The Tax Talk Blog

Making visible the invisibility of the racial tax state

Gauri Natarajan, July 24, 2023

It is common for us to see our systems of taxation as extremely convoluted and confusing. It is a generally held belief that doing one’s taxes is a daunting task, and people often put them off to the last minute, citing the unbearable amount of paperwork that goes into it. This is something that doesn’t vary by country – indeed, citizens across the world spend countless hours and currency complying with various tax requirements. 

But have you ever considered why it is so? Is there a reason that we all view our taxation systems as being this complicated? What do they hide by being this way? 

After all, if we are unable to understand or even comprehend the complexity of our taxes, how can we truly know what kind of factors are at play here? 

Of course, our governments use these taxes for a variety of purposes, not just increasing government revenue. So, it can be argued that there is a certain necessity in this system. However, the complex bureaucracy of our taxation system hides other, much more sinister realities. 

In this blog, I would like to argue that the complex nature of our taxation systems aids in hiding the biases therein, and create a kind of “invisibility” in their discrimination. Drawing from the works of Henricks and Seamster (2016), I would like to take you through the ways in which taxes can create inequalities, especially racial inequalities. 

Through the course of US history, tax reform strategies were pursued to protect white resources. This dates back to the inception of federal taxes itself – this is deeply tied to the status of Black American slaves – were they property or people? If they were defined as property, then white Americans would have been taxed more on their wealth. On the other hand, if they were defined as people, the institution of slavery could be called into question. Back then, a seemingly “colourblind” tax policy was adopted, the “impost” proposal. According to this, a flat 5% duty on “imported goods” was adopted in order to pay off war debts. But the entanglement of wealth and race did not end there. 

Simply put, the construction of taxation here is not simply about how much money is paid where – but rather, who influences budgeting decision and how. In a process Camille Walsh describes as taxpayer citizenship, “taxes are a currency for civic belonging, and a pretext for racial exclusion.” (pp. 172). This can clearly be seen in the practice of property tax limitations – an idea once framed through a colourblind lens, but found in actuality to have greatly disadvantaged Black Americans. 

But what about theorizing taxes that most of us don’t even really consider taxes in the first place? 

“Though in the so-called postracial era, no one racial group can be legally subjected to pay a tax another group does not, at least on paper if not practice, some taxes nonetheless carry implicit biases. A consequence of reconfiguring the fiscal state in this way is that it changes obligations for who pays for the state. It creates (and in some cases expands) a dual tax structure organized along racial lines in the process.” – pp 174. 

Using what Henricks and Seamster refer to as redistribution (of tax liability), we can see that there are certain forms of taxes that members of specific communities pay, which do not really make them taxpayers in the general sense. Take, for example, the levying of petty fines and fees, a common practice in the United States. In Ferguson, about 10% of the city revenue was generated through these fines, most of which are levied for minor infractions, which can be imposed at the police’s discretion and judgement. The racial implications of these policies can be clearly understood in this regard. 

But the situation is even worse when we consider the usage of “police quotas” – the implicit or explicit expectation for police officers to hit numerical goals in a specific time period. These quotas, too, are tied to racially biases, with Black and Latino populations falling victim to the enforcement of low-level violations, such as stop-and-frisks, tickets, etc. This is but another common method for local governments to use policing to raise revenues. 

The reason that I bring up this specific example, however, is to use it to illustrate one of the other key characteristics of taxation – the people who benefit from this form of discrimination are not the same people directly carrying it out. This does not mean that they are any less complicit, however. 

“Often presumed as arcane and dreary, the tax system’s complexity, along with its lack of transparency, work to conceal its discriminatory nature. Taxation is insulated within layers of bureaucracy, lending its corrosive effects and slow devastation to communities of color a certain “killing them softly” quality […] Rarely is taxation theorized from this vantage point, however.” – pp. 175 

We can thus see that historical practices of taxation take forms of racism that might be implemented at an interpersonal level and institutionalize them. This process is often hard to uncover, however, especially when our understandings of taxation are so underdeveloped in the first place. It is difficult to see whether there is a solution to this problem, but acknowledging the very existence of this problem might be a starting place. 

If you are interested in learning more about the history of the American federal taxation system and its ties to slavery, please have a look at “Wealth, Slavery, and the History of American Taxation” by Christopher F. Petrella (

Works Referenced 

Henricks, Kasey; Seamster, Louise (2017): Mechanisms of the Racial Tax State. In: Critical Sociology 43(2), S. 169–179. DOI: 10.1177/0896920516670463. 

