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A History of Revolution in U.S. Taxation

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As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.”

While this quote was penned in 1789, his words still ring true today. U.S. taxation has changed over time, but it has always existed in some shape or form for over 250 years.

U.S. Taxation: 1765 to Today

In today’s infographic from New York Life Investments, we explore the history of U.S. taxation – from its colonial roots to its recent reform.

A History of Revolution in U.S. Taxation

The modern American tax code has little resemblance to its early iterations.

Over the last few centuries, Americans have battled against British taxation, faced sky-high tax rates to fund war efforts, and enjoyed tax cuts designed to boost economic growth.

A Timeline of U.S. Taxation

Today, total U.S. tax revenue exceeds $3.4 trillion. Below are some notable events that have shaped modern American taxation.

Colonial Roots: 1765 to 1783

1765 – Stamp Act
In its first direct tax on the colonists, Britain places a tax on all paper – including ship’s papers, court documents, advertisements, and even playing cards.

1767 – Townshend Revenue Act
Importation duties are placed on British products such as glass, paint, and tea. The taxes are expected to raise £40,000 annually, (£6,500,000 in 2018 GBP). As hostilities continue to bubble up, colonists argue for “No taxation without representation”. Although taxes are imposed on the colonists, they aren’t able to elect representatives to British parliament.

1770 – The Boston Massacre
British troops occupy Boston to end the boycott on British goods. The March 5th Boston Massacre sees five colonists killed. By April, all Townshend duties are repealed except for the one on tea.

1773 – The Tea Act (May 10)
Britain grants the struggling British East India Company a monopoly on tea in America. While no new taxes are imposed, this angers colonists as it is seen as a thinly veiled plan to gain colonial support for the Townshend tax while threatening local business.

1773 – The Boston Tea Party (December 16)
Three ships arrive in Boston carrying British East India Company tea. Colonists refuse to allow the unloading of the tea, throwing all 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbour.

1775-1783 – The American Revolutionary War
Growing tensions between Britain and the colonists erupt in a full-scale war. After eight long years, Britain officially recognizes the independence of the United States.

A Free Nation: 1787 to 1943

1787 – The U.S. Constitution
Congress gains the “power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises.” The government primarily earns revenue from excise taxes and tariffs, including an “importation tax” on slaves.

1791-1794 – Whiskey Rebellion
Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Secretary of Treasury, leads the implementation of a whiskey excise tax. In 1794, whiskey rebels destroy a tax inspector’s home. President Washington sends in troops and quells the rebellion.

1862 – The Nation’s First Income Tax
To help pay for the Civil War, President Lincoln legislates the nation’s first income tax.

Income level (1862 dollars)Income level (2019 dollars)Tax Rate
$600-$10,000$15,000-$250,0003%
$10,000+$250,000+5%
Over the coming years, income tax is repealed and reinstated twice.

1913 – 16th Amendment
As World War I looms the 16th amendment is ratified, allowing for taxation without allocation according to state populations. An income tax is permanently introduced for both individuals and corporations, and the first Form 1040 is created.

Income Level (1913 dollars)Income level (2019 dollars)Tax Rate
$3,000+$77,000+1%
$500,000+$12,800,000+7%
At this time, less than 1% of the population is paying income tax.

1918 – The Revenue Act
Tax rates skyrocket to pay for World War I efforts. The top tax rate is 77%.

1935 – Social Security Act
In light of the Great Depression, the Social Security Act introduces:

  • An old-age pension program
  • Unemployment insurance
  • Funding for health and welfare programs

To fund the programs, a 2% tax is shared equally by an employee and their employer.

1942 – The Revenue Act
Described by President Roosevelt as “the greatest tax bill in American history”, the Act increases taxes and the numbers of citizens subject to income tax. Total personal and corporate income tax revenue more than doubles:

YearRevenue2019 dollar equivalent
1941$3.4 billion$59.2 billion
1942$8.0 billion$123.8 billion

1943 – Current Tax Payment Act
It becomes mandatory for employers to withhold taxes from employees’ wages and remit them four times per year.

Modern Times: 1961 to 2018

1961 – Beginning of The Computer Age
The National Computer Center at Martinsburg, West Virginia is formally dedicated to assisting the IRS in its shift to computer data processing.

