Nice Work If You Can Get It

April 13, 2022

It’s Spring Break, and millions of Americans are doing their best bird imitations and flying south. College kids will find their way to budget motels in places like Myrtle Beach, Daytona, and South Padre Island, where beer is cheap, bar bouncers understand an ID doesn’t have to be perfect to get the job done, and police turn a blind eye to minor misdemeanors in exchange for sweet tourist cash. Grown-ups head to classier resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean. Some adventurous spring breakers venture even farther to South American destinations like Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, where, centuries ago, the Incas built their empire.

The Incas ruled from roughly 1400 to 1532 – barely a blink of an eye as civilizations go. In that short time, they expanded their reach to over 800,000 square miles and perhaps 12 million people. They built rope suspension bridges, roads, canals, and terraces for growing maize, cocoa, beans, and potatoes. The stone structures they erected at Machu Pichu still stand today. Incan food scientists even invented beef jerky (although they made it out of llama). But – and this was fun to learn – they never got around to figuring out money. This curious omission had all sorts of consequences, especially at tax time.

With nothing tangible to exchange for goods or services, the Incan economy centered on barter and human labor. Because there was no cash to collect for taxes, the Incans turned to a concept called corvée, or forced labor in lieu of taxes. They called it mit’a and put male citizens aged 15-50 to work for a set number of days – usually two to three months per year. Rulers imposed different sorts of mit’as to harness their citizens’ various talents. These included local mit’as to maintain infrastructure, a war mit’a to man the army, an agricultural mit’a to harvest the crops, and a fishing mit’a to catch fish. (Have you tried Peruvian ceviche? It’s even better than llama jerky!)

In 1532, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro landed in Peru at the end of a bloody civil war for control of the Incan throne. Pizarro’s group included just 167 men. But that tiny force was armed with guns, swords, and a primitive bioweapon called “smallpox” (/smôlˌpäks/), which helped them subdue the Inca almost overnight. And the Spanish found the mit’a worked so well they used it as the foundation for their own encomienda system, also based on forced labor.

Today, Washington struggles to find new ways to pay for our own empire. Lawmakers have looked at taxing carbon outputs, taxing wealth, and even taxing increases in wealth without success. But why jump through all those hoops when you can just put people to work? Granted, it might be tough to find appropriate jobs for, say, an ambulance-chasing attorney or timeshare salesman. And some people have no useful skills whatsoever. (It’s hard to imagine what any of those “real housewives” could possibly do.) Yet the Inca concept of public service still holds potential. Many politicians have proposed a year or two of mandatory national service for young people before beginning college or a career. We wouldn’t be the first people on the modern planet to do it!

Is there any chance a 21st century mit’a could work here? Probably not. Our founding fathers revolted against the British to escape taxes, and a later generation fought a civil war over involuntary servitude. Sadly, that leaves us with good old Form 1040 to pay the bills. The good news is that you may be able to use smart tax planning to reduce your cash bill more effectively than cutting your service days. Be glad we’re here to help, and enjoy your spring break!

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