(2022, July 6): Outlawing Police Quotas. Brennan Center for Justice, 6 July 2022.

Petrella, Christopher F (2022, April 6) Wealth, Slavery, and the History of American Taxation. AAIHS. 

Asking Why: Ehegattensplitting: A Very Problematic Income Tax Splitting Law

Hannah Piehl, October 30, 2022

I spent my last semester abroad and met people from all over the world. When it comes to getting to know, befriending, and traveling with international students, there seem to be multiple practices that come up quite often. Besides comparing passports, analyzing different school systems, and trying alcoholic national drinks, the discussing and contrasting of our native languages was definitely one of the more common ones I encountered.

The German languages offers three different question words all being translated in English to “why”: Wieso, weshalb, warum. Being able to use three words instead of one can signify the depth this simple question entails. Which is why anthropologists love to ask this question, immersing themselves in a field entangled with cultural, social, and historical trajectories. Untangling is almost always impossible, but who doesn’t like a challenge?

What does this have to do with taxes, more specifically a certain German marriage income tax splitting law? Let me explain.

What exactly is Ehegattensplitting and how does it work?

Ehegattensplitting solidifies the gender pay gap, the gender pension gap, and the gender care gap by incentivizing married couples to practice the traditional (male) single-earner model. In its arithmetic calculations, Ehegattensplitting favors people who do not necessarily need preferential treatment and disregards those in need of protection, for example low-wage earners with children or single parents, who are not able to save taxes at all. In case of divorce, the results of this taxation practice can potentially be existence-threatening to the person with less financial resources – having led the primary earner to save a high amount of taxes – as they do not receive governmental financial support in return or in hindsight.

Ehegattensplitting is a German income tax splitting law. This mandatory tax procedure sees married couples as a tax unit, measuring disposable income on a household-level and enables them to save taxes by “pretending” that both spouses had earned the same amount of money. The whole taxable income is halved first, then the income tax is halved - and the resulting tax liability is then doubled again.

As long as both spouses did not earn the same amount, the arithmetic operation comes with a "progression advantage" for married couples: the partner with the higher salary gets around particularly high tax rates as the married couple can decide which partner is getting into which tax bracket. A couple can save up to 15.000 Euro yearly, in return, Ehegattensplitting costs the state over 20 billion Euro in per year. In heterosexual couples, because of cultural and societal norms that I will get into later, men are usually the ones earing more money, incentivizing women to only work part-time or not at all – as Ehegattensplitting leads to more tax savings when the discrepancy in earnings is higher. Seems counterintuitive, right?

With all these implications – situated in state with a social liberal understanding of itself – the question of asking why finally arises: Why is Ehegattensplitting still legal today?

The history of Ehegattensplitting

To try to answer this question, we firstly need to take a look at the history of joint taxation in Germany and the introduction of Ehegattensplitting.

In 1934, the Nazi government introduced joint taxation for married couples for the first time in Germany. Their stated goal was to push women out of the labor market to get them to “realize their role as wives and mothers”, due to high unemployment in the population. In 1941, during the second world war, the German government returned to individual taxation, because the labor force of women was needed. In 1955, the Federal Ministry of Finance issued the goal of “leading the wife back into the house" as the jobs women took over during the war were not supposed to be occupied by them anymore. Two years later, in 1957, the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe annulled the previous model of individual taxation of married couples because married partners had to pay more taxes than unmarried ones, which went against traditional family structures and was therefore deemed as “unfair”. Many politicians were hoping to go back to the “good old times”, as wives were now “benefitting” the family by staying home and enabling tax savings. The Federal Minister of Finance Franz Etzel (CDU, Christian Democratic party) emphasized this argument in various speeches:

"[...] so we came up with the idea that even what the man formally earns alone, practically is earned by both spouses in the marital community becomes. And so, in splitting it, it is recognized that women earn half of that income. I believe that with the splitting proposal, a great respect could be made for the position of women in marriage, but also for the position of women in general.” [1]

As a result, the process of Ehegattensplitting was put into law in 1958. The following outrage and protests of Women's associations, the German Trade union confederation and certain politicians did not lead to the abolishing or changing of this law.

What about same-sex-couples?

While Ehegattensplitting has been discussed looking at traditional and heterosexual marriages, other, queer and less traditional viewpoints often fall short in these analyses. I conducted an interview with Peter (name changed), who holds a civil partnership with his husband Theo (name also changed, obviously) and told me about his views on Ehegattensplitting and how its extension to same-sex couples changed their relationship.

