Mike Kowis, author of American Tax Trivia: The Ultimate Quiz on U.S. Taxation, challenges the Tax Notes Talk team to a game of tax trivia and discusses his new book.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
David D. Stewart: Welcome to the podcast. I’m David Stewart, editor in chief of Tax Notes Today International. This week: trivial pursuits. As we’re heading into a long weekend here in the U.S., we figured it was a good time to have a little bit of fun. A couple of our podcast regulars joined me as we invited Mike Kowis, the author of a recent book of tax trivia, to test our knowledge. Stick around after the quiz to learn more about Mike and how this book came to be. Enjoy.
Joining me now is Mike Kowis, senior tax counsel at Entergy Services. He’s the author of the book, American Tax Trivia: The Ultimate Quiz on US Taxation.
And to join in the fun and help me answer Mike’s questions, I’m joined by Tax Notes contributing editor Robert Goulder and chief correspondent Stephanie Soong Johnston. Mike, why don’t you start us off?
Mike Kowis: Well, I’m glad to be here today. We’re going to talk about American tax trivia. I’ve got four different chapters from the book that I want to try to quiz you guys and gals on and see how much you know about American taxation.
Let’s start with the fun stuff. Let’s do some famous quotes. I always like quotes. I tried to pick some good ones from the book. We’ll start out with what I think is an easy one.
What U.S. federal judge made the following statements as part of his or her court decision? “Anyone may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there’s not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.” Is it A) Antonin Scalia, B) Richard Posner, C) Ruth Bader Ginsburg, D) Thurgood Marshall, or E) Learned Hand?
David D. Stewart: All right. Now, there was something I learned in law school. And that was, whenever you find a pithy quote, err on the side of Learned Hand. That said, anybody else have an idea?
Robert Goulder: Can I do a write in vote for Oliver Wendell Holmes. No? OK. Then I’ll go for Learned Hand too.
Stephanie Soong Johnston: I’m going to say the answer is always C, so.
Robert Goulder: It’s an old quote.
Stephanie Soong Johnston: Is it an old quote? OK. Then I’m going to go with you guys.
Robert Goulder: I think it goes back decades and I think it’s like a 100-year-old quote. You’d have to pick a judge that’s a hundred years old.
David D. Stewart: Yeah, honestly, that was just my rule of thumb in law school. There’s a great quote, it’s Learned Hand. It’s always Learned Hand. So, let’s go with Learned Hand. How’s that?
Mike Kowis: The final answer is Learned Hand. Very good.
I thought that would be an easy one because it’s been around a long time, like Bob said, and I actually quoted that in my application when I applied for the LLM program at Georgetown. I guess it worked because they took me, or they were desperate, either way.
David D. Stewart: I mean it sounded familiar.
Mike Kowis: Let’s go with another one here. What rap artist was quoted with the following line: “Only two things that scare me are God and the IRS.” Is it A) Dr. Dre, B) Snoop Dogg, C) Ice Cube, D) 50 Cent, or E) Grandmaster B?
Stephanie Soong Johnston: Oh man. I should know this. I’m going to say 50 Cent.
David D. Stewart: Yeah, I’m lost here. Because I heard a rap artist and tax problems, I was thinking DMX, but that’s not him.
Stephanie Soong Johnston: There are a lot of rap stars with tax problems, to be fair.
David D. Stewart: All right, Bob, do you have any idea?
Robert Goulder: I want to write in vote for Eminem, my Detroit homie. No, I have no idea.
Stephanie Soong Johnston: Either 50 Cent or Snoop Dogg.
Robert Goulder: It doesn’t seem like something Snoop Dogg would say out loud. He might think it, but would he say it? I don’t know. If I had to choose, I’d say 50 Cent.
David D. Stewart: All right, let’s do that.
Mike Kowis: That is incorrect. It’s actually A) Dr. Dre.
How about an international tax quote? You all ought to know this quote. It should be a no brainer.
