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15 Fascinating Things You Probably Didn't Know About Taxes

By Selena Maranjian - Updated Mar 7, 2017 at 8:54PM

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Taxes have been around for a long time, in all kinds of sensible and bizarre forms. Here are 15 eye-opening tidbits, some of which might vex you.

"If you drive a car, I'll tax the street
If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat
If you get too cold I'll tax the heat
If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet"
-- from "Taxman" by The Beatles

You might think the topic of taxes is boring, but if you delve into it, you'll find a lot of surprisingly interesting tidbits. (The thought of a tax refund coming your way after you apply various deductions and credits can also be rather exciting.) Here are 15 fascinating things you probably didn't know about ancient and modern taxes.

cartoon image of a surprised blonde woman, with the word "wow!"

Image source: Getty Images.

2500 B.C.: Taxes are nothing new. Tablets from Mesopotamia dating back to 2500 B.C. record taxation in a society where taxpayers often had to produce a cow or sheep with which to pay their tax bill. 

lower half of bearded man's face

Image source: Pixabay.

Urine and beards: Throughout history, all kinds of things have been taxed, ranging from urine in ancient Rome (it was used in laundering) to beards under King Henry VIII.

Windows: Between 1696 and 1851, there was a tax on windowsin England. It was meant to be progressive, hitting wealthier taxpayers harder as they were likely to have homes with more windows. The tax worked better in rural areas than in urban ones, where poor people lived in tenements with many windows that proved costly -- leading lots of windows to be boarded up.

$3.3 trillion: That's the total sum that Americans paid in 2016 in federal taxes -- to which you can add $1.6 trillion in state and local taxes, for a total of nearly $5.0 trillion. That's about 31% of the nation's total income. It might seem steep, but that's because it includes taxes for Social Security, Medicare, excise taxes (on items such as gas, cigarettes, alcohol, airfares -- and indoor tanning services). The U.S. government is expected to take in about $3.6 trillion in 2017.

Six billion hours: In her 2016 report to Congress, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson criticized the complexity of the U.S. tax code, noting: "IRS data shows that taxpayers and businesses spend about six billion hours a year complying with tax-filing requirements. To place this in context, it would require three million full-time employees to work six billion hours, making 'tax compliance' one of the largest industries in the United States."

Two fat Harry Potter books stacked, next to candle, feather, and jar of jelly beans

Image source: Pixabay.

10 million words: Folks at The Tax Foundation have noted that as of 2015, the federal tax code and regulations totaled more than 10 million words -- that's more than nine times the length of the entire 7-book Harry Potter series.

$255: Congress has repeatedly cut the IRS's budget (shrinking it by 17% and 13,000 workers since 2010 as of last year), but that's much less fiscally sound than you might assume it is: Per Nina Olson in a previous report to Congress, "In FY 2013, the IRS collected $255 for each $1 it received in appropriated funds from the federal government." It would make more sense to beef up IRS funding, to bring in far more dollars owed to the U.S. government.

30%: The IRS has a whistleblower reward program, whereby someone who reports suspected tax evasion that leads to the recovery of tax revenue can receive up to 30% of the total taxes, interest, and penalties collected by the IRS.

57%: As of 2011, about 56% of tax returns were prepared by a paid preparer. 

Red keyboard key labeled "Oops"

Image source: Getty Images.

60%: A 2014 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that returns prepared by paid preparers (the majority of whom were not enrolled with the IRS) had higher error rates than returns prepared by taxpayers themselves -- 60% vs. 50%. (It's worth noting that some of their errors are due to receiving incorrect information from their clients.)

27: Of the 500 companies in the S&P 500, 27 reported paying no income tax in 2015, despite reporting profits. This can happen when a company relocates its headquarters abroad, in a low-tax nation, or if it employs any of a number of legal accounting strategies. The companies included General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Ventas, American Airlines Group, United Continental Holdings, and Xerox.

1 in 200: Most working taxpayers face odds of having their tax return audited of roughly half a percent -- or about 1 in 200. Those with steep incomes or no income at all face higher odds. Here's a little more detail on that:


Percent of Total Returns

Percent Audited in 2015

All tax returns



No adjusted gross income (AGI)



$1 to $24,999



$25,000 to $49,000



$50,000 to $74,999



$75,000 to $99,999



$100,000 to $199,999



$200,000 to $499,999



$500,000 to $1 million



$1 million to $5 million



$5 million to $10 million



More than $10 million



Data source: IRS Data Book, 2015. 

94%: During the 1950s and early 1960s, the top tax bracket was between 91% and 94%. It's worth keeping this in mind when some argue that our economy needs low tax rates to prosper. That period of sky-high top rates also featured a growing middle class, economy, and stock market.

April 24: Last year, April 24 was known by some as "Tax Freedom Day," and Tax Freedom Day is likely to fall on or near that date again in 2017. What, exactly, is Tax Freedom Day? Well, the folks at The Tax Foundation explain that it's "the day when the nation as a whole has earned enough to pay the federal, state, and local tax bill for year." The foundation adds: "[E]ach state's total federal, state, and local tax burden varies greatly. Tax Freedom Day arrives earliest in Mississippi (April 5), Tennessee (April 6), and Louisiana (April 7). On May 21, Connecticut will be the last state to reach Tax Freedom Day this year, while New Jersey (May 12) and New York (May 11) trail closely behind." 

The White House.

Image source: Pixabay.

74%: According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released in mid-January, 74% of voters, including 49% of Trump supporters, said that the president should release his tax returns. He's the first president to not do so in 40 years. (Except, perhaps for President Ford, who instead released 10 years' worth of tax data.)

A little Googling can turn up even more fascinating tax facts -- such as these weird state taxes. Read up on tax deductions and credits, too, to be fascinated by how much you might be able to shave off your tax bill. 

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