There have always been fights about taxes — stretching back to the crates of over-taxed tea tossed into the Boston Harbor and a thoughtful man’s night in jail for refusing to pay taxes in the slave-holding state of Massachusetts. This country’s long history of tax resistance stretches from the American Revolution to the religious non-cooperation of groups like the Mennonites and the Quakers to the movement to abolish slavery to resistance to every war fought in the 20th century. Following in the footsteps of this history and the example of Henry David Thoreau, there have always been a principled few who refuse to pay all or part of their federal taxes as an expression of their pacifism, or as a way of opposing specific policies. And there have always been demonstrations on April 15.
In my experience, these tax day actions are motley affairs. Handfuls of activists gather at post offices and IRS outposts around the country, where they try to engage stressed-out tax procrastinators with dense tracks about the atrocities our tax dollars are funding in the warzone du jour. There are always copies of the War Resisters League’s eye-catching pie chart, which shows the huge portion of federal tax money allocated to the military. In New York City, we have deployed a cumbersome Penny Poll and handed out rolls of pennies to passersby, asking them to put the coins in different tubes to show how they really want their tax dollars spent.
But now that a tax scofflaw has his feet up on the big desk in the Oval Office, tax resistance is taking a turn towards the mainstream. Luminaries like Gloria Steinem and Mia Farrow are calling for tax resistance in response to Trump’s threats to Planned Parenthood and his plans to build the border wall. One new initiative, TaxStrike100.com, encourages people to withhold $100 for 100 days as an act of nonviolent civil disobedience against the Trump administration and the GOP. Meanwhile, a robust coalition of major liberal organizations like MoveOn.org and the Working Families Party are calling for a Tax March in Washington, D.C. on April 15. The plan is to march from the Lincoln Memorial — past the White House, the Washington Monument, the Trump Hotel and the IRS headquarters — to the U.S. Capitol. There are even satellite marches and demonstrations scheduled in well over 60 cities around the country.
Tax resistance, it seems, is having a moment. But amid the hashtags, tweets and boldface names, there is NWTRCC — the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee. Despite having an unwieldy acronym and what the Guardian calls a “rudimentary” website, NWTRCC has been steadily and steadfastly supporting war tax resisters since 1982 — connecting them to one another, promoting the tactic as a form of conscientious objection, and educating people about how to do it as publicly or as quietly as they choose.
Spectrum of resistance
Tax resistance can be full-on noncooperation, a symbolic gesture or anything in between. There are people who live off the money grid as a way of resisting. There are those who make more than the taxable income and publicly declare their resistance each year by sending letters to the IRS, outlining exactly how much money they are withholding and the organizations and causes they are redirecting their resources to instead. There are even those who are intentionally poor, living at or below the taxable line, as a way of not cooperating with paying for war, and seeing their time as more valuable than their salaries.
In our household, we feel good about paying taxes — just not the half that goes to war. We think of ourselves as low-risk tax resisters. But a friend recently pointed out that we are no-risk tax resisters, and it turns out she is right. In a household of five, where both adults work part time, it is not all that hard to be below the taxable level. We both work some and have time to share responsibility for the kids, the chores and contribute to our community. It usually works out that we pay state and city taxes, which largely go to things we support like roads, schools and affordable healthcare. And when we open the paper to read the bad news about war — the latest being those U.S. airstrikes responsible for killing as many as 200 civilians around Mosul last week — we at least know that the munition wasn’t bought with our labor or complicity. It isn’t much, but it feels like something — especially as we await President Trump’s proposed budget.
War tax workshops
As tax day approached this year, we saw an opportunity to gather our friends and share information about war tax resistance. If we were really thinking, we would have done it in November — that way people could have made concrete changes affecting their 2016 taxes. But we were too scattered to be strategic and, like most people, didn’t start thinking about taxes until March anyway. Most of the people we invited were parents of small kids — who giggled and played with Legos upstairs while we talked. Most of us also owned houses and had jobs. We asked them: Is war tax resistance a good thing to do in response to Trump? Is it a practical way of voicing opposition and creating alternatives? Or is it madness for homeowners and parents?
More than a dozen friends spent a Sunday evening eating soup and bread and learning from a longtime war tax resister named Mary Regan, who shared her own story of not paying taxes since the early 1980s. She lives in Boston and is part of NWTRCC. Mary described her decision to be a tax resister as a kind of conscientious objection to the way resources are allocated for war making and war preparations. While earning a living in different scenarios — full-time, part time, self-employed, part of organizations large and small — over the last several decades, Mary has withheld half of her “tax bill” as an act of resistance.
Rather than sending it to the IRS, she sends it directly to initiatives and causes close to her heart. One that stood out was the Prison Birth Project, which organized recently to pass a bill ending the practice of shackling women who give birth while incarcerated.