For a long time, same-sex couples did not hold the same rights as heterosexual couples in Germany. In 2001, a separate form of legally secured partnership for same-sex couples was created: the registered civil partnership. The Federal Constitutional Court ruled in 2013 for Ehegattensplitting to be extended to registered civil partnerships, enabling same-sex couples to benefit from its use as well. In July of 2017, the German parliament decided to introduce the “Ehe für alle” [marriage for all], thus making it possible for same-sex couples to be married in a civil ceremony and putting an end to the formation of new registered civil partnerships in return. 

And then at some point during this political discussion in the 00s or early 10s I probably came across it more consciously, the concept of Ehegattensplitting, when it was all about “Are the gays allowed to use our Ehegattensplitting now or is it only for the straights?” So. And I think it was only during this discussion that I became aware of what it can actually be or what it is and how it can influence realities of life. So, in my case how it might set me free eventually. [2]

In Peter’s case, the extension of the tax law to same-sex couples lead to him and his longtime partner getting a registered civil partnership. As Theo works in a high-paying position, Peter was able to end his work which caused him and their relationship a lot of stress. While they were able to (finally) benefit from the tax law on an individual level, Ehegattensplitting causes more harm than good on a societal one.

I actually did a lot of volunteer work instead. Probably because of this “people define themselves by the work they do and what they are paid for, rather than how they see themselves in the world”. And you need a justification in society why you don't go to work, and that's why I threw myself into volunteering (…). Theo doesn't have time for volunteering alongside his 40 to 60-hour job, and he doesn't have to. Because he has to care for me.

Feeling the societal pressure of having to “contribute something”, Peter only stopped carrying out paid labor. He describes how this led to him working exactly the same amount of time in the cultural sector doing volunteer work – without getting paid. When it comes to Ehegattensplitting, it is important to remember that there’s this little thing called care-work [3], in heterosexual relationships is mainly performed by women. A less equal distribution of paid labor – facilitated through Ehegattensplitting – can lead to an even more unequal distribution of care work, which often is invisible and unappreciated anyways. Which brings us back to our original question:

Why is Ehegattensplitting still legal today?

The German sociologist Maria Wersig (2013) identifies three main obstacles to a reform or abolition of Ehegattensplitting. Firstly, she deems the institutional restrictions by constitutional law as a resistor to reform, as Ehegattensplitting is very much constitutionally anchored by the Federal Constitutional Court and other court decisions on marriage taxation. Secondly, the decisions of actors based on party political preferences, including election tactic considerations also play a role in the continuation of the tax splitting practice. Even if some parties are positive about the abolition or revision of Ehegattensplitting, this will not be implemented programmatically since many voters of these parties also find themselves in traditional family and role structures and thus benefit from Ehegattensplitting. Lastly, going along with the second point, the values based on the male breadwinner model in politics and population here are at play as well. Especially in West Germany, a majority of the population practices the male breadwinner model, consisting of one person – usually a man –working full time, while the other person – usually a woman – is not doing paid, but care and household work or working part-time. This population group benefits from Ehegattensplitting and won’t appreciate system changes if satisfied with their employment and family situation.

Inspired by the “Theory of Gradual Institutional Change” by Mahoney and Thelen (2010), the extension of Ehegattensplitting to same-sex couples could be seen as a first step to undermine the existing institution of the income splitting practice. These new actors, who adhere to the existing rules, but do not conform to traditional heteronormative family structures that go hand in hand with Ehegattensplitting, could perform as so-called "change agents" (Mahoney & Thelen 2010: 24). On the other hand, same-sex couples benefitting from the tax law could fall into the same “trap” as heterosexual couples, being presented with an increased divergence of power and a traditional distribution of wage labour and care work in their marriage, all while reproducing and therefore solidifying the institution of Ehegattensplitting at the same time. The extension of the tax practice to same-sex couples could also incentivize and leading couples to get married, even if they, living in a heteronormative society, were less conforming to the traditional relationship model before. The fiscal government could therefore prompt a change in social organization, that is, a society made up of more married couples.

(…) at some point in 2013 the Federal Constitutional Court made a decision that Ehegattensplitting should actually also apply to same-sex couples if there is already a registered civil partnership, before that we said, "We don't need a registered civil partnership, that doesn't do us any good at all, except that we're on a register and when the Nazis come to power, they only have to take this register and then they can tick us off." But with spouse splitting, we sat on the couch and said, "Okay, if this works, then we'll get married!" We were that romantic.

