Turning Stones - George McKale


Longing for Lady Godiva

This week’s column focuses on taxes.  I have written about the subject before and every April 15 I am reminded once again that I am a procrastinator.  Procrastination, as far as taxes are concerned, could be a bad thing. Just ask Walter Anderson, considered one of the most notorious tax evaders in American history.  He ultimately had to pay the IRS $400 million.

Lately, my own flesh and blood have referred to me as grumpy and aloof. It is true, as once again, I have had to crunch numbers to make them fit into some kind of balanced box. I try to explain that while taxes are important, actually accounting for what you may or may not owe can be downright impossible. In The Political History of the Devil, published in 1726 by Daniel Defoe, he wrote “Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believed.” It was Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, who wrote “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Though archaeologists are often consumed with death, it is taxes on which this column shall focus. Taxation goes back thousands of years and can be traced back to the Egyptian Pharaohs. Tax collectors, known as scribes, initially imposed a tax on cooking oil. Household audits were conducted, assessing the amount of cooking oil consumed. Greece collected money to pay for war, however, if war time expenses were no longer needed, and there was money left in the kitty, refunds were given to Athenian citizens.

One of my favorite stories is about Lady Godiva, who lived in England in the 11th century. Legend has it that Lady Godiva was extraordinarily beautiful. She was married to Leofric, Earl of Mercia, who had imposed a rather large tax upon the residents of Coventry. Lady Godiva was against such a stiff tax and pleaded with her husband to reduce the taxes upon their people. Leofric agreed if she were to walk and ride naked through the streets. She agreed to the conditions and Leofric honored the bet,  reducing the taxes of the coventry.

Taxes on molasses, sugar, wine, and other commodities were collected in colonial America. At this time, a direct tax on all newspapers printed in the colonies was also collected. Many other taxes were imposed in post-revolution America, but it wasn’t until 1861 that the United States proposed “there shall be levied, collected, and paid upon annual income of every person residing in the U.S. whether derived from any kind of property, or from any professional trade, employment, or vocation carried on in the United States or elsewhere, or from any source whatever.”

In the early days of Sonoma, our local government also required money to meet the day-to-day operations of running such a fine city. I have mentioned some of these in prior columns. In 1883 and 1884, a series of new ordinances were passed in order to generate income for the city. Ordinance No. 7 addressed a dog tax, and it was the responsibility of the City Marshall each March, “to ascertain by diligent inquiry the names of all persons owning, claiming, keeping or harboring any dog.” The tax per dog was fifty cents.

In 1884, a Street Poll Tax was passed by our City leaders. The ordinance stated “A Street Poll Tax of two dollars is here by levied for the ensuing year upon each male person between the ages of twenty-one years and sixty years, found within the corporate limits of said City during the time of collection…” There were monthly taxes ranging between two and five dollars levied upon saloons, stores, butcher shops, bakeries, hotels, barber shops, flower gardens and wine cellars.

Occasionally I give a little extra. Sometimes I have parked over the two-hour allotment at the Plaza, receiving an invoice (ticket) to pay. Maybe President Obama can help ease the pain, or maybe I should be pleading with Lady Michelle. For the record, I prefer taxes over death!

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