Trivia To Titillate The Tax Man

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Host Scott Simon talks with Esquire magazine editor-at-large A.J. Jacobs about everything you always wanted to know about taxes and tax day. Jacobs is author of The Know it All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

April 15th is just ahead and it makes you recall that Beatles song that may remind us why the Colonies had a revolution.

(Soundbite of song, "Taxman")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) If you drive a car, Ill tax the street. If you try to sit, sit. Ill tax your seat. If you get too cold, cold, Ill tax the heat. If you take a walk, walk, Ill tax your feet. Taxman.

SIMON: "Taxman" by The Beatles.

A.J. Jacobs has devoted his career to such trivia, joins us now with some info snacks about taxes.

A.J., thanks for being with us.

Mr. A.J. JACOBS (Editor-at-Large, "Esquire" Magazine): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What have you found?

Mr. JACOBS: Well, that song is not too far from the truth. One of my favorite taxes in history was the beard tax, which would have devastated the hipster community in Brooklyn right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBS: Luckily, it is off the books. It was during the reign of Peter the Great in Russia, and he actually wanted to Westernize Russia and thought that taxing the beards would induce people to shave. And it actually worked. He was a master though, of taxation. He taxed beehives and chimneys and souls.

SIMON: You dont mean of shoes, but souls - human souls?

Mr. JACOBS: Yeah, S-O-U-L, thats right. And he - the loophole was women apparently at that time did not have souls.

SIMON: Ooh.

Mr. JACOBS: So it was just adult males who had souls.

SIMON: You know, it's interesting that you should cite that because I happen to know that while I owe a little bit on taxes, my soul is due a huge refund.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: So I hope the IRS takes care of that.

Mr. JACOBS: So your soul is set up in the Cayman Islands or something?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBS: Smart.

SIMON: A.J., we have you on, on the agreement that I make the jokes here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But yes, okay. There was a window tax in 18th century England?

Mr. JACOBS: Yes, I thought that this was very interesting. This was actually an attempt to tax the rich, but at that time it was considered gauche to ask about people's income. So this was a way around that. They figured rich people had large houses with lots of windows. The problem was rich people started building houses with no windows or they would board up the windows, so as not to be taxed.

So if you think the British houses are very dark, that might be the reason why.

SIMON: Most famous tax cheats you can think of.

Mr. JACOBS: Probably the most famous was Henry David Thoreau who refused to pay taxes for moral reasons. He didnt want to support slavery or the Mexican-American War. And he was actually caught. They threw him in jail but he only stayed one night. His aunt paid his taxes and he was sprung from jail, which I kind of find disappointing, you know, as the self-professed rebel.

SIMON: Well, he got just enough time in jail to be able to write about it. You can sympathize with that, can't you, A.J.?

Mr. JACOBS: Yes, Im very jealous. I usually spend a year on my projects and he did it in a day - very impressive.

SIMON: A.J. Jacobs, editor-at-large for "Esquire" magazine, author of "The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World." He joined us from New York.

This is NPR News.

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