Mary then asked us: “What do you want your taxes to fund?” Among the responses were education, renewable energy research, a functional infrastructure for our cities and rural areas, fair and affordable housing, a strong social safety net, national park protection, paid parental leave, universal kindergarten, sex education programs that teach about women’s pleasure and war reparations. In short, we did with our imaginations what Mary has been doing with her check book and tax resistance for decades.
It was a fun exercise, and we got excited and inspired hearing what others wanted. At the same time, however, it was also a sobering reminder of how out of step federal spending is with our citizen priorities.
Too much paying for war
More than half of discretionary spending (i.e. what the president and Congress decide on each year) goes to the military in one form or another. For 2015, that number was $598 billion. Non-discretionary spending is mostly taken up by Social Security and Medicare, components of the federal budget that are not decided on annually. Since the beginning of the war on terror, military spending has been split between spending on systems and personnel and spending on military action. During the George W. Bush years, that spending came to Congress as emergency supplemental requests every few months. For most of the Obama administration, the cost of military action in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere were Overseas Contingency Operations. Trump is also asking for separate spending for military operations in the sum of $65 billion for 2017. While his administration has denied a “loosening” of the rules of engagement in Iraq, Syria and other countries where the U.S. military is active, Chris Woods of Airwars told the New York Times that civilian casualties are on the rise: up from 465 in December to 1,058 in March so far.
To fund a $54 billion increase in military spending, Trump is planning to put Meals on Wheels up on blocks and pull the handwoven, idiosyncratic rug out from under the National Endowment for the Arts. But that is not all — he also wants to bleed the Environmental Protection Agency by about a third, cut the State Department’s budget by 28 percent, and shear Health and Human Services by almost 18 percent. Then he wants to completely zero out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation and dozens of other initiatives.
All these cuts add up to a gross, huge increase in military spending. His $54 billion increase represents a 10 percent bonus to a Pentagon that has been feasting royally for decades. Even before this increase, the United States spends as much as the next 13 nations combined, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security will also see a boost, with an additional $2.8 billion for border officers and a down payment on Trump’s “beautiful wall,” which is estimated to cost upwards of $25 billion to be constructed.
Dreaming the alternative and resisting the reality
One benefit of war tax resistance is that it allows for creativity and imagination around how else we want to see our resources being spent. It doesn’t have to be this way. This country has the money. It’s just that we are just spending it all wrong. For a graphic depiction of what the United States has lost as a result of overspending on the military for decades, check out the American Society of Civil Engineers’ dynamic website on the State of the American Infrastructure (spoiler alert: We got a D+). In area after area, the United States is billions of dollars behind in investing in critical infrastructure repairs, upgrades and replacements. Here’s just a short list of what’s needed: $7 billion in solid waste investment, $150 billion for clean water infrastructure, $836 billion for highway system upgrades and $38 billion for school facilities.
The complete list goes on and on, and we see the crumbling of this great nation every time we get in our cars, get on our bikes or even go for a walk. It is a depressing document to click through, but it is also an inspiring virtual roadmap for rebuilding the United States — one that would put millions of people to work and improve every single person’s life.
As long as we are in the realm of dreaming, let’s dream alongside Lindsay Koshgarian from the National Priorities Project. She crunched the numbers for how else we could spend $54 billion — the amount President Trump wants to add to the already huge military budget. For that same money, we could resettle 2.7 million refugees, create nearly one million infrastructure jobs, pay the salaries of half our nation’s elementary school teachers, send 1.6 million students to college for a free four-year degree, or insure 15 million adults through Medicaid.
Tax resistance — in all its forms — does matter. As former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig famously quipped during the Reagan administration, “Let them march all they want, as long as they continue to pay their taxes.” His derisive words — aimed at the millions of people opposed to the Vietnam War — still resonate. Can we march against government policies and pay for them at the same time? When we reorganize our lives to stop paying — or to pay less — the ripples of change matter too. They result in more time, more mutual aid and more community building. Tax resistance is an act that grows in power as more people join in. There is risk involved, but there is also strength in numbers. What’s more: Trump wants to cut the IRS budget along with everything else, so there will be fewer resources for tax enforcement in the coming years.
So, as tax day rolls around again, we are excited to be sharing information about war tax resistance with our friends and neighbors. It is one more tool in the tool box, one more way to connect to one another and be creative, one more way to resist, one more way to be conscientiously opposed to Trump’s objectionable policies.
Recent criticisms calling the founder of nonviolent theory a Cold Warrior are way off the mark. To rightly evaluate him, we need to understand the role he chose for himself.
A six-week strike by teachers has bolstered a movement against proposed austerity measures targeting Lebanon’s dangerously underfunded education system.
Drama helps movements draw attention to their issues, but it won’t come without creativity and direct action tactics that reach beyond the choir.