What TV talk show host from the 2000s era said the following: “Tax Day is the day that ordinary Americans send their money to Washington, D.C. and wealthy Americans send their money to the Cayman Islands.” Was it A) Jimmy Kimmel, B) James Corden, C) Jimmy Fallon, D) Bill Maher, or E) Conan O’Brien?
Stephanie Soong Johnston: I’m going to say Bill Maher.
David D. Stewart: See, I’m thinking Jimmy Kimmel only because of the joke structure.
Stephanie Soong Johnston: Wow, you’re really overthinking this.
Robert Goulder: No, the phrasing of the syntax, the verbs and nouns, the use of the gerund. All that. Yes, it feels like a Jimmy Kimmel statement.
Stephanie Soong Johnston: I’m going to go with Bill Maher, just to be contrarian.
David D. Stewart: Two of us have Jimmy Kimmel and one has Bill Maher. What do we got here?
Mike Kowis: Final answer is A) Jimmy Kimmel.
If you want, we can move on to history. Which U.S. president created the IRS? Is it A) Theodore Roosevelt, B) George Washington, C) Ulysses S. Grant, D) Herbert Hoover, or E) Abraham Lincoln?
Robert Goulder: When was the first income tax? If we can figure out when the first income tax is, presumably you could figure out when the IRS, or its forbearer in interest, was created. Because presumably you’d need some kind of a executive branch administrative agency to enforce the tax.
If I listened enough to Joe Thorndike, who knows everything about history, he would say that we briefly had a type of an income tax during the Civil War. I’m not sure it was ever collected. I don’t think it raised much money. I’m not sure they actually called it the IRS, but there was a type of income tax around during the Civil War.
But if you’re looking for an agency that was actually called the IRS, that would be much later. Something like maybe the Hoover era.
Mike Kowis: Just to clarify, it doesn’t have to be called IRS. It’s just the agency that acts as IRS, whatever the name was.
Robert Goulder: OK. Well then I’ve given my pitch for Abraham Lincoln.
David D. Stewart: I think Lincoln is a good bet here.
Stephanie Soong Johnston: OK. I’ll go with you guys.
Mike Kowis: You are all correct, it is Abraham Lincoln. Good job on that one.
He has such an awesome reputation though. All the wonderful things he did for the country, you wouldn’t think that he would create what became a monstrosity and sucks all the tax dollars from all Americans. Everyone loves to hate the IRS, even though they obviously play an important role in government. You just don’t equate the two. Abe Lincoln, the IRS, it throws people off. Or at least I would think so.
All right, next one, and this is kind of related to one of the topics for what we just discussed, actually. This is a true or false. The IRS was originally named the Board of Stamps and Taxes. True or false?
Robert Goulder: You know, it’s got the word “board” in it, and way back then everything the federal government did they called the board of fill in the blank. I think I’m going to go with true, just because it has the word “board” in it. Can I convince you guys?
Stephanie Soong Johnston: True.
David D. Stewart: All right, I’ll come with you.
Robert Goulder: All right. The panel says true.
Mike Kowis: It’s actually false. It was actually called the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
Here’s the next question. What invention was created by an IRS service center employee in 1961 and is still used today to sort millions of paper tax return forms? Is it A) the Spaghetti Sorter, B) Octopus Organizer, C) Freeman Filer, D) Tingle Table, or E) Arthur Anderson Shredder?
Robert Goulder: The octopus one, because we all know that octopuses are really smart.
Stephanie Soong Johnston: I like octopuses, so I’m going to go with octopus.
David D. Stewart: Yeah. If I’ve got nothing better to hang my hat on, it’s a great name.
Mike Kowis: The answer is D) Tingle Table. It was actually created by a gentleman named James Tingle. He invented the sorter while he was employed at an IRS service center in Georgia.
He built a prototype in his backyard. It was first tested in a service center in Georgia. The invention greatly reduces the time it takes for the mail opener to remove the contents and stick the envelopes here and the contents there and file away for action.
