Tax day is this Tuesday. The Internal Revenue Service is expected to take in over $2 trillion this year. Nearly 40 percent of that total will go to military-related expenses. Tax resisters across the country are planning to withhold part or all of their taxes to protest the war. We speak with Pamela Schwartz of the National Priorities Project and Runn Benn of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee. [includes rush transcript]
- Special thanks to Robbie Leppzer and Turning Tide Productions for providing video used in this segment.
AMY GOODMAN: With Tax Day less than a week away, millions of Americans are preparing to send checks to the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS is expected to take in over $2 trillion this year. Nearly 40 percent of that total will go to military-related expenses — this according to a new report by the National Priorities Project. The research group estimates 27 percent of your federal taxes will be pay for current military spending, including the war in Iraq. An additional 9 percent will help pay off debt from past wars and military expenses. Another 3 percent covers benefits for veterans.
While Pentagon spending is reaching the highest levels since World War II, some Americans are personally refusing to fund the military. Tax resisters across the country are planning to withhold part or all of their taxes to protest the war.
We’re joined by two guests to talk about war and taxes. Pamela Schwartz is the communications director at the National Priorities Project. She joins us from Chicopee, Massachusetts. Ruth Benn is here in New York. She is coordinator of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee and co-author of the book War Tax Resistance: A Guide to Withholding Your Support from the Military.
Ruth, I want to begin with you, but I want to talk about this issue of hanging up on war, this war tax that thousands of people actually have refused to pay, but few know about in this country, a century-old war tax that appears on your phone bill. Please explain what it is.
RUTH BENN: Well, there’s a federal excise tax on telephone service — there has been — on long-distance service. It started in 1898, and that is the tax that has recently been ended.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s for the Spanish-American War.
RUTH BENN: The Spanish-American War, right. And it was a tax that was taken off after that war, put back on during World War I, taken off again, put back on during World War II, went up to 10 percent tax on long-distance service during the Vietnam War and had been steadily on since then. And then the IRS was taken to court in the last few years by some large corporations who found a technicality in the way that that piece of legislation was written and took it to court to argue that it wasn’t being applied properly anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, this was a 3 percent tax that appears on your phone bill —
RUTH BENN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: — that a number of people would circle every year and refuse to pay, and usually no one would go after them. Usually.
RUTH BENN: Not many consequences, certainly, in recent years. During the Vietnam War, when that was a very large campaign with maybe a quarter million people refusing that tax, the IRS did go after some people, did actually seize some property — bicycles, even tried to seize a house for this small amount, maybe $7 of telephone tax. But in recent years, sometimes you’d get a notice from the IRS about this small amount of taxes due, but it was pretty rare that they went after that. And it was obviously a very symbolic kind of resistance, but it was one that a lot of people could do.
And actually, the tax, although it was ended on long-distance service at the end of July 2006 — and I think we’re going to talk about the refund that’s possible now on income taxes this year — it continues on local service. So if people have a bill that’s just on their local telephone service, they’ll still see federal tax, excise tax — it might be listed that way — on their local bill. That is still a 3 percent tax. It pays into the general fund, the same place that income taxes go, the money that’s disbursed for all the things that the government does and this huge amount that’s going to the military and the billions of dollars to the Iraq War now. So for people who did have local service and still see that tax, it’s still a small way to resist, to refuse to pay something.
AMY GOODMAN: But on this year’s income tax statement, what do you do about that phone tax, that interestingly it was corporations that sued to have removed?
RUTH BENN: It was thousands of dollars for them, so —
AMY GOODMAN: Because?
RUTH BENN: For their long-distance service, so, because they have such huge volume of telephone use in a big corporation, they saw this as, you know, thousands of dollars that was being improperly collected.
But anyway, so it does benefit many people who have been paying that tax. You can use a credit — I think it’s line 71 on the 1040 form. You can apply for that credit. It’s in the instructions. The IRS is offering a flat amount. I think it’s $30 maybe for most individuals, and there’s some range there, if you’ll see in the instruction book, for people to actually get a refund for about the last three years of that tax paid, because of the point where the IRS started losing in court on this.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is a one-shot deal. In fact, the IRS commissioner has said he’s surprised so few people are actually checking it, because everyone gets the refund, if they do.
RUTH BENN: Right, right. And also nonprofits and other organizations should look at this seriously, because it could be a — well, nonprofits don’t necessarily pay federal taxes, but for small organizations or, you know, individuals who actually may, for some reason, have had a higher telephone bill, you can actually, if you have the records, you can actually apply for more than the bottom-line credit that the IRS is offering. So people should read that instruction carefully.
AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t it Congressmember John Lewis of Georgia who’s introduced the bill that would remove this tax from local bills, as well?
