Tax Day Should Remind Us How Much of Our Money Funds War

Every April, as income tax returns are due, my mind wanders back to the day I saw a business cards in my rented mailbox 30 years ago. Its first line read, innocently enough, “United States Treasury.” It was the second line — “Internal Revenue Service” — that took my breath away. That card belonged to an IRS revenue agent and scrawled across it in blue ink was the message: “Call me.”

I’d used that mailbox as my address on the last tax return I’d filed, eight years earlier. Presumably, the agent thought she’d be visiting my home when she appeared at the place where I rented a mailbox, which, as I would discover, was the agency’s usual first step in running down errant taxpayers. I raised my hands and placed a quarter in a payphone. Then I called my partner. “What’s going to happen to us?” I asked her.

Resisting war taxes

I knew that the IRS wasn’t visiting me as part of an audit of my returns, since I hadn’t filed any for eight years. My partner and I were both informal tax resisters — she, ever since joining the pacifist Catholic Worker organization; and I, ever since I’d returned from Nicaragua in 1984. I’d spent six months traveling that country’s war zones as a volunteer with Witness for Peace. My work involved recording the testimony of people who had survived attacks by the “Contras,” the counterrevolutionary forces opposing the leftist Sandinista government then in power (after a popular uprising deposed the U.S.-backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza). The Contras were being held at the time. illegally supportedBy the President Ronald Reagan’s administration.

They were able to terrorize civilians in Nicaraguan villages with the help of CIA training and guidance. Their targets included newly built schools, clinics, roads, and phone lines — anything the revolutionary government had, in fact, achieved — along with the CampesinosThese were the families of subsistence farmers who used these things. Contra attacks were often accompanied by torture. This included severing bodies, cutting open the wombs and flaying victims. These acts were not mere aberrations. These were strategic decisions made by a force that was backed by and directed by the United States.

When I got back to the United States, I simply couldn’t imagine paying taxes to subsidize the murder of people in another country, some of whom I knew personally. I continued to work, first as a bookkeeper and then at a feminist bookstore and finally at an foundation. With each new employer, I learned more about myself. W-4 form I would claim that I expected to owe no taxes that year, so the IRS wouldn’t take money out of my paycheck. I stopped filing tax returns.

It is a long tradition in this country that unjust wars are not taxed. It goes back at least to Henry David Thoreau’s refusal to payThey were forced to support the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). He was sentenced to a night in prison for his resistance, which led him to write The Duty of Civil Disobedience Generations of high school students will be condemned to read the ruminations and frustrations of a self-satisfied tax resister, dooming them to be unable to read. Nearly a century later, labor leader turned pacifist A.J. Muste revived Thoreau’s tradition, once even filing a copy of the Duty of Civil DisobedienceIn place of his Form 1040. After supporting textile factory workers during the 1919 strike in Lowell (Massachusetts), and 20 years later helping to form the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America (wheremy mother used to be a labor organizer), Muste eventually became a member of the board of directors of the War Resisters League (WRL).

WRL and the even older WRL have been together for nearly a century. Fellowship of Reconciliation and other peace groups, have promoted antiwar tax resistance as a nonviolent means of confronting this country’s militarism. Both groups have expanded their work to resist imperial adventures overseas and now stand against militarized, racist policing at the home.

Your Tax Dollars at work

The WRL publishes an annual report. “pie chart” poster that explains “where your income tax money really goes.” In most years, more than half of it is allocated to what’s euphemistically called “defense.” This year’s poster, distinctly an outlier, indicates that pandemic-related spending boosted the non-military portion of the budget above the 50% mark for the first time in decades. Still, at $768 billion, we now have the largest Pentagon budget in history (and it’s soon to grow larger yet). That’s a nice reward for a military whose main achievements in this century are losing major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But doesn’t the war in Ukraine justify all those billions? You should also consider the fact that Russia has invaded the country with no of those billions in previous years. Lindsay Koshgarian arguesat Newsweek, “Colossal military spending didn’t prevent the Russian invasion, and more money won’t stop it. The U.S. spends 12x more on its military than Russia. When combined with Europe’s biggest military spenders, the U.S. and its allies on the continent outspend Russia by at least 15 to 1. If more military spending were the answer, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

“Defense” spending could, however, just as accurately be described as welfare for military contractors, because that’s where so much of the money eventually ends up. The top fiveIn 2021, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technology and Boeing were the weapons-making firms. Northrup Grumman and General Dynamics were also among them. They recouped $198 billion in taxpayer money last year. In 2020, the top 100 contracting firms took in $198 billion. $551 billion. Of course, we undoubtedly got some lovely toys for our money, but I’ve always found it difficult to live in — or eat — a drone. They’re certainly useful, however, for murdering a U.S. citizenYemen or so many civilians elsewhere inAfrica and the Greater Middle East.

