President Biden’s foreign policy to date is largely indistinguishable from Trump’s. His administration hasn’t reversed tortuous sanctions against Iran, the United States continues to bomb Somalia, and there’s no indication that the U.S. will shutter any of its 800 military bases around the world. In February, Biden authorized airstrikes in Syria, killing at least 22 people. His “national security” team is as hawkish as they come. Biden broke with Trump’s policies when he announced that the U.S. would leave Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, continuing the military presence there four months later than the May 1 deadline Trump set with the Taliban.
Biden’s record indicates that people in the imperial core will need to take it upon themselves to throw a wrench in the war machine. Thus far, antiwar movements in the U.S. have not succeeded in accomplishing this. U.S. military spending rose from $533 billion in 2005 to around $740 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2021. Biden recently requested a $753 billion military budget for FY 2022.
Drones, missiles and tanks don’t grow on trees: American taxpayers make U.S. imperialism possible. In 2021, an estimated 47 percent of all federal income tax will go toward the U.S. military.
For this reason, Howard Waitzkin, a medical doctor, a professor focusing on social medicine, and an activist, believes mass war tax resistance could serve as a wrench. For about four decades, Waitzkin has withheld federal income taxes proportional to the amount that would go toward military spending. He redirects some of his income tax funds toward “creatively constructive purposes that move beyond capitalism,” including a program he coordinates that provides medical and mental health services to active-duty GIs who can’t access them in the military.
Waitzkin hasn’t been arrested or fined. In fact, most tax resisters haven’t faced severe consequences. The National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, a network that supports individuals who refuse to pay for war, is only aware of a couple dozen war tax resisters who have been jailed over the last 60 years — a majority for falsifying documents. The last recorded case of tax-related property seizure took place in the 1990s.
Waitzkin’s resistance story is part of a long and varied history of protest. In 1637, Algonquin peoples refused to pay taxes for a Dutch fort. Quakers resisted war taxes throughout the American Revolution and Mexican-American War en masse. Henry David Thoreau, well-known for his essay “Civil Disobedience,” was jailed for refusing to pay taxes in opposition to slavery and the Mexican-American War.
An estimated 20,000 antiwar activists were resisting income taxes in the early 1970s, while hundreds of thousands refused to pay telephone taxes. Others vowed to live modestly, by earning salaries below the federal income tax threshold.
Today, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people in the U.S. participate in various war tax resistance tactics.
In this interview, Waitzkin discusses how he resists taxes, his perceptions on why most people in the U.S. dutifully pay up, the possibilities for resisting policing through tax resistance and more.
Ella Fassler: So, how did tax resistance arise as a strategy for combating U.S. imperialism and war, both historically and personally?
Howard Waitzkin: Well, as you said, it actually has been going on for centuries. It was a basis of the U.S. bourgeois revolution — the first U.S. revolution — in a way that is now represented as a right-wing position: that is, the Tea Party. Tax resistance has been happening throughout U.S. history and, actually, throughout world history. There were major variations of tax resistance in the U.S. in relation to World War I, World War II, and then probably the biggest manifestation of it was in the period around the Indochina War.
In terms of my background, I come from a family history of resistance to war. My grandfather, a farmer and union organizer, was a role model for me. I grew up in a small town in Ohio. He and his brother were draft resisters from the Czar’s army. They left Europe and my grandfather settled in Wadsworth, Ohio, a tiny village where they had a farm that they lost in the Great Depression. This orientation toward anti-militarism was part of my family upbringing. My parents, although they were clearly antiwar, were not officially conscientious objectors. But then both I and my brother became card-carrying conscientious objectors, recognized as holding the beliefs that qualify from the standpoint of the U.S. military apparatus.
Quite a few people who do tax resistance start off as conscientious objectors to capitalist imperialist war. What taxes become, then, is a fundamental cognitive dissonance in terms of ethics. Because here I am, declaring myself a resister to war and actually getting recognized for that. So, I don’t have to go out and kill people under orders. I can do other things, as a conscientious objector, to provide service, as I’ve done. But here I am being asked to pay half of my income taxes to kill people. It doesn’t really add up, does it?
