovites, and 2 half-kopeks for peasants entering the city. Back then, Russian men wore beards to express their faith. Today, 60% of American men wear a beard at least part of the time, and they do it to look hip. (Expect a lot of furious lobbying from lumberjacks and Brooklyn bartenders!)
  • Wig Powder: Here’s another back-door income tax on the rich, who presumably owned more wigs. In 1795, Parliament passed a new tax on wig powder: £100 for an annual license with discounts and exemptions for royals, clergy, soldiers, and sailors. Fathers with more than two unmarried daughters could pay double for the hair powder equivalent of a Spotify Family Plan. The Act raised £200,000 in the first year but chased citizens into cutting their hair or going without powder — by the time it was repealed in 1869, it was yielding just £1,000/year.
  • Baby Names. In Sweden, tax dollars make it cheap free for citizens to give birth. But then you have to submit your baby’s name to the Swedish Tax Agency for approval or pay a fine of 5,000 kronor (roughly $580). Sweden first passed the rule in 1901 to stop lowly commoners from giving their children noble names and continues it today to protect children from offensive or unsuitable monikers. The tax agency shot down “Allah” and “Ikea” but gave thumbs up to “Google” and “Lego.” (Elon Musk’s son X Æ X-12 was unavailable for comment.)

There doesn’t seem to be any end to what clever (or desperate) governments can tax. Coming next week: Lawyers, toilets, laundromats, and the south-facing end of a north-facing bull!

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