So, if you ever Google “Tingle Table,” you’ll see what looks like a sort of a semicircle sitting on the desk. It’s like an inbox and an outbox, where you put mail. They’re stacked one on top of the other. There’s like six of them on a semicircle. So, there’s like 12 different boxes.
It helps people sort the mail or the tax returns when they get them. That’s all it does. But it’s kind of ingenious contraption. I assume it’s used less and less these days because most people are doing electronic filing. But it’s still being used today.
Let’s move on to politics. This is a true or false question. In 2021 the president of the United States is not entitled to any special income tax breaks on his presidential salary and compensation. True or false?
Stephanie Soong Johnston: Hmm, true?
David D. Stewart: Feels like it should be true.
Robert Goulder: I don’t know. The United States of America is the land of tax breaks. There’s going to be a tax break for everything, like breathing and oxygenating your blood. I can’t believe there isn’t some special tax break, some loophole somewhere that doesn’t enter solely to the benefit of the president of United States.
David D. Stewart: I don’t recall on my 1040 the box to check if you’re president so you get the extra break.
Robert Goulder: Maybe that’s the tax break. You get your own 1040. I don’t know. I’m thinking there’s something there.
David D. Stewart: I’m going with no. I gotta say, I don’t think so.
Robert Goulder: Well, I guess I’m outvoted.
Mike Kowis: It sounds like you’re a mixed bag. Some of you say true and some say false.
Robert Goulder: I’ll go along with the others, but just note the reservation that I’m skeptical here.
Mike Kowis: The actual answer is false. There’s two special tax perks that the president gets. One of them is non-taxable annual travel account of $100,000 a year. The other is a non-taxable, annual entertainment account for $19,000 a year, which I assume they use for Disney+ and Netflix subscriptions and wholesome things like that. They get a couple of nice perks in addition to the nice salary, if you make it to the White House.
Stephanie Soong Johnston: Bob, you win this one. We should have gone with Bob.
Mike Kowis: Which state below declared war on Germany three months before the United States officially entered into World War II in an effort to give its military residents a monthly bonus without the need to pass a new tax to pay for it? Is it A) Vermont, B) Texas, C) Florida, D) California, or E) New York?
Stephanie Soong Johnston: I feel like Texas because you don’t mess with Texas.
Robert Goulder: But if Texas was going to declare war, wouldn’t it have declared war against Oklahoma? I mean, Germany is a long way away. I’m thinking maybe New York state.
David D. Stewart: I’m kind of in the New York state frame of mind on this because it feels New York. I mean, I know the sort of independent streak of Texas declaring war and deciding to rebel. I’m torn.
All right. Let’s try New York.
Mike Kowis: The actual answer is A) Vermont. In 1941 Vermont wanted to give its military residents a $10 per month bonus. In order to do so during peace time, they would have to raise, they would have to pay for it with the new state tax. They didn’t want to do that. So, they had to expand their definition of armed conflict to include President Roosevelt’s order for the Navy to shoot first if they encounter a German war ship.
One more for politics. The cartoon figure wearing a black top hat and tails with white mustache on the famous Monopoly board game is modeled after the U.S. Secretary Treasury from the 1920s era. Is that a true or false statement?
Stephanie Soong Johnston: True.
Robert Goulder: True.
David D. Stewart: Yeah. We’ll, we’ll go with that.
Mike Kowis: You would be correct. It was Andrew Mellon, who was a U.S. Secretary of Treasury from 1921 to 1932. Before he became U.S. Treasurer, he was like an old tycoon. He was in banking and other industries, aluminum. They might’ve chosen his character because of that more so than his position as U.S. Secretary of Treasury. But I just thought that was interesting.
This next question is true or false. The United States is the only country in the world that taxes its nonresident citizens on worldwide income. True or false?
Robert Goulder: Well, we’re not the only one because Eritrea does it as well. You’re talking about residence-based taxation versus citizenship-based taxation. Last time I researched this, there were two countries that had the citizenship-based taxation, the U.S. and Eritrea. For that reason, Mike, I’m going to say false.
