Date 3 March 1942
Author Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury
Title Statement of Secretary Morgenthau Before the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives
Description Congressional testimony
Location Box 34; Defense and War; Records of the Office of Tax Analysis/Division of Tax Research; General Records of the Department of the Treasury, Record Group 56; National Archives, College Park, MD.
 

Statement of Secretary Morgenthau before the
Ways and Means Committee of the
House of Representatives

March 3, 1942

I am here to offer my suggestions as to our first Revenue Act of the war. I hardly need to emphasize the seriousness of the occasion. The task before us is to decide how this desperately serious war is to be financed and how its gigantic cost is to be distributed. Economic and social conditions during and after the war will depend to a large degree upon the courage and wisdom with which we attack these problems now. To defeat the strongest combination of enemies in our history, we shall have to spend on a scale for which there is no precedent. If we are to equip and transport fighting men in sufficient numbers to turn the tide, if we are to furnish the weapons to the men who are doing the fighting, we shall have to use every ounce of our national energy and mobilize every possible dollar of our income. The President has announced a program involving expenditures of $59,000,000,000 in the fiscal year 1943. We shall have to tax in accordance with the magnitude of that program and in accordance with the seriousness of the position in which we stand. The President's Budget Message in January called for the raising of $7,000,000,000 in new revenue from taxes, together with an additional $2,000,000,000 to be obtained from the social security program. The unprecedented sum of $39,800,000,000 will have to be borrowed in the coming fiscal year, even if the new Revenue Act fulfills the President's hopes to the last dollar. I should like to urge, therefore, the adoption and attainment of the goal the President has set, not as the maximum but as the very least that the American people can afford to provide at this critical time. Our task is more than the raising of a huge amount of new revenue. It is to make the tax program an instrument of victory. It is to frame the new Revenue Act so wisely and so soundly that it will facilitate the maximum production of war materials, hasten the mobilization of our resources, strengthen the unity of our people for the waging of total war, and prepare us for the new economic and social problems that will face us when the war is won. This means, first, that the new Revenue Act must help to check inflation, for nothing in the economic field can interfere with the war effort as much as an uncontrolled rise in prices. An inflationary price rise is a source of grave social injustice. It undermines morale and impedes war production. It strikes at random without consideration of equity or ability to bear the hardships which it imposes. Once it has acquired momentum, inflation is extremely difficult to control, and leaves a heritage of post-war stresses and strains that will haunt us for decades. Today we are confronted with a grave threat of inflation. Prices of food today are following precisely the trend of the first World War; prices of all commodities are rising at a somewhat slower but nevertheless disturbing rate. (A chart showing these trends is attached as Chart 1.) Unless effective preventive measures are taken by all the means at our command, we shall have a rapid general increase in prices, with a resultant rise in the cost of our war effort far beyond the figures now contemplated.

The way to prevent inflation is to prevent people from engaging in the futile effort to buy more goods than can be produced. This requires, first of all, the continuous and willing cooperation of every man and woman. It also requires a comprehensive and integrated program of anti-inflationary measures, in which increased taxes and increased savings are essential parts. Price control, rationing, and the regulation of consumer credit are other parts of such an integrated program. It is important for us to remember that all these controls are interrelated. The devices of price control, allocation and rationing will be more effective if taxes and savings are increased. Similarly, the effectiveness of the fiscal devices in preventing inflation will be greater if price and commodity controls are used. We should, therefore, tax so as to withdraw the greatest possible volume of purchasing power at this time, when money incomes are high and the quantity of goods for civilian use is shrinking day by day because of the demands of our war effort. A second obligation, second pressing duty, is the need for severe economy in the operations of Federal, State, and local governments. The anti-inflationary purposes of our taxing and savings program will be defeated if, at the same time, Federal, State or local governments indulge in unnecessary expenditure. As you know, I recommended a few months ago the, saving of at least $1,000,000,000 in Federal expenditures which compete with war production and add unnecessarily to the volume of purchasing power in the hands of the people. I recommended especially the immediate reduction of expenditures on highway construction, rivers and harbors, non-defense vocational training and Federal subsidies to keep up the prices of agricultural products.

Since then some economies have been made, but a large field for economy remains, not only here in Washington but in the operations of State and local governments. I should like to urge once more that real and substantial economies be made as a corollary to the new tax program. I do not mean that we should economize on the health and strength of our underprivileged, for that is no economy at all; but I do mean that we should save in subsidies to those who no longer need Government assistance, and in non-defense construction projects which can be postponed until the war is over. I have spoken of the need of checking inflation and the need of cutting non-essential expenditures in financing the war effort; I come now to a third and most insistent need that should govern our wartime fiscal program. That is the need of holding fast to the basic principle of our tax system, namely, that taxes should be fair and non-discriminatory and imposed in accordance with ability to pay. The cost of this war will have to be borne by everyone. It will be borne willingly and cheerfully if the principle of ability to pay is followed. In terms of the new tax program, this principle means that special privileges in our tax laws should be removed. It means that taxes which cannot be adjusted to differences in income or family responsibilities, such as general sales taxes, should be avoided. It means that undue profits should be recaptured wherever they occur. Unreasonable profits are not necessary in order to obtain maximum production with economical business management. The country will not tolerate the retention of undue profits at a time like this, when millions are pledging their very lives to save and perpetuate our freedom.