Income tax laws hold a lot of power in the sphere of politics and policy, as they have to potentiality to deepen and reproduce existing inequalities by benefitting already privileged parts of society while discriminating individuals in need of governmental support. Tax laws can consequently fight (gender) inequalities by reducing post-tax disparities through jurisprudential and legislative measures and by changing incentives of labour and family decisions. To bring change about the fiscal system, it is important to examine what role income taxation plays in the reproduction of gender hierarchies but also heteronormativity and traditional family models, putting those not conforming at great disadvantage. The model of individual taxation can be seen as the more gender equal one, as two-earner households are benefitting rather than single-earner ones. Separate taxation would also even out power imbalances within households, as the person earning less would be less dependent on their husbands regarding fiscal issues of income and pension.

It's very logical. For example, the moment I stopped working, I stopped accumulating pension points. So, I'm very much dependent, on paper first of all, that our relationship lasts and that I'm not thrown out of Ehegattensplitting after a divorce and then I haven't accumulated any pension points for ten years, for example, which could put me at a massive disadvantage. The Gender Pension Gap would be the point, for example. The power imbalance is still there, because in a certain sense I am of course dependent on Theo not picking up a young lover boy and saying, "I'd rather travel through South Africa with my young boytoy in my new convertible. Have a good one old thing." And just throwing me out. At least financially, he has the upper hand. And then of course it is important that you have faith in the relationship and trust each other.

What are we now doing with this newfound knowledge? How exactly can we “bring change about the fiscal system”? Isn’t it these so-called “jurisprudential and legislative measures” that should do the job of trying to catch up with the times? Or do we as everyday people have to overrule the systems ourselves? Did the extension of Ehegattensplitting to same-sex couples reproduce existing harmful structures even further or could this process be seen as undermining the traditional and heteronormative nature of this concept and therefore the first step to its revision or abolition, and a more equal tax system? Should we abolish Ehegattensplitting for heterosexual couples and let same-sex couples keep it then? Non-heterosexuals have certainly suffered enough already, right?

These questions are almost as difficult to answer as asking why. Maybe the slow process of change is already happening, but difficult to notice while going on. Maybe it really needs a radical change, maybe the German coalition is currently working on it, like they promised they would. Or maybe Ehegattensplitting will last for another 60 years.

The only thing we know is that untangling is almost impossible.



1. Federal Council, 189th session, February 28, 1958, transcript, p. 34 (quoted from, quoted after Wersig (2013: 183), originally in German and translated by author.

2. Interview [19/09/22, Peter], originally in German, translations of direct quotes by author.

3. Care work consists of unpaid caregiving and reproductive activities, for example housework, emotional work, or volunteer work.

Digging Deeper into the Social Contract

Miranda Sheild Johansson, October 12, 2022

Taxes are often discussed in terms of social contracts – one element of a deal between the state and its citizens. Classical philosophers such as John Locke and Adam Smith all linked taxes to political representation, property, and rights and today ‘taxpayer money’ holds a particular charge, one that demands accountability from governments. While contemporary political philosophers have argued that the social contract as a way of describing societies, or imagining what societies should be, has perhaps outlived its usefulness (Lessnoff, 1990:4), the idea abounds in popular, academic, and political imaginaries, and is regularly employed to understand live issues and propose solutions.

In the Special issue ‘Beyond the Social Contract: An Anthropology of Tax’ (2020, 64:2 Social Analysis) the editors Nicolette Makovicky and Robin Smith, along with the authors of the articles, all show how a social contract framing of fiscal relations is limiting. In exploring fiscal relations across the globe, from Ghana to Finland, the Special Issue aims to interrogate assumptions about the nature of state-citizen relations that continue to underpin approaches to fiscal relations among anthropologists and scholars of tax more broadly, such as the social contract.

Continuing this conversation, a recent Special Issue edited by Gwen Burnyeat and Miranda Sheild Johansson in Critique of Anthropology, ‘An Anthropology of the Social Contract: Interrogating Contractarian Thinking in State-Society Relations’ (2022, 43:3), explores how the idea of social contracts shapes thinking and political possibilities in societies around the world. The authors in the Special Issue demonstrate that just as with fiscal relations, contractarian thinking imbues approaches and experiences of migration, local politics, everyday claim-making on the state, rationales around peace and truth, infrastructure, political discourses, and notions of freedom and nation-states and that this demands our attention. In their introduction, Burnyeat and Sheild Johansson write that interrogating the social contract ethnographically is not about exploring the ways in which society may or may not be contractual, but rather analysing how people conceive of, appropriate and reinvent these models of socio-political life that circulate so widely; essentially, how people live with ideas.