Stephanie Soong Johnston: False.
David D. Stewart: Yeah.
Mike Kowis: That’s exactly right. Wow, you hit the nail on the head with that one, Bob. Good job.
We’ll see if you can do this one. In 2021, the IRS does not yet have a mobile phone app. True or false?
David D. Stewart: True.
Stephanie Soong Johnston: I’m going to go with true, I guess.
David D. Stewart: I mean, there is always that discussion about how old the computer systems are. I’m just thinking that an app wouldn’t be the primary thing that they would do.
Robert Goulder: If the IRS had an app, wouldn’t somebody have hacked it? Wouldn’t there be ransomware out there? So, yeah, I think they don’t have one.
David D. Stewart: I would be suspicious if I found an IRS app in the iTunes store.
Mike Kowis: Stephanie, what say you?
Stephanie Soong Johnston: I mean, I don’t think there’s an app.
Mike Kowis: It sounds like you’re all in agreement. There’s no app, so it’s true.
The correct answer is false. The IRS launched IRS2Go in 2011. They can use it to keep track of their refund status and that sort of thing. I had never heard of it until I researched this book.
Stephanie Soong Johnston: Oh, interesting. To be fair, our minds are all international tax anyway, so.
Mike Kowis: Good excuse, good excuse.
The next one is also a true or false question. One of the astronauts on the Apollo 13 mission forgot to file his federal income tax return before he was launched into space on April 11, 1970. True or false?
Stephanie Soong Johnston: That sounds so crazy I think it’s true.
David D. Stewart: It was in the movie Apollo 13.
Robert Goulder: That’s what he meant when he said, “Houston, we have a problem.” The original quote was, “Houston, we have a tax problem.”
David D. Stewart: Assuming that Ron Howard did not lead me astray, I’m going to go with this is true. Wasn’t it the Kevin Bacon character? I think so. If I’m wrong, I’m blaming Ron Howard and Kevin Bacon.
Mike Kowis: The right answer is true. Very good. It was in the movie. Astronaut Jack Swigert asked NASA mission control, “Uh oh; have you guys completed your tax return?” Then commander Jim Lovell followed up with, “How do I apply for an extension?” Then mission control burst into laughter.
Swigert replied, “It ain’t too funny; things kind of happened real fast down there, and I do need an extension.” Again, Jack was met with raucous laughter. Luckily Jack’s considered a U.S. citizen abroad, which qualified him for an extension to file his taxes late but penalty-free.
Another true or false: When the IRS started requiring taxpayers in 1987 to include Social Security numbers for their dependents aged five and above, approximately 7 million children immediately “vanished” when compared to the total dependents listed in the prior year’s tax returns. True or false?
Stephanie Soong Johnston: I’m going to say true.
David D. Stewart: Yeah. I’m going to go with true. Assuming that the 7 million is the correct number and it’s not a trick there.
Robert Goulder: I’m going to go with true. I think 7 million is actually lowballing it. I’m surprised it’s not more like 20 or 30 million disappearing kids.
Mike Kowis: The correct answer is true. When this new rule took effect each dependent qualified for $1,900 exemption. The sudden shrinkage in total claimed dependents resulted in an extra $2.8 billion of federal income taxes collected that year. Mercy.
We’ll end on a good one here. What state below imposes a $5 per customer tax on strip clubs that serve alcohol? Is it A) Texas, B) California, C) Florida, D) Louisiana, or E) Vermont?
Stephanie Soong Johnston: I’m not falling for the Vermont trap this time. I’m going to go with Florida.
David D. Stewart: Oh, I think this one’s Texas.
Robert Goulder: Not Vermont, because I’m upset with them for declaring war on Germany. Let’s see. Not California, because it would be more than $5. If it was California, it would be like $50.
