Every April, as income-tax returns come due, I think about the day 30 years ago when I opened my rented mailbox and saw a business card resting inside. 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. Hands shaking, I put a quarter in a pay phone and 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). At the time, the Contras were being illegally supported by the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
With training and guidance from the CIA, they were using a military strategy based on terrorizing civilians in the Nicaraguan countryside. Their targets included newly built schools, clinics, roads, and phone lines — anything the revolutionary government had, in fact, achieved — along with the campesinos (the families of subsistence farmers) who used such things. Contra attacks very often involved torture: flaying people alive, severing body parts, cutting open the wombs of pregnant women. Nor were such acts mere aberrations. They were strategic choices made by a force backed 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 working, first as a bookkeeper, then at a feminist bookstore, and eventually at a foundation. But with each new employer, on my 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. And I stopped filing tax returns.
Not paying taxes for unjust wars has a long history in this country. It goes back at least to Henry David Thoreau’s refusal to pay them to support the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). His act of resistance landed him in jail for a night and led him to write On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, dooming generations of high-school students to reading the ruminations of a somewhat self-satisfied tax resister. Almost a century later, labor leader and pacifist A.J. Muste revived Thoreau’s tradition, once even filing a copy of the Duty of Civil Disobedience in place of his Form 1040. After supporting textile factory workers in their famous 1919 strike in Lowell, Massachusetts, and some 20 years later helping form and run the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America (where my mother once worked as a labor organizer), Muste eventually came to serve on the board of the War Resisters League (WRL).
For almost a century now, WRL, along with the even older Fellowship of Reconciliation and other peace groups, have promoted antiwar tax resistance as a nonviolent means of confronting this country’s militarism. In recent years, both organizations have expanded their work beyond opposing imperial adventures overseas to stand against racist, militarized policing at home as well.
Your Tax Dollars at Work
Each year, the WRL publishes a “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? Not if you consider that none of the billions spent in previous years stopped Russia from invading. As Lindsay Koshgarian argues at Newsweek, “Colossal military spending didn’t prevent the Russian invasion, and more money won’t stop it. The U.S. alone already spends 12 times 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 five weapons-making companies in 2021 were Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technology, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, and General Dynamics. Together, they reaped $198 billion in taxpayer funds last year alone. In 2020, the top 100 contractors took in $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. citizen in Yemen or so many civilians elsewhere in the Greater Middle East and Africa.
The Pentagon threatens the world with more than the direct violence of 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.
While the military budget increases yearly, federal spending that actually promotes human welfare has fallen over the last 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. In 1997, federal expenditures for TANF totaled about $16.6 billion. That figure has remained largely unchanged. However, according to the Congressional Research Service, since the program began, such expenditures have actually dropped 40% in value, thanks to inflation.
Unlike military outlays, spending for the actual welfare of Americans doesn’t increase over time. In fact, as a result of the austerity imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities 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. In one recent poll, a majority of them, given the choice, said they would prioritize education, social insurance, and health care. A third would rather that their money not be spent on war at all. And almost 40% believed that the federal government simply doesn’t spend enough on social-welfare programs.
Death May Be Coming for Us All, But Taxes Are for the Little People
Pollsters don’t include corporations like Amazon, FedEx, and Nike in their surveys of taxpayers. Perhaps the reason is that those corporate behemoths often don’t pay a dollar in income tax. In 2020, in fact, 55 top U.S. companies paid no corporate income taxes whatsoever. Nor would the survey takers have polled billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, or Carl Icahn, all of whom also manage the neat trick of not paying any income tax at all some 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. As ProPublica explains:
“America’s billionaires avail themselves of tax-avoidance strategies beyond the reach of ordinary people. Their wealth derives from the skyrocketing value 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.”
So, if the rich avoid paying taxes by holding onto their assets instead of selling them, where do they get the money to live like the billionaires they are? 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. Through the Reagan administration and the first Bush presidency, with the Savings and Loan debacle and the first Gulf War, there was little the U.S. government was doing that I wanted to support.
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.
Until that day comes, there are still many ways, as the War Resisters League makes clear, to resist paying war taxes, should you choose to do so. I eventually started filing my returns again and paid off eight years of taxes, penalties, and interest. It wasn’t the life decision I’m proudest of, but here’s what happened.
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. And so, in 1992 an IRS agent visited my mailbox.
Only a month earlier, a friend, my partner, and I had bought a house together. 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 remember the agent meeting us at the entrance to a room filled with work cubicles. I took a look at her and my gaydar 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.
The three of us settled into her cubicle. 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 raised herself from her chair just enough to scan the roomful of cubicles around us, then sat down again. Silently, she shook her head. Well, it may not have been the family discount, but it was good 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.
Her eyebrows flew up and she shook her head, but that was that.
Why did I give up so easily? There were a few reasons. The Contra war in Nicaragua had ended after the Sandinistas lost the national elections in 1990. Nicaraguans weren’t stupid. They grasped that, as long as the Sandinistas were in power, the U.S. would continue to embargo their exports and arm and train the Contras. 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. The IRS, it turned out, was running a pilot program to see whether they could capture more unpaid taxes by diverting funds from auditing to directly pursuing non-filers like me. Several resisters I knew were caught in their net, including my friend T.J.
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 doubtful. “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. Still, so many of us keep on keeping on, knowing we must never become too distraught to find new ways to oppose military aggression anywhere in the world, including, of course, Ukraine, while affirming life as best we can.
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of Mainstreaming Torture, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.