Skewered on Morton's Fork
The origin of the term "Morton's Fork" is generally attributed to John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury. As Lord Chancellor of England, he was charged with the responsibility to restore the royal treasury, depleted by King Edward IV. He determined that all citizens, rich and poor alike, could afford to pay exorbitant taxes. The Lord Chancellor instructed his tax collectors as follows.
"If the subject is seen to live frugally, tell him because he is clearly a money saver of great ability, he can afford to give generously to the King. If, however, the subject lives a life of great extravagance, tell him he, too, can afford to give largely, the proof of his opulence being evident in his expenditure."
This view has since been named ‘Morton’s Fork’. As the King’s tax collector, Morton’s philosophy reveals a depressing government belief that all citizens, regardless of station, have an unlimited ability to pay taxes. Just as British subjects were skewered by the Lord Chancellor, many middle class Americans find themselves impaled on Morton’s fork. Think about that. Americans are taxed if they work hard and save and taxed if they work hard and spend. Anything earned is always minus taxes. For anything left over that is spent, the price paid is nearly always plus taxes.
When I attempt to explain a provision of the tax code and its impact on an individual client’s tax liability, I am frequently asked “why?” After years of struggling to explain the why, to offer a sensible answer, I finally gave up. I refuse to try to explain the logic of a system that has none. I cannot justify the rationale of a legislative body that has lost all reason. My office wall holds a needlepoint given to me by my daughter several years ago. Now if I am asked why, I just point.
"I can tell you what, I can’t tell you why."
Even the IRS acknowledges the dilemma inherent in a tax code that is virtually incomprehensible to the average taxpayer. While the term ‘IRS Guidance in Plain English’ might appear to be a contradiction in terms, the IRS has made an attempt to provide such guidance on their website .
“For anyone not familiar with the inner workings of tax administration, the array of IRS guidance may seem, well, a little puzzling at first glance.”
Puzzling? “A little puzzling?” That’s a joke, right?
2013 marked the hundred-year anniversary of a defining moment in United States history, an anniversary that likely went unnoticed as Americans went about their daily lives. In 1913, the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified by a sufficient number of states making income tax a permanent fixture in the United States. The amendment states:
"The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration."
Those thirty words led to the Frankenstein monstrosity known as U.S. Code: Title 26 – Internal Revenue Code. This code now contains an estimated 4,000,000 words and is growing almost daily. That power and the ensuing laws implementing that power forever changed the tax landscape of the United States. The transformation of our tax structure permanently altered our nation’s economic and political climate. Many have argued the results have not all been positive.