All will be expected to bear their fair share, in the higher and lower income levels alike. The recommendations which I shall now outline to the Committee will involve progressively increased taxes throughout the whole range of individual and corporate income now covered by our tax laws.

1. INDIVIDUAL INCOME TAX The individual income tax is the best available type of tax based upon ability to pay. Its rates and exemptions can be adjusted to the size of personal income and differing family responsibilities. Furthermore, it is a direct tax. It falls where the Congress wants it to fall. I recommend that the individual income tax be changed to yield approximately $3,000,000,000, or about sixty percent more revenue than will be yielded under the present law. In recommending this amount I have had in mind the fact that the great bulk of tax increases under the social security changes will also fall on individual incomes. In accordance with the President's views, I feel that the social security program should be expanded both as to coverage and as to protection, and that taxes for this purpose should be increased by approximately $2,000,000,000 a year. I am not making any recommendations with regard to social security taxation or benefits in connection with this bill, but changes of the magnitude indicated should be kept in mind in planning the tax program. As for the individual income taxes themselves, I am suggesting a substantial increase in the income surtax rates throughout the scale. I should like to give you a few examples to show the effect of these increases on typical incomes.

A single person with no dependents, with a net income of $3,000, pays $221 tax under the present law; he would pay $470 under the suggested schedule. A married person with two dependents, and with a net income of $3,000, pays $58 under the present law; he would pay $118 under the suggested schedule. A single person with no dependents and with a net income of $10,000 pays $1,493 under the present law the suggested schedule would call for payment of $2,720. A married person with two dependents and with net income of $10,000 pays $1,117 under the present law and would pay $2,143 under the proposed schedule. The accompanying chart and tables, which I shall now submit to the Committee, will show the rate scale and comparative effective rates of tax under the present law and under the suggested program. (Chart 2 and Tables 1.2,3,4.) You will notice that these proposed schedules involve no further lowering of the personal exemptions, which now begin at an income of $750 a year for a single person and $1,500 for a married person, with a credit of $400 for each dependent. The exemptions were lowered in the 1940 Revenue Act; they were lowered again in the 1941 Act, and their value has been reduced still further this year by the rise in the cost of living. Although single persons with less than $15 a week and married persons with less than $30 a week do not pay any direct taxes, they already pay a disproportionate part of their little incomes in indirect taxes of all kinds. Moreover, a further lowering of the exemptions would yield a relatively insignificant amount of revenue from the earners of very low incomes. If I felt that the expenditures of this group added materially to the danger of inflation, I should not hesitate to recommend the lowering of the exemptions in spite of the small amount of revenue that would be produced. Our studies at the Treasury indicate, however, that the very lowest income earners have all they can do to feed and clothe themselves and their families. Their buying habits are governed strictly by the need of maintaining nutrition and health, and I cannot recommend a direct tax upon them until we have exhausted every possible source of revenue from those who enjoy higher incomes. Because of the threat of inflation and because of large increases suggested throughout the existing rate scale, it becomes essential to afford a more convenient method for the payment of income taxes. The best available expedient for this purpose is a provision for collecting at the source for those incomes that are paid periodically, including wages, salaries, bond interest, and dividends. To start such a system immediately, however, might cause considerable hardship to taxpayers because of the substantial increases they are already called upon to pay during the year 1942 as a result of the Revenue Act of 1941. On the other hand, if the threat of inflation makes necessary substantial speeding up of tax collection, we cannot afford to postpone collection at the source. Since it is not known how soon it may become necessary to speed up tax collection to check inflationary price rises, the Secretary of the Treasury should be authorized to begin the collection of income taxes at the source, at any time and at rates within his discretion up to 10 percent of wages and salaries, with an allowance for personal exemption and credit for dependents, and up to 10 percent of the full amount of dividends and interest. This would not be a supplementary tax; it would simply be a means of collection. It would furnish needed flexibility in relating tax collections to future economic conditions.