I think it was one of the ancient Greek philosophers or somebody who said, “If you want more of something you subsidize it. And if you want less of something, you tax it.” I have a hard time believing that Texas would want fewer strip joints. They might be like subsidizing it. They may be like, you show up, you knock on the door and the state gives you $5. For that reason, I’m going to go with Florida. Sorry, Dave Stewart.
Mike Kowis: The correct answer is A) Texas. In 2007 the Texas legislature passed the Sexually Oriented Business Fee Act, so I guess technically it was a fee not a tax, which imposed a fee on businesses that provide live nude entertainment and allow patrons to consume alcohol. Revenues collected go to the sexual assault prevention programs and health insurance coverage for low-income people.
This poll tax was challenged in court and the Texas Supreme Court upheld it as constitutional in 2014. Fun fact, you don’t have to pay the fee in singles.
That’s all I have. I hope you guys enjoyed that.
David D. Stewart: Well, thank you so much. This is great. Thank you, Bob and Stephanie, for helping me, and in some cases hurting me, in answering these questions.
Well, Mike, that quiz was a whole lot of fun. I’d like to learn a little bit about you. Could you tell listeners a bit about yourself and what you do in tax?
Mike Kowis: Sure. I got my LLM in tax, I guess it was in 1996, so about a quarter century ago. Wow, it makes me sound old just to say it out loud. But, so I got my LLM from Georgetown, and I went into the Big Six accounting. Back then it was Big Six, and I did that for a year. Then I went to a small law firm in Amarillo of all places and did that for a year, a little bit of tax and corporate work.
I’ve been at Entergy Services pretty much for about 23 years now. I’ve worked out of the Woodlands and really love it there. The people are fantastic. We have a pretty good size tax group. There’s folks that do different things. I do federal income tax planning. I help them with that and help them structure deals and work on all kinds of stuff. Securitization of big storm costs and purchasing power plants and that sort of thing. Really enjoy the work and the people. It’s been a good run so far.
David D. Stewart: One question I’m always curious about is what sent you down the path of working in tax?
Mike Kowis: Great question. When I was in law school getting my JD, I was in my first tax class. I never dreamed in a million years I would one day be a tax geek. I took that first class — James Beard was the professor — and I just fell in love with it. I thought, “Oh, this is what I’m going to do the rest of my life.”
I really loved the challenge and the code. It just seemed really interesting to me. I started taking every tax class they offered in the JD program that that was available on my schedule. I think I took like four or five of them.
Afterwards I thought, “Well, you can’t be a tax attorney without an LLM or a CPA. I need some other credentials.” That’s why I went on to study it at Georgetown.
There’s just something about the subject that clicked for me and I really enjoy it. I never dreamed I would do this, but here I am 25 years later and I still love it.
David D. Stewart: Yeah. That seems to be like a universal thing. It always goes back to one professor and just falling in love with it when you didn’t expect to. I don’t think anybody starts out saying that’s where I’m going. How did you end up writing a book on tax trivia?
Mike Kowis: I’ve been writing books about one a year for the last five years. Last year, the pandemic hit, and I still hadn’t decided what to write about.
One thing that happened during the pandemic was everyone’s office building shut down, and we were all sent home and had to work exclusively from home.
So, here we are in the summer of 2020, and we haven’t seen each other except through Zoom meetings or WebEx. You start to miss your coworkers and the camaraderie that you have. WebEx is nice, but it’s not the same. Then one of my coworkers, Amanda McGlaun, had this idea that we should have like a work happy hour, like a Zoom call after work. She had some topic; it wasn’t even tax-related.
We all enjoyed about an hour of each other’s company, just on a Zoom call after work one day. I thought, “What the heck, I think I can do this.” The next month, it’s still in the summer of 2020, I came up with the idea I’m going to do tax questions. I spent about three hours researching 25 tax-related questions, true-false or multiple choice.
When we had the actual work happy hour, I spent about an hour with them and we had a blast. We were laughing and giggling. It was a really good time, and I thought, “This is an interesting concept.” We never did it again, but it stayed on my mind.