RUTH BENN: Yes. And actually, I think Schumer is a sponsor of the bill in the Senate. It’s one that’s been presented. It was in Congress last year. And for whatever reason, that didn’t go through. But we’d love to see the end of that excise tax, which, you know, it was started as a luxury tax. Phones are no longer a luxury, and it is time to get rid of that tax completely.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Pamela Schwartz, before we talk about, well, war tax resistance and the history of it. Pamela Schwartz, communications director for the National Priorities Project, which runs a website, costofwar.com. Pamela, explain the cost of war.
PAMELA SCHWARTZ: Well, right now, we’re at a price tag of almost half a trillion dollars for the war in Iraq, and it’s only promising to climb. And what we offer at the nationalprioritiesproject.org is a breakdown of what that cost means to your state, your city, your congressional district, and what that money could buy in local services.
And, for instance, let me just start with the national picture. For the amount of the cost of the Iraq War, we could provide university scholarships for every single graduating senior this year. We could insure uninsured children for the entire length of the Iraq War. We could provide port security, fulfill the Coast Guard’s budget for port security in every port in the United States, and we would still money left over to cut the deficit in half. We’re talking about an enormous consequence to this bill for the Iraq War.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you get the information to figure out the actual cost of war and percentage of the budget and taxes that go to war, Pamela?
PAMELA SCHWARTZ: Well, we look at what Congress has allocated, and we add it together, and we break it down by looking at what each state’s share is into the federal funds budget, how much they’re contributing in taxes, and we do the formula. And it’s actually quite straightforward. So, really, it’s about taking these figures and making them accessible to people, so they can understand the consequences of this war in financial terms, not to mention human ones, and they can have an opinion and take action with their elected representatives and say, "Are these my federal spending priorities?"
AMY GOODMAN: So explain exactly how it breaks down on the individual income tax dollar.
PAMELA SCHWARTZ: Well, for every income tax dollar, 40 cents of that dollar is going to past and present military spending. And that is, as you said earlier in your report, nine cents of that is interest payments due to past military spending, and three cents is due to veteran’s benefits, and then we have the remaining 27 cents on current military spending. So that gets us to nearly 40 cents.
Alongside that, in contrast, we’ve got for preventive security measures, such as diplomacy, economic development assistance, locking down nuclear weapons, all the things that I think it’s safe to say every American would consider important to making us feel safer, all of that is getting three-quarters of a penny of your income tax dollar. And alongside that, we have one-hundredth of a penny of your income tax dollar going to energy, investment in renewable energy and conservation. And finally, if you look at human needs and where our tax dollar is going, it’s less than a penny in job training, two cents of your income tax dollar to nutrition, to affordable housing, five cents to education. So the bottom line is we’ve got a situation where our federal spending priorities have never been starker and where it is clear that military spending is dominating everything else to great consequence.
AMY GOODMAN: What percentage goes to veterans’ benefits and services?
PAMELA SCHWARTZ: We have three cents of every income tax dollar going to veterans’ benefits. In the face of all of what we’ve heard as of late in terms of the quality of care, it’s clear their needs are not being met.
AMY GOODMAN: How has this changed over the years, Pamela?
PAMELA SCHWARTZ: Well, you can look at 2000 — there’s a number of ways to look at this. One of them is to look at the year 2000 and see that in 2000 we had 24 cents of every income tax dollar going to military spending. And now we’re up to 27 cents. If you look at in dollar terms, the military spending budget for fiscal year 2008 is over $600 billion. That is twice as much as it was in the year 2000. We are really talking about an astronomical increase.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by the figures that you came up with this year in the National Priorities Project, with how your tax dollars break down?
PAMELA SCHWARTZ: No matter how long I’ve been in this business of trying to bring home the impact of federal spending policies, it never ceases to amaze me to stare at those numbers. When you think that 40 cents of every income tax dollar is going to military spending, while we’ve got two cents, less than a penny going to meet our basic needs here at home, it’s astonishing.
AMY GOODMAN: Pamela Schwartz, I want to thank you very much for joining us in the Springfield, Massachusetts, studio. By the way, how bad is the weather up there?
PAMELA SCHWARTZ: You know, I have never been more relieved. There is no snow on the ground. We might actually see spring sometime in the next couple of weeks.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it is pouring here in New York. We’re hearing it hit the slate of the firehouse studios here. Thanks for joining us.
Ruth Benn, can you talk about the history of war tax resistance?
RUTH BENN: Well, just briefly, I think that many people know about Henry David Thoreau, of course, and his famous night in jail for refusing a small amount of tax for the Mexican-American War. And certainly that night in jail and his essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" has been hugely influential for this very small amount of resistance. I’m sure that ever since there was a war that had a tax on it, there’s been somebody, at least someone somewhere, who said, "I just can’t pay for that." Been a tradition through Quaker history in the past — you know, decades ago, to refuse to pay for war.
The modern war tax resistance movement, which focuses on the income tax, is since World War II in this country, because that’s when income tax was really instituted broadly for most people in the country. And so, there are people now who have refused to pay since World War II. The phone tax was a popular tax to resist, especially during the Vietnam War and kind of steadily since then.