There’s actually a constitutional question about how people legally can be eligible for conscientious objection and yet have to pay half their earnings for the exact thing that they have been recognized as conscientiously objecting to. And that’s in my formal explanations year after year to the IRS. That’s actually part of it. The individual stories vary a lot, but that’s a very common theme here: that people start off objecting to war as it is, and can’t imagine ourselves participating in it as it is, and then it goes from that to paying taxes.
Then there is the theme around consent, an idea that comes out in my pamphlet, “Rinky-Dink Revolution.” That’s kind of a Gramscian approach, that fascist governments and totalitarian governments and right-wing governments, none of them can actually succeed, as Gramsci pointed out, without consent. Consent is achieved through false consciousness, basically; a manipulation of consciousness by elites that govern, through the media or whatever….
And so, the question, in my mind, is why do we consent to so many things that keep capitalism going? And taxes are a big one.
Most people are taught — I was certainly taught — that death and taxes are the two inevitabilities. Taxes are not inevitable. And a lot of people don’t pay them, and a lot of corporations don’t. It’s a big lie that taxes are inevitable.
Right, before World War I, there wasn’t even really a federal income tax. So, what year did you start resisting them?
It was in 1974 or 75.
And from what I’ve seen, that seems like a peak in a wave of tax resistance. Does it feel like the public was more aware of it as a tactic or strategy then versus now?
I don’t think the numbers and proportions were that much higher. It was a relatively minority position, like the antiwar movement. I think there was more knowledge about what was happening. Whether there were that many more people participating, I’m really not clear about.
Yeah, it seems hard to track that data. In regards to antiwar movements today, I’m thinking back to what you said about conscientious objectors emerging out of the draft, which then led to a generation of tax resisters. It seems like, there’s been less interest recently in antiwar movements and tax resistance as a strategy, maybe because there isn’t a draft.
I completely agree with that. The “volunteer” draft has been a tremendous boon for U.S. militarism, because the stakes, for a substantial part of the U.S. population (basically the privileged part) are extremely low. So, warfare is below the radar of consciousness among the vast majority of people in the U.S. Now, it’s not for the marginalized, poor and minority populations in the country, who have very few options, except the volunteer draft to get jobs and to get education.
Definitely. Let’s get into the specifics of how you have resisted your taxes, then. How do you do it?
There are two key things to remember: First there’s nothing illegal about saying to the IRS, “I conscientiously do not believe in paying taxes for war, and I’m not going to do it. Here’s what I earned as income. Here’s what I’m paying as income tax, which is half of my calculated income tax, as required. This money that I am paying as income tax is not for war but rather for the other half of taxes that I hope goes into the good things that are done for people by governments rather than killing people. I’m going to use the half that I’m not paying specifically to help people and communities in need through the alternative funds that are set up by tax resisters.” The IRS may try to disagree with you, but there’s nothing illegal as long as you file your income tax, and are honest about what you earn.
There are rare problems that people get into with the IRS in terms of legal assets being taken away like homes and cars. The last examples that we know of happened more than 20 years ago. But there are people, usually right-wing people, who because of libertarian views, refuse to file their income tax, or cheat on their income tax by giving inaccurate information. Those things can get you into trouble. Although obviously, given the ways that billionaires and big corporations get away with not paying taxes, this happens all the time also.
The second thing to remember is that the Internal Revenue Service is a very stressed institution with extremely overworked and under-appreciated employees. The likelihood of anybody getting audited, for any reason, is extremely low. It’s below 1 percent of all income tax returns that are filed. The IRS publishes a volume each year online that gives these figures. It’s astonishing to read through what they’re up against.
Now, let’s say I do get audited after I send a truthful tax form. Let’s say they come back to me and say, “No, this isn’t okay.” Then you have appeal rights. You can respond by saying that you are a conscientious objector. In my case, I say I’m approved by the U.S. government to be a conscientious objector. I personally have had a case in U.S. District Court years ago that was handled by my dear friend and lawyer, Steve Schear. The brilliant constitutional argument actually scared the IRS so much that these very high-level delegations came to New York, where the IRS won in Judge Irving Kaufman’s court, the judge who convicted the Rosenbergs. So, I share the honor with them that I was actually a loser in his court, for me about the issue of whether conscientious objectors have to pay taxes for war. But in any case, you can appeal it through several levels.