2. CORPORATION TAXES It is recommended that additional taxes be raised from corporations in the amount of $3,000,000,000, an increase of about forty percent. A substantial share of the increased corporation tax should fall on excess profits. Taxes paid from such profits have less disrupting effects on business than taxes which are generally applicable to all corporate earnings irrespective of the rate of return. A tax which absorbs excess profits still leaves the corporate taxpayer with a sufficient margin of income for dividends and safety. On the other hand, a tax which dips too deeply into the incomes of low earning corporations may seriously affect their debt-paying capacity, if not their very existence. It is suggested that the maximum rate of the excess profits tax be increased from sixty percent to seventy-five percent with corresponding increases in the lower rate brackets. The proposed increases in the excess profits taxes have the additional virtue of recapturing undue profits on war contracts. This method is far better than imposing profit limits specifically on war contracts. The difficulties of segregating profits on war contracts are very great and involve personnel, expense, uncertainty and litigation which we can ill afford at this time. Moreover, it is almost impossible to determine what rates of profit on cost or sales would be equitable under the widely varying special circumstances confronting different industries and contractors. With rates of this magnitude it is increasingly important to have a fair basis from which to measure the profits subject to the excess profits tax. In addition to the many provisions in existing law to adjust earnings of the base period to take account of unusual circumstances, it is suggested that further relief be afforded where the earnings of the base period were abnormally depressed. Other changes in the excess profits tax law should also be made, some to eliminate defects which have been brought to light in the operation of the law, and others to eliminate unnecessary hardships. These changes are of a more technical character and will be presented later, at the Committee's convenience. There should be no further increase in the corporate normal rate because any such increase would result in an undesirable windfall to the holders of partially tax-exempt Federal securities. It is suggested that the balance of the $3,000,000,000 in additional corporate taxes be provided by a special war surtax which would absorb the present corporate surtax and would be imposed at the rate of thirty-one percent on corporations with incomes of more than $25,000. This tax would differ from the present surtax in that a special tax credit would be allowed when the surtax net income for the current year has dropped in comparison to the income for the pre- war period. In a further statement, the Treasury will give the Committee a detailed explanation of this proposed war surtax and the reasons which have led the Treasury to recommend it. There can be no fair quarrel with the imposition upon corporations of a substantial proportion of the increased load of taxation required by our national peril. We are fighting for the maintenance of the very system of free enterprise which makes corporate profits possible. At a time like this, I am confident that incorporated business will willingly pay additional taxes which will, after all, leave it in the aggregate about the same amount of income after taxes as during the years before 1940. In the critical months ahead our patriotism will be put to the acid test. It must rise above the profit motive. National war production may be tragically inadequate if it depends upon that motive alone. This is a time when we must forget profits and concentrate upon a supreme productive effort which alone will win the war. However, it is recognized that very high top, or so-called "marginal rates," may leave little incentive for the maintenance of efficiency in business operation. Furthermore, after the war there may well be need for a large volume of expenditure in readjusting industry and maintaining employment. For these reasons it is believed desirable that in the case of any dollar of corporate profits the receipt of which results in an increase in tax beyond perhaps eighty cents, the additional tax on such dollar shall be held by the Government to the account of the corporation and be returnable within a limited period after the war, in those cases where it is spent for new and additional capital equipment or otherwise is spent in the additional employment of labor. The uncertainties of this period also make it important to reduce to the minimum the necessity for prophesying. The capital stock tax and the associated declared value excess profits tax are determined largely by the accuracy of guesses about future profits. It is suggested that the revenue produced by these taxes can be more fairly and less harmfully produced by the other taxes on corporations and that accordingly the capital stock and declared value excess profits taxes be repealed.

3. ESTATE AND GIFT TAXES The estate and gift taxes are imposed at the time of the transfer of wealth from one person to another. Many of the fortunes which are being transferred, and will be transferred in the future, were built up during a period when income tax rates were far lower than they are today. It is much more difficult now to build up large holdings of property. For this reason substantial increases in the estate and gift taxes should be imposed as a method of equalizing tax burdens. The suggested increases are indicated in attached tables. (Chart 3 and Tables 5 and 6.) In conjunction with the rate increases, it is suggested that the existing insurance exclusion of $40,000 be merged with the existing exemption of $40,000, and that a single exemption of $60,000 be allowed. This will increase the present exemption in some cases and decrease it in others, and will remove a discrimination between persons who are insured and those who are not. It is likewise suggested that the exemption for the gift tax be reduced to $30,000 and that the annual exclusion of gifts be made a total of $5,000 for each donor regardless of the number of donees to whom property is given. These changes in rates and exemptions, together with certain changes designed to prevent avoidance of the tax, should increase the annual revenue from estate and gift taxes by $300,000,000.

4. EXCISE TAXES New and increased special excise taxes on distilled spirits, gasoline, cigarettes, soft drinks, candy, and chewing gum, and other items listed in the attached table, are suggested to raise approximately $1.3 billion of additional revenue. (Table 7). Although these excise taxes are in the nature of sales taxes, their effects are substantially different from the effects of general sales taxes. Some of them are imposed on commodities of which there is or will increasingly be a scarcity. Such taxes not only yield revenue but help to conserve materials needed for the way. Those excise taxes not relating to scarce commodities have been chosen so as to fall on goods which are widely used and are of a luxury or semi-luxury character. The increase in consumer incomes will keep up the demand for those commodities despite the higher taxes. Needed revenue will thus be obtained, consumer purchasing power will be tapped, the producers will not be injured, and the consumers will not be taxed on necessaries of life.

 
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