For anthropologists working on taxes, it is clear that fiscal relations are tied up in fundamental conversations about how societies are and should be organised. Many of these conversations are centuries old and bare the hallmarks of their histories, as is clear with the social contract and its enlightenment character. As such, one job of an anthropology of tax is to wade into these longstanding debates about state-society relations in order to critically analyse contemporary fiscal systems and instigate conversations about alternative ways of understanding and organising our fiscal lives. 



Lessnoff M. 1990. Introduction: Social contract. In: Lessnoff M (ed.), Social Contract Theory. New York: New York University Press, pp. 1–26

Fiscal governance as memes

Andreas Streinzer, April 27, 2022

Last semester, my students and I tried to step up the fun, our understanding of taxation, and how to study it - with memes. Over the coming weeks on this blog, my students will share how they translated concepts from economic anthropology, the social studies of finance, and tax law into social media bits. All of them enrolled in the course “Fiscal Governance: Knowing, Calculating, and Regulating Flows of Value” in the MA Science and Technology Studies at Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany, in the winter semester of 2021/22. The inspiration for the series came from a social media assignment by Robin James that she shared online (see HERE).

As teaser, Hannah Piehl has agreed to showcase some of her feminist meme-work that deals with “Ehegattensplitting”, a German tax law that frames married couples as an economic unit and calculates income tax by adding up both incomes and halving them.

Those couples benefit whose incomes fall in different taxation brackets, effectively incentivizing couples with income differences. The empirical effect is de-incentivizing female earning. This is not a coincidence, as Hannah Piehl shows in this gem of a meme:

She reflects on the puzzlement about the law itself and that it is still on the books in 2022:

Criticism of the law has not yet led to the law being reformed, with the ruling CDU party brushing off feminist arguments that Hannah Piehl comments on with this meme:

Stay tuned for more blogposts over the next weeks and months in which students will present and explain their social media bits and memes and relate them to an STS-inspired economic anthropological study of fiscal governance and taxation!

If this has inspired you to give such an assignment in your course, check out these (linked) Syllabus and Social Media Assigment Explainer.

Featured publication: Shaping Taxpayers

Lotta Björklund Larsen, Aug.  5, 2020

Shaping Taxpayers. Values in Action at the Swedish Tax Agency

By Lotta Björklund Larsen

Published in 2017 by Berghahn Books

My monograph is an ANT inspired ethnography based on three years of fieldwork at one of Sweden’s most esteemed bureaucracies, the Swedish Tax Agency (STA), from 2010 to 2013.

As taxation is often deemed utterly boring, my aim was to make this ethnography a vivid and intimate account of knowledge-making. I depict a STA that mediates the application of tax law while it vigorously strives to earn legitimacy in society in its collecting of taxes while minimizing tax faults. Although this book is about a government agency and its citizenry, the leading character is a report which is created as the result of a risk assessment project performed at this Agency.

Based on unparalleled and up-close fieldwork, I follow the creation of this report from its inception, through the research phase, over the deliberations on how the finished report should be communicated to the Swedish public, and ultimately during the process of implementing the changes in routines that followed from the report.

The Agency’s project involved hundreds of people, but eventually came up with results that were deemed too controversial for external publication.

Results from the report emerged as a potential threat to the maintenance of the Agency’s credibility, and the legitimacy it had built up over decades was put at risk.

The book follows a risk assessment project from its inception, through the research phase, in presentations throughout the STA to its final abandonment as the results and conclusions reached did not align with the STA's strategies. Following this project reveals how diverse knowledge claims—legal, economic, and cultural—compete to shape taxpayer behaviour.

Voices about the book: 

“How tax compliance is shaped merits much more attention than it has received in anthropology and the social sciences. The book offers a wonderful rendering of the true strangeness and contingency of familiar routines – something the best social theory does.”

       -Liz McFall, Open University

“Shaping Taxpayers will be a significant, indeed, ground-breaking study that will propel this vein of interdisciplinary scholarship, concerned with social studies of finance, cultural economy, fiscal sociology and bureaucratic practice, into the mainstream.”

-Bill Maurer, Univ. of California, Irvine

Do you have anything to write about taxes? Book review? Your own book announcement? Insights into or reflections on a specific area of tax in society? A short ethnographic vignette that didn't fit into an article but you'd like to share?

Anything you would like to write that relates to tax can be published here!

Please contact me with the form to the right! 

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