Dollar Dissent

Tax Resisters Chip Away at Bush's War Chest

Police horses won't stop them. Ranks of cops in riot gear won't stop them either. Even rush hour traffic on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue won't stop Americans determined to end the war in Iraq. The tax man, however, gives them pause.

"It's surprising to me that people are more willing to risk arrest than refuse to pay their taxes. The fear of the IRS is tremendous in this country," says Ed Hedemann, author of the 144-page War Tax Resistance: A Guide to Withholding Your Support From the Military.Hedemann has not paid any federal income tax since 1972 and does not plan to start this April 15.

Last Tuesday the Bush administration hit up Congress for $75 billion in taxpayer money to cover immediate war costs (some $30 billion of which the Pentagon has already spent). With unrest over this war evoking comparisons to the Vietnam era, when war tax resistance was at its peak, Hedemann hopes to multiply the "several thousand" compatriots he believes he has nationwide. Already, dozens of how-to sites have cropped up on the Internet, and lefty discussion groups have begun to embrace the idea.

While jail time and bad credit are real possibilities for war tax resisters, Hedemann says such consequences are far rarer than most people imagine and are easily avoided. There is a degree of tax resistance for every level of risk tolerance, he says. The tamest form is to pay all owed taxes but include a letter demanding that the money not be spent on the military. Another mild mode is to underpay by just a dollar, or not to pay the 3 percent federal excise tax on telephone bills, a tax which in the past rose with war costs and thereby became an object of protest.

The next level up entails not paying a percentage of one's taxes equivalent to the portion of federal funds used for military purposes, a figure whose estimates vary widely—from 20 percent to 80 percent—depending on the source and the definition of "military." (Even diehards like Hedemann pay safely nonmilitary taxes, like Social Security and state and local levies.)

But the ultimate form of tax resistance is not to pay any federal income tax at all and then keep the government from collecting it anyway. After all, tax resistance is supposed to transcend symbolism and deplete the dollars and cents that purchase the very tanks and missiles of the war machine. Rather than profit from their protest, resisters are expected to funnel their unpaid taxes into socially beneficial causes. In its highest form, Hedemann admits, war tax resistance "takes hard work."

It requires something of a holistic lifestyle commitment. The successful war tax resister does not have seizable assets, such as a bank account, home, or car. He works for an employer who agrees not to withhold federal taxes from his paycheck. Or he earns so little that he is exempt from being taxed. Hedemann, 58, says he rents an apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and describes himself as a freelancer for nonprofits. "I do have a bank account," he says, "but it's not in my name."

U.S. Treasury Department spokesperson Tara Bradshaw says, "Every American should pay their fair share of taxes." The government does not track nonpayers "that way," meaning by cause, she says, so it is difficult to tell how well the resisters' message gets across. (Hedemann discovered through a Freedom of Information Act request, however, that the IRS had kept his letters.)

Potential consequences naturally include fines, typically a percentage of the unpaid taxes, plus interest. Hedemann says that anyone who files a return form but refuses to pay—the strongest form of protest—should expect at least a written notice from the feds. He recalls a few instances when IRS agents, seemingly unfamiliar with the First Amendment, fined people who paid all their taxes but also wrote in with political complaints. "That's always been reversed, of course," he says.

The IRS can place a lien on property, tarnishing a person's credit. (Hedemann says he has "a lousy credit rating," although he managed to obtain "regular credit cards" with some effort.) In the past 10 years, there has been only one case each of house seizure and car seizure, he says. "Usually, these kinds of things happen in isolated areas," he says, such as suburban Massachusetts, where war tax resisters stick out. Never, to his recollection, in New York City.

Then there are the criminal penalties. Tax evasion, "willful failure to pay," and fraud can land a person in federal court, according to the IRS. In the past 60 years, 30 people have gone to jail, typically for one to three months, on resistance-related charges, Hedemann says. Some were convicted of fraud, usually claiming too many dependents. The bulk of convictions resulted from people refusing to divulge financial information to IRS investigators. Hedemann himself was prosecuted for that four years ago. "It was a rather intensive instance," he recalls. A particularly industrious agent charged him with contempt for not disclosing his assets. "The judge, a Bush One appointee, ruled in my favor, based on my right not to incriminate myself," he says.

"You really have to go out of your way to go to jail. The IRS gives you all kinds of opportunities," he says, to pay up and avoid repercussions, as the agency's own collection rule book notes. The risks are worthwhile, Hedemann insists, because "tax resistance has a direct impact on the government."

Federal budget experts are quick to disagree with him. Robert McIntyre heads Citizens for Tax Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit known to lean liberal. Nevertheless, he puts war tax resistance "somewhere between silly and evil." Silly, because if resistance were actually to rise to a felt level, the government would simply borrow the money it could not get from taxes to keep the war going. And evil, because resisters are "putting their share of the government on other people." (A bill to create a peace tax fund—a federally approved way to pay taxes but keep them away from the military—was introduced in the spring of 2002 and supported by a number of Congress members, including current House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. It has not been reintroduced this year.)

If war tax resisters intend to deplete the funding merely for this particular war, they should know that its cost is relatively low and easily supported by other means, according to Steven Kosiak, director of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. (Moreover, Kosiak doubts that "it's even intellectually possible" to deduce what percentage of the war payout derives from personal income tax revenue.) The Korean War cost 14 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, he says, and the Vietnam War cost 19 percent. Current estimates for the war in Iraq amount to 4 percent or less.

The entire military budget for fiscal year 2003—minus the cost of the war in Iraq—comes in it at about $390 billion. Hedemann admits that the occasional resister "may not bring the military to a grinding halt." Yet if the hundreds of thousands of recent anti-war protesters were to decide, " 'I've had enough of marching, I want to do something more,' " says Hedemann, "it would be something the government couldn't ignore."

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