Occasionally, the IRS has used a frivolous objection category that they can apply and that does happen occasionally. But it’s not too significant as long as you make a detailed argument in your correspondence. You can get advice about how to express this from the National Coordinating Committee and the various support groups around the country that can really help in these communications.
So, let’s say you go through the appeals in the IRS and the appeals outside the IRS; this can take several years for any one year of tax. And let’s say at the end of that, either the IRS or the court judge says, “No, we’re not allowing this.” Then they can take your money out of your bank account, or they can garnish your wages. I’ve had several situations of their doing that: for instance, after we lost in Judge Kaufman’s court, about $500 was taken out of my wages for the tax debt, for which they spent probably $50,000 of expenses by paying lawyers and bureaucrats.
Does it affect your credit score or anything like that?
No, because none of this involves credit. It doesn’t involve charges that you’re refusing to pay — you’re actually saying this isn’t a legitimate charge.
Any process that you’re in with the IRS that is legal and within their regulations is okay, which all of the above is. They can’t penalize you for doing what they themselves say in writing is okay to do.
As far as we know, there are between 10,000 and 20,000 people above ground who are doing this. If this were 10 million people, that will make a big dent.
I know you’ve also resisted by using loopholes. How did you do that?
For a long time, I had a very progressive, left-wing tax accountant and he said, “You know, Howard, this is taking a fair amount of work for you and time, do you really want to do this? Because you could actually withhold more money just by doing legal loopholes.” I had a young daughter at that point and was involved in some other things, so he basically advised me to do that. I decided to take his advice, which I did for something like 13 years. I was actually paying less doing that than I was paying through official tax resistance. But it bothered me, because people should be out there making the point that militarism is destructive, and [because of] everything else we’re concerned about — the way people are getting killed, people being hungry, people being poor, racism, massive inequality, health problems, mental health problems. And then there’s the environment, where the U.S. military is the largest, single institutional polluter of the environment in the world. It goes on and on.
I feel this is something that in terms of tax resistance, we ought to really have a lot of people putting this right out in people’s view: It is because we consent and pay our taxes and don’t give it much thought [that] half the money we pay the government is for war.
When you talk to people who are very against militarism, but have never considered tax resistance, what are their first reactions? Why aren’t more people doing this already?
It’s usually fear that comes from lack of information. People have been taught that death and taxes are the two inevitabilities and that if you in any way challenge the IRS, you’ll get screwed. Somehow this has seeped into the consciousness of most people who live in the U.S. It’s interesting that it’s not that way in other countries. It’s one of the many aspects of ideological hegemony in the U.S., the incredibly powerful role that media messages and educational messages play in shaping people’s false consciousness about reality. People really believe that they’ll get screwed even if they just question paying taxes.
For instance — this is in “Rinky-Dink Revolution” — the dictatorships in southern Latin America, part of the reason that they were brought down was because of tax resistance. It was related to various elements of the underground economy. It even happens in places like Cuba, where one reason for the current market reforms is to allow people to earn higher incomes so they will feel ok about paying taxes that they previously tried to resist.
What are your general thoughts about whether U.S. militarism will change under Biden, and how it relates to tax resistance? Because it does seem like there was some more interest around tax resistance under Trump, in a way, because people didn’t want to pay the federal government because they hate Trump so much.
Right, this is actually a very important question. Let’s say using the example of Chile or Argentina, the resistance against authoritarianism and militarism and repression was much greater under the dictatorships than under bourgeois democracy that followed the dictatorships. The return of electoral processes that symbolically indicated democracy was the worst thing that happened for those resistance movements.
The cooptation and misleading assumptions of a Democratic Party “victory” — in a highly contested election when about 40 percent of eligible voters didn’t vote — is very dangerous. There’s absolutely no indication so far that Biden will do anything to reduce militarism, certainly nothing to reduce spending on U.S. militarism.
To wrap up, could tax resistance be used as a way to protest other things in the future, such as police budgets?
As part of the abolition struggle, I and others have come to a much clearer understanding that exactly the same mechanism of militarization and taxes applies domestically to police. The percentages are about the same: About half of our local taxes go toward policing.
How do you resist that in terms of tax resistance? This is a wave of the future. Resisting local taxes that pay for militarized police forces has not been done to any significant degree, because it usually involves property tax. People could resist half of property taxes, and put that half to pay for local service programs. It’s hard to imagine that this wouldn’t gain traction.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.