The Pentagon is more than just a threat to war. It’s also a significant factor driving climate change. The U.S. Military is the world’s largest institutional consumer of oil. If it were a country, the Pentagon would rank 55th among the world’s carbon emitters.

The military budget is increasing each year, but federal spending that actually promotes welfare has declined over the past decade. In fact, such spending for the program most Americans think of when they hear the word “welfare” — Temporary Aid for Needy Families, or TANF — hasn’t changed much since 1996, the year the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (so-called welfare reform) took effect. Federal expenditures for TANF were $16.6 billion in 1997. This figure has remained relatively unchanged. However, accordingAccording to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), these expenditures have dropped by 40% since the program’s inception, due to inflation.

Unlike military outlays, spending for the actual welfare of Americans doesn’t increase over time. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has been unable to function because of the 2011 Budget Control Act’s austerity. reports that “by 2021 non-defense funding (excluding veterans’ health care) was about 9% lower than it had been 11 years earlier after adjusting for inflation and population growth.” Note that Congress passed that austerity measure a mere three years after the subprime lending crisis exploded, initiating the Great Recession, whose reverberations still ring in our ears.

This isn’t necessarily how taxpayers want their money spent. According to a recent poll, the majority of them would choose this option. saidThey would prioritize education, health care, and social insurance. A third of respondents would prefer that their money not go to war. And almost 40% believed that the federal government simply doesn’t spend enough on social-welfare programs.

Death may be coming for all of us, but taxes are only for the very few

Pollsters don’t include corporations like Amazon, FedEx, and NikeIn their surveys of taxpayers. Perhaps the reason is that those corporate behemoths often don’t pay a dollar in income tax. In 2020, 55 of the top U.S. businesses will be listed. paidThere are no income taxes on corporate income. Survey takers would not have polled billionaires such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Carl Icahn. All of them also manage the clever trick of not paying corporate income taxes. paying any income taxThroughout all of these years.

In 2021, using “a vast trove of Internal Revenue Service data on the tax returns of thousands of the nation’s wealthiest people, covering more than 15 years,” ProPublica published a report on how much the rich really pay in taxes. The data show that, between 2014 and 2018, the richest Americans paid a measly “true tax” rate of 3.4% on the growth of their wealth over that period. The average American — you — typically pays 14% of his or her income each year in federal income tax. ProPublica explains:

“America’s billionaires avail themselves of tax-avoidance strategies beyond the reach of ordinary people. Their wealth is derived from the skyrocketing values of their assets like stock and property. Those gains are not defined by U.S. laws as taxable income unless and until the billionaires sell.”

If the wealthy are able to avoid paying taxes by holding on to their assets rather than selling them, how do they make enough money to live like billionaires? The answer isn’t complicated: They borrow it.­ Using their wealth as collateral, they typically borrow millions of dollars to live on, using the interest on those loans to offset any income they might actually receive in a given year and so reducing their taxes even more.

While they do avoid paying taxes, I’m pretty sure those plutocrats aren’t tax resisters. They’re not using such dodges to avoid paying for U.S. military interventions around the world, which was why I stopped paying taxes for almost a decade. With the Savings and Loan crisis and the first Gulf War, I was not happy with the U.S. government’s actions during the Reagan administration and the Bush presidency.

These days, however, having lived through the “greed is good” decade, having watched a particularly bizarre version of American individualism reach its pinnacle in the presidency of billionaire Donald Trump, I think about taxes a bit differently. I still don’t want to pay for the organized global version of murder that is war, American-style, but I’ve also come to see that taxes are an important form of communal solidarity. Our taxes allow us, though the government, to do things together we can’t do as individuals — like generating electricity or making sure our food is clean and safe. In a more truly democratic society, people like me might feel better about paying taxes, since we’d be deciding more collectively how to spend our common wealth for the common good. We might even buy fewer drones.