1986 – Tax Reform Act
The Tax Reform Act:

  • Lowers the top individual tax rate from 50% to 28%
  • Increases taxes on capital gains from 20% to 28%
  • Reduces corporate tax breaks

The revisions are designed to make the tax code simpler and fairer.

1992 – Electronic Filing
Taxpayers who owe money are given the option to file electronically.

2001 – Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act
President George W. Bush implements large tax cuts:

  • Creates a new lowest individual tax rate of 10%
  • Reduces the top individual tax rate from 39.6% to 35%
  • Doubles child tax credit from $500 to $1,000* (*From $700 to $1,400 in 2019 dollars)

2017 – Tax Cuts and Jobs Act
President Trump signs off on reductions in tax rates, while some deductions are made more restrictive.

For example, State and Local Taxes (SALT) deductions are capped at $10,000. Residents in high-tax states such as New York, New Jersey, California and Connecticut could see substantially higher tax bills.

The Future

U.S. taxation policy remains a contentious issue and shifts depending on who is in the White House.

Investors need to stay informed on current legislation, so they can engage in proactive financial planning and minimize their tax obligations.

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Green

Visualized: The Power of a Sustainable Investment Dollar

Do sustainable investments make a difference? From carbon emissions to board diversity, we break down their impact across three industries.

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Sustainable Investment

Visualizing the Power of a Sustainable Investment Dollar

Sustainable investments are booming.

Between January and November 2020 alone, investments in sustainable ETF and mutual funds grew 96%. The UN Principles of Responsible Investment now has over 3,000 signatories representing over $100 trillion in assets. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission established a Climate Risk Unit to analyze climate risk across derivative markets, and as of March 2021, new sustainability disclosures have come into effect in Europe.

But how do we know if sustainable investments have made a difference?

To answer this question, the above infographic from MSCI examines the effect of a sustainable investment dollar by looking at real-world examples.

A Sustainable vs. Unsustainable Dollar

To start, investing legend Benjamin Graham has compared the stock market to a “voting machine.” Just as consumers vote with their purchasing decisions, investors vote with their investment dollars. Especially in the short term, as more dollars flow to sustainable companies, this builds their exposure and access to capital.

In the long term, meanwhile, the market can be compared to a weighing machine. The market recognizes companies with profitable business models that improve their intrinsic value over time. Ultimately, this allows sustainable companies to expand and continue operating.

Given the rising momentum in both green assets and climate targets, here is how investment dollars have influenced and driven change across three industries.

1. Clean Energy vs. Fossil Fuel

Over the last several years, the energy sector has been associated with many of the problems causing climate change. For this reason, many investors are seeking out greener energy alternatives. But how does moving investment dollars from an ESG laggard to an ESG leader support the environment and society?

First, here is a brief explainer of ESG laggards and leaders:

  • ESG laggards: companies with the weakest environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance in their sector.
  • ESG leaders: companies with the strongest environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance in their sector.
Industry laggard: U.S. oil & gas companyIndustry leader: U.S. utilities company
Scale of carbon-intensive business lines equal to 73% of its operation47% lower CO2 emissions than the industry average
This is the equivalent of adding 26 million cars on the road annuallyThis is the equivalent of removing 9.9 million cars off the road annually
1 of 20 oil and gas companies are responsible for contributing to one third of GHG emissions since 1965Uses 3X as many renewable sources than industry average
3X fewer jobs are created vs. energy efficient sector, resulting in lower productivityThis is roughly the same as saving over 9 million pounds of coal burned
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: AAA

Source: MSCI ESG Research

Based on the above example, investors have the ability to finance powerful green initiatives that reduce emissions by almost half, relative to their peers.

2. Safe vs. Unsafe Working Conditions

Weak safety protocols are a key sustainability issue for the industrial sector. Here’s how two companies compare:

Industry laggard: South African mining companyIndustry leader: U.S. mining company
11 fatalities in 2019Zero fatalities in 2019
Faced lawsuits from miners surrounding lung diseases contracted from dust exposure in gold mines
Settlement cost: $350 million
Board-level oversight monitors health and safety performance
Lags behind peers in high incident ratesLeads peers in low incident rates
Lags behind peers in setting incident reduction targetsLeads industry in lost time incident rate & total recordable injury rate
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: A

Source: MSCI ESG Research

Despite the risks involved in the sector, investors can choose to support companies that take greater precautions to protect their workers.