And it certainly rises and falls with the different wars that we have. Vietnam War, a large war tax resistance movement, quite visible, a lot of pressure from the IRS, a lot of seizures from the IRS, and a big reaction at that time. And I think during the ’80s there was a big increase of war tax resistance, because of the nuclear weapons issue. The first Gulf War, we saw more tax resisters.
And I think more now. It’s been a little bit slow this time, but certainly with the lobbying that’s been going on with Congress and the probable passage of all the money again for the war, more people are getting extremely angry now about what’s happening with their tax dollars. So we’re hearing more from people now, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain how tax resistance works. Now, you yourself have been a war tax resister for some, what, 20 years?
RUTH BENN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean? What do you do, or what don’t you do?
RUTH BENN: Right, well, I think I started resisting the phone tax, partly because when I began war tax resistance I wasn’t making very much money. I’m not even sure if I had to pay federal taxes at that point. So I started at a small level with the phone tax. And as a peace activist, it just made more and more sense to me that here I was out working for peace, but at the same time so much of my money was going to war. So, as I took jobs and had a salaried job, if I owed money at the end of the year, I refused to pay it. I adjusted the allowances if I had a salary job, so that less money was taken from my paycheck, so that I’d have money to refuse at the end of the year.
Now, I’m self-employed, which means that I’m responsible for 100 percent of those taxes. I don’t have anything withheld. So it’s easier now as a self-employed person to say, you know, this is the amount I owe, and I’m refusing to pay that to the IRS.
I do pay my taxes. I feel like I pay my taxes. I give that money away. I mean, just watching the footage from Iraq in the earlier part of this show, it is so incredibly painful to see what U.S. tax dollars are doing. So some of my money I give to victims of war. We look at the situation in Africa and food issues and, you know, just feel like this huge amount of resources that’s going to Iraq could be transferred —
AMY GOODMAN: Do you actually do your taxes —
RUTH BENN: I do.
AMY GOODMAN: — and then take a portion of the taxes or not pay any of the taxes?
RUTH BENN: I do. I fill out the tax form and show the balance due. I actually do pay into Social Security, and I pay state and local taxes. It’s the federal income tax that I focused on, and particularly because of that huge percentage that Pamela was talking about with National Priorities Project. So I’m looking at the federal income tax, and that’s the amount that I refuse to pay. And so, I send my form to the IRS with a letter saying, "This is what the form says I owe to you, but I’m taking that money and I’m giving it to groups who don’t kill people, basically, who don’t do violence."
AMY GOODMAN: And what is the government’s reaction, not just to you, but to other people, since you are monitoring this whole national war tax resistance movement? And how many people, by the way, are resisting?
RUTH BENN: You know, it’s very hard to tell, because the way that I do it is pretty public, but there are people who don’t want to cooperate with the system at all and don’t fill out the forms, don’t file, and stay out of the system, whether they are earning below taxable income or off the books or whatever, finding ways to not be involved in the system at all for very conscientious reasons.
So the IRS, especially if you file, if they have a report on some money that you’ve made, they send out a series of letters. And that’s the most common thing that people get, is letters from the IRS, some of them very demanding. It can be very frightening to receive a letter from the IRS, as many people know. And the other thing that we’re seeing more in recent years than, I think, we used to is the ability of the IRS to take money from bank accounts or do salary — take money from a salary. I’ve just seen a press release from Scott Kennedy, who works for Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz and used to be the mayor there, who has been a longtime war tax resister and is having his salary garnished. And he’s, you know, as far as I know, for some people like that, who’ve been longtime war tax resisters, even though the IRS might be getting some money, are feeling that "I’m refusing to pay voluntarily. I’m not just going to give my money over, even if they can do this to me." And most of us know that whatever the IRS can do to us is not as bad as what we’re seeing our tax dollars doing especially now.
AMY GOODMAN: There are people, like in western Massachusetts, who have lost their homes, is that right?
RUTH BENN: Yeah. That was in the late '80s, early ’90s, was pretty much the last house seizure that we've seen in the war tax resistance movement. You know, it probably does happen to other people who are refusing taxes for other reasons. It’s very uncommon, and it’s a very costly thing for the IRS to do, that kind of property seizure. So it’s the sort of thing that I think the IRS does to make a statement and to make people afraid, but it’s not something they do regularly.
And I should mention that there are a couple of men in prison right now, who are with a small religious community in New Jersey that’s had a long history of refusing to pay for war, supported military resisters over the years, and they were running a small business and not withholding for other people in their community who refused to pay, and the IRS went after them — I think it’s been a couple of years ago — and took them to court last year, brought criminal charges against them, which is quite unusual from people in our circles that we hear about. So Kevin McKee and Joe Donato from this small community called Restored Israel of Yahweh are serving prison sentences now, and they have a website, if people want to find their addresses and write supportive letters to them, because they’ve held out against — refusing to pay for war.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ruth Benn, I want to thank you very much for being with us. We’ll link to all relevant websites. Ruth Benn is the coordinator of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee and co-author of the book War Tax Resistance. Thanks for joining us.