Paying for War
On March 18, a photo appeared on the New York Times website of a small white-haired woman in a purple sweatshirt named Ruth Benn, coordinator of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC), being forcibly removed from the IRS building in Washington, DC. She and a few hundred others had set up a blockade to mark the fifth anniversary of America’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were drawing attention to the way these wars are being funded, while revealing the complicity of those of us who, however inadvertently, support the war by paying our taxes.
When I saw the photo, I had just filed my income tax return and begun the cheerful process of waiting for my yearly check from the IRS. I was set to receive around $700, having claimed only myself on several freelance-related W-4 forms. And my accountant had told me that I’d be receiving a $600 check in May, as part of a national morale boost in the face of a coming recession. The IRS was paying my rent. Sweet! I thought.
It was then, by chance, that a financially aware friend put me in touch with her accountant, a member of the NWTRCC named Ed Hedemann, who happens to be Ruth Benn’s partner. When I spoke with Hedemann on the phone, he informed me that my income tax return is a result of the government over-withholding my yearly earnings, interest free, so that my money has devalued by the time I get my check from the IRS. He also said that, of the $1085.76 I paid in federal income tax, about 50% is war or military-related. “The government,” Hedemann said, “would have us think that only about 30% of our federal taxes go to the Department of Defense or the military. But this doesn’t include veteran’s benefits and interest on the national debt, which is created by wars and high military spending.”
Later that day, using percentages at the National Priorities Project (NPP) website, I discovered that $293 of my federal income taxes went directly to the military, $206 to interest on the national debt, and $36 to war veterans benefits. That’s 49% right there, ignoring an ominous $135 for “all other expenses,” such as the Department of Energy budget, where funding for nuclear weapons comes from. The remaining $415 was distributed among education, environmental protection, housing, and health care, something I, like 47 million other Americans, don’t have.
Other NPP data show that if this year’s proposed supplemental war-related funding goes through, the total cost of the Iraq War should rise to $611 billion. The Pentagon recently confirmed that the President’s 2009 budget proposal should reach an estimated $139 billion in Iraq-related spending. Unless the war comes to a sudden halt, by next year federal war spending should reach an inflation-adjusted high not seen since the end of World War II.
It’s embarrassing to admit to a gracious, hard-bitten war tax resistor that you don’t understand what a tax return is. It’s degrading to realize you’ve been paying taxes to fund a war your conscience doesn’t support.
This is Especially problematic if you’re from Concord, Massachusetts, like me. My mom lives a ten-minute walk from the site of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin, or “hut,” as the weathered wooden sign nearby describes it. My public high school lies even closer. A sweater-vested Emersonian English teacher there used to read out loud to us from his ragged copy of Walden and Other Writings. “If [the injustice],” he would read, “is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine!” Here he would look up, eyes twinkling with revolutionary zeal over his bifocals, and find a classroom of twenty teens nodding out at their desks like junkies. (Admittedly, Thoreau is not as relevant to teenagers who don’t pay their own taxes.)
Hedemann, a handsome, fleece-wearing man in his sixties, has a way of rattling off heaps of complex taxation statistics and then smiling in a sudden, friendly way. He didn’t start resisting taxes until his mid-twenties, after refusing induction into the U.S. Army in 1971. Since then, the IRS has sent levies to clients of his, telling them he owes money to the US government; put liens at the King’s County registrar’s office for any properties he might own; and summoned him to court, demanding he disclose the source of his assets. All these attempts have failed. Shortly after his appearance on a Fox business show last July, the IRS assigned a single collection agent to him and Benn. “It’s one thing for me to be [withholding taxes] in my closet, where nobody knows about it but the IRS, and another to be publicly broadcasting it on TV,” he said. “I think they found that disturbing.”
Hedemann and Benn—who reside together in an invitingly cluttered Park Slope brownstone, and don’t appear to be resisting anything so much as embracing a peaceful, conscientious way of life—know their IRS agent by name. They’ve met with him several times, individually. Benn recently gave him a photocopy of Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. When they next spoke, the IRS man admitted he didn’t see how such views apply to the present.
In her green-carpeted living room, Benn chuckled at such a notion, as her tortoise shell cat crawled onto her shoulder. She suggested that the agent must not have read it very thoroughly. As one of about a hundred still-relevant sentences from the 1849 essay reads: “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.”
In addition to writing articles and organizing workshops about tax resistance, Hedemann and Benn have also been steadily endorsing the US Peace Tax Fund Bill. Introduced in 1972, this bill is an attempt to create a conscientious objector (CO) status for taxpayers, like the CO law for draftees. The last committee meeting on the bill took place ten years ago. But it is repeatedly readdressed due to sympathetic members in Congress, and currently supported by fifty national religious, peace, and civil liberties organizations.
Until such a bill is passed, war tax resistance will remain illegal, and therefore a fairly effective way of confronting the government. Like a New York City landlord, the IRS is more interested in collecting money than in taking people to court—an expensive proposition. So it’s necessary that people new to war tax resistance know how to avoid collection.
Lily D., a 25-year-old living in Prospect Heights who attends NWTRCC meetings regularly, was raised in the Quaker Church and exposed to war tax resistance at a young age. She began resisting last year by withholding around $1,500. “It’s tricky,” Lily says, “because I have a full-time job that does withholding, so I’m not able to resist all my taxes.” She has increased the number of allowances on her W-4 form so that the IRS withholds less, though any more than nine or ten allowances are likely to put you on the government’s radar. Should the IRS inform her non-profit workplace of her tax activism, she is uncertain how they might react. “For me war tax resistance is a constant reminder that the work I’m doing is not perhaps as revolutionary as I want it to be.”
Another young resister is Jesse Davis, a 29-year-old Lower East Side resident who has paid no taxes for two years. A practicing Zen Buddhist, Davis took a lay ordination in the summer of 2006, in which he promised to uphold the Buddhist precepts, the first being: Don’t kill. “I was aware that I was paying for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also Israel’s war in Lebanon and Gaza that summer,” said Davis. “It became intolerable. There’s a huge disconnect between ‘I won’t kill, but I will pay others to kill.’ And so I stopped.” Benn and Hedemann, and particularly Hedemann’s book, War Tax Resistance, available through NWTRCC’s website, taught him everything he needed to know. He remains in frequent touch with them. Since 2006, Jesse quit full-time employment in favor of freelance work as a software engineer and photographer. Anticipating a seizure of his checking account last year, he transferred his money to different accounts. When the IRS froze his account, they were only able to collect $24.65. He expects to resist around $9,000 this year, and to re-channel it—a common practice among war tax resisters—to the New York City People’s Life Fund.
Hedemann suggests that anyone interested start by refusing a dollar and including a protest letter with their 1040 form. “The IRS isn’t going to seize your house or firstborn for that kind of thing,” he said, “but at least it will send a message the IRS won’t ignore.”
JED LIPINSKI used to play tambourine in the band Hexa.