I finally decided, you know what, my next book needs to be about that. I’ll tell you, it was a hard decision because it’s a lot of work to write a book, obviously. When I look on Amazon, there are zero tax trivia books. I couldn’t find a single one. I thought, “This is either a really good idea or it’s really a bad idea. Maybe there’s a reason why there’s no tax trivia books out there.”
My book has only been out two months. Sales have been kind of so-so. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe things will pick up at Christmas and then next year at the tax season. But anyway, whether it sells a book or a million, I’m just happy because it was a lot of fun to research this. I discovered a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about, and it was a really fun project.
David D. Stewart: Where did these topic ideas come from? Was it mostly from what you knew or were you just going out there and checking for things among various categories? Basically, what was your process for coming up with the topics for the book?
Mike Kowis: I ended up coming up with 10 different topics. Each chapter has its own topic. There’s 25 questions in each.
I started with the original 25 questions that I used in the little work happy hour, and I figured out, “OK, this looks like it’s clearly a history question. And this one’s more about the IRS structure. And this was more about the audit cycle. This one’s about the tax forms. And this is about the code.”
I was just trying to categorize each one and I came up with eight or nine right away. Politics was another one. One thing I learned was I didn’t realize how much they IRS as an agency has been used or abused by presidents. It wasn’t just one bad apple, either. It was multiple ones, where they kind of use the IRS as a political weapon, if you will.
I learned so much about this. I’m not even a history buff. I’m not even like a political junkie. I liked taxes. I dove into this stuff and the history of it, and the first income tax, and how, as Bob was saying, there was a period of time where they had a temporary income tax paid to fund the Civil War. Then that was repealed and there was later a more permanent one. So, just learning all this stuff or relearning some of it was very interesting to me, and I thought maybe other people would enjoy it too.
David D. Stewart: Well, on that note, we’re heading into the gift giving season. Who do you see as the target audience for this book?
Mike Kowis: I’m thinking obviously tax professionals would ideally be a target audience for this book. But it could be history buffs or just anybody that’s into American trivia questions. Because there’s a lot of that in there too.
I gave a copy to my parents and they are none of the above and they loved it. They loved the chapter on the quotes. I have 25 questions on just funny tax quotes, and they got a kick out of that.
Really, it’s a pretty broad spectrum of people that will enjoy it. But I think primarily the target audience is tax professionals, CPAs, tax attorneys, anybody like that.
David D. Stewart: Now, you mentioned you’ve written some other books. What else have you written about?
Mike Kowis: I write books based on my hobbies or my passions. One of my loves is I teach a night class at the local community college at Lone Star College and I teach business law and I’ve taught a corporate and partnership tax there as well. My very first first book came out five years ago is called Engaging College Students: A Fun and Edgy Guide for Professors. That was just really based on my experience, teaching tips, if you will.
After that I wrote two books for authors. One was a self-publishing guide. All my books are self-published, and my self-publishing guide, I sort of threw it together. It literally came out four months after my first book. I didn’t even plan to write it, but so many people kept asking, “Well, how do you self-publish your book?”
I published it four months after the first one. Lo and behold, that little book has sold 3,000 copies. I mean, I’m just floored by that. Just never expected that. Then I have a book marketing guide to help other authors sell their book, because believe it or not marketing your book is even harder than writing a book.
My next book was about off-road racing, believe it or not. One of my passions and hobbies is I like to off-road race. I’m into the side-by-side like a Polaris RZR. They kind of look like a golf cart on steroids. We race them through the woods for like an hour and try not to hit any trees and run over each other. It’s a lot of fun and something I can do with my son. He’s my copilot. So, I wrote a book about that one that one’s called Texas Off-road Racing: A Father-Son Journey to a Side-by-Side Championship.
Then my fifth book is this one, American Tax Trivia: The Ultimate Quiz on U.S. Taxation.
David D. Stewart: Well, all right. Thank you so much. It was great having you here, and the book sounds fantastic. Thank you for being our quizmaster.
Mike Kowis: Thank you, Dave. I really enjoyed it.