3. Building Trust vs. Losing Trust

Over the last several years, the financial sector has faced increased scrutiny over fraudulent activities. Moving investment dollars from an ESG laggard to ESG leader may make a difference:

Industry laggard: U.S. bankIndustry leader: Dutch bank
$3 billion settlement in creating fictitious accounts to meet aggressive sales targetsSustainable finance portfolio valued at over $20 billion
Drop in top-tier bank ratings13% annual increase in climate finance
Board effectiveness questionedIncludes over 60 green loans, mobilizing environmentally friendly projects
Resignation of board membersOver 55% of board is female
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: A

Source: MSCI ESG Research

From board diversity to green loans, a sustainable investment dollar supports companies that are actively advancing society and the environment.

Sustainable Investment: The Time to Act

Recently, investor dollars and shareholder activism have been closely linked.

Between 2018 and 2020, large institutional investors filed 217 shareholder proposals on climate change alone, putting increased pressure on companies. Meanwhile, 270 proposals were filed on corporate political activity and 228 on fair labor and equal employment opportunity over the same timeframe. Across all ESG proposals, $2 trillion in assets were pushing for more equitable corporate action.

Through the power of a dollar, investors can send a clear signal to companies: the time for sustainable investing is now.

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Debt

Visualizing the Snowball of Government Debt

After an unprecedented borrowing spree in response to COVID-19, what does government debt look like around the world?

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Visualizing the Snowball of Government Debt in 2021

As we approach the second half of 2021, many countries around the world are beginning to relax their COVID-19 restrictions.

And while this signals a return to normalcy for much of the global economy, there’s one subject that’s likely to remain controversial: government debt.

To see how each country is faring in the aftermath of an unprecedented global borrowing spree, this graphic from HowMuch.net visualizes debt-to-GDP ratios using April 2021 data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Ranking the Top 10 in Government Debt

Government debt is often analyzed through the debt-to-GDP metric because it contextualizes an otherwise massive number.

Take for example the U.S. national debt, which currently sits at over $27 trillion. In isolation this figure sounds daunting, but when expressed as a % of U.S. GDP, it works out to a more relatable 133%. This format also allows us to make a better comparison between countries, especially when their economies differ in size.

With that being said, here are the top 10 countries in terms of debt-to-GDP. For further context, we’ve included their 2019 and 2020 values as well.

Rank (2021)CountryDebt-to-GDP (2019)Debt-to-GDP (2020)Debt-to-GDP (April 2021)
#1🇯🇵 Japan235%256%257%
#2🇸🇩 Sudan200%262%212%
#3🇬🇷 Greece185%213%210%
#4🇪🇷 Eritrea189%185%176%
#5🇸🇷 Suriname93%166%157%
#6🇮🇹 Italy135%156%157%
#7🇧🇧 Barbados127%149%143%
#8🇲🇻 Maldives78%143%140%
#9🇨🇻 Cape Verde125%139%138%
#10🇧🇿 Belize98%127%135%

Source: IMF

Japan tops the list with a ratio of 257%, though this isn’t really a surprise—the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio first surpassed 100% in the 1990s, and in 2010, it became the first advanced economy to reach 200%.

Such significant debt burdens are the result of non-traditional monetary policies, many of which were first implemented by Japan, then adopted by others. In the late 1990s, for instance, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) set interest rates at 0% to counter deflation and promote economic growth.

This low cost of borrowing enables businesses and governments to accumulate debt much more freely, and has seen widespread use among other developed nations post-2008.

What are the Risks?

Given that a majority of countries in this visual are red (meaning their debt-to-GDP ratios are over 50%), it’s safe to say that government borrowing is common practice.

But are large government debts a cause for concern?

Some believe that excessive borrowing will lead to higher interest costs in the long run, which could detract from economic growth and public sector investment. This theory is unlikely to become a reality anytime soon, however.

A recent report by RBC Wealth Management reported that the cost of servicing U.S. federal debt actually decreased in 2020, thanks to the low borrowing costs mentioned previously.

Perhaps a more prescient question would be: how long can the world’s central banks keep interest rates at near-zero levels?

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