There are still many other ways to do it until that day, such as through the War Resisters Alliance makes clearTo avoid paying war taxes if you choose to. I finally started filing my returns again, and paid off eight years worth of taxes, penalties and interest. It wasn’t the life decision I’m proudest of, but here’s what happened.

“Too Distraught

The method I chose was, as I’ve said, not to file my tax returns, which, if your employer doesn’t withhold any taxes and send them to the feds, denies the federal government tax revenue from you. Mind you, for most of those years I wasn’t making much money. We’re talking about hundreds of dollars, not hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost tax revenue. Over those years, I got just the occasional plaintive query from the IRS about whether I’d forgotten my taxes. But during the mid-1980s, the IRS upgraded its computers, improving its ability to capture income reported by employers and so enabling it to recreate the returns a taxpayer should have filed, but didn’t. In 1992, an IRS agent visited my mailbox.

My partner, a friend, and I had just bought a house together a month before. So, when I saw that “Call me,” on the agent’s business card, I was terrified that my act of conscience was going to lose us our life savings. Trembling, I called the revenue agent and set up an appointment at the San Francisco federal building, a place I only knew as the site of many antiwar demonstrations I’d attended.

I can still recall the agent meeting me at the door to a room full of work cubicles. I took a look at my agent and my. gaydarI went off. “Oh, my goodness,” I thought, “she’s a lesbian!” Maybe that would help somehow — not that I imagined for a second that my partner and I were going to get the “family discount” we sometimes received from LGBT cashiers.

We settled in her cubicle together. She told me that I would have to file returns from 1986 to 1991 (the IRS computers, it turned out, couldn’t reach back further than that) and also pay the missing taxes, penalties, and interest on all of it. With an only partially feigned quaver in my voice, I asked, “Are you going to take our house away?”

She got up from her seat just enough to look around at the room full of cubicles, then she sat back down. She shook her heads and silently sighed. It may not have been the family discount but it was enough for me.

Then she asked why I hadn’t filed my taxes and, having already decided I was going to pay up, I didn’t explain anything about those Nicaraguan families our government had maimed or murdered. I didn’t say why I’d been unwilling or what I thought it meant to pay for this country’s wars in Central America or preparations for more wars to come. “I just kept putting it off,” I said, which was true enough, if not the whole truth.

Somehow, she bought that and asked me one final question, “By the way, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m an accountant,” I replied.

She raised her eyebrows and shook her head. But that was it.

Why did I give in so easily? There were many reasons. After the Sandinistas’ defeat in the 1990 national elections, the Contra war in Nicaragua was over. Nicaraguans weren’t stupid. They understood that the U.S. would continue embargoing their exports and arming and training the Contras as long as Sandinistas are in power. And I’d made some changes in my own life. After decades of using part-time paid work to support my full-time activism, I’d taken a “grown-up” job to help pay my ailing and impoverished mother’s rent, once I convinced her to move from subsidized housing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to San Francisco. And, of course, I’d just made a fundamental investment of my own in the status quo. I’d bought a house. Even had I been willing to lose it, I couldn’t ask my co-owners to suffer for my conscience.

But in the end, I also found I just didn’t have the courage to defy the government of the world’s most powerful country.

As it happened, I wasn’t the only person in the Bay Area to get a visit from a revenue agent that year. It turned out that the IRS was running a pilot program to capture more unpaid taxes. They diverted funds from auditing to pursue non-filers like myself. My friend T.J. was one of the many resisters they caught.

An agent came to T.J.’s house and sat at his kitchen table. Unlike “my” agent, T.J.’s not only asked him why he hadn’t filed his returns, but read from a list of possible reasons: “Did you have a drug or alcohol problem? Were you ill? Did you have trouble filling out the forms?”

“Don’t you have any political reasons on your list?” T.J. asked.

The agent looked skeptical. “Political? Well, there’s ‘too distraught.’”

“That’s it,” said T.J. “Put down ‘too distraught.’”

T.J. died years ago, but I remember him every tax season when I again have to reckon with just how deeply implicated all of us are in this country’s military death machine, whether we pay income taxes or not. Yet, many of us continue to keep going, knowing that we must not become too upset to find new ways of opposing military aggression anywhere in this world, including Ukraine, while still defending our lives as best we can.