A dispatch for the “Arguing the World” blog at Dissent magazine.
Published in Dissent.
I know some people who are active in War Tax Resistance, who refuse to pay some or all of their federal taxes due to their opposition to military spending. I share their concern with out-of-control military budgets, but I’ve never gotten behind the movement. On the whole, I support progressive taxation, so opting out of the system, even in a qualified way, seemed like the wrong way to make the point about the aspects of government spending that I don’t like.
It turns out that the War Tax Resisters are restrained moderates compared to their right-wing counterparts—Tea Partiers and other anti-government conservatives who celebrate “Tax Freedom Day.” These include the ever-nutty Jonah Goldberg, who USA Today somehow considers respectable enough to grant a column. In his tax-day-themed missive, Goldberg tells us that “Tax Freedom Day” this year is on April 9. Up until that day, the argument goes, everything you’ve earned for the year will be just enough to pay off your annual taxes. “If Democrats have their way,” Goldberg writes, “Tax Freedom Day will keep getting later and later.”
It doesn’t take long for this argument to fall apart, but the column is an entertaining read nonetheless. One thing that caught my eye was Goldberg’s appropriation of populist language for explicitly elitist ends. He writes that up until April 9 you were “working for the man.” But then he very quickly turns to attack the fact that the tax system has redistributive effects:
“The Tax Foundation estimates that some 60% of American families already get more from the government than they pay in taxes (and the top 10% of earners pay more than 70% of the income taxes). If all of President Obama’s plans are enacted, that percentage will increase.”
In other words, his complaint is that while most Americans benefit from the tax system, the top 10% have to pay. Where I come from that might be called “sticking it to the man.” But in Goldberg’s haunts, it’s tyranny:
“We are heading toward being a country where instead of the people deciding how much money the government should have, the government decides how much money the people should have.”
Of course, this argument undermines the whole concept of “Tax Freedom Day.” Since tax rates vary across the country and we still have at least a marginally progressive system that requires the super-rich to pay a greater portion than the rest, there’s no single day in the year that represents the time any given individual devotes to paying off his or her taxes.
But let’s put that aside. I think the central question here is, What are the right-wing tax protesters celebrating their freedom from? In Goldberg’s words, “any amount of taxation can be unjust if it is being used for bad reasons.” But what exactly is it that these folks find objectionable?
Military spending accounts for over half of our federal tax dollars after you add up the allocations for the Department of Defense, war appropriations, military components of other arms of the government, and debt from previous military ventures. This means that, unless they want to rethink the nature of their holiday, the “Tax Freedom” people should be spending January and most of February joining the picket lines of the War Tax Resisters.
Last I checked, the Tea Partiers weren’t interested in reeling in military spending. So what else is on the list? Well, the next big budget items are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. While some on the far right want to privatize or eliminate them, these programs tend to be very popular with most Americans—so much so that fear-mongering about a government takeover of Medicare became a paradox-laden Tea Party talking point. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security total around 39 percent of the total federal budget. So once we take those off the table, we’re up above 80 percent of the federal budget that’s going untouched.
Are the Tax Freedom Day people celebrating freedom from functional national highways and bridges that don’t collapse? If not, that’s another $73 billion in taxes we can agree to keep.
Should there be a public response to public health hazards like the Swine Flu? Unless you believe that the rich should be vaccinated and the poor should go ahead and suffer the epidemic (a recipe for festering ever more virulent diseases), then you support some type of national public health system, which means funding the Center for Disease Control and related agencies.
Disaster relief? Unless you think people caught in floods and earthquakes should fend for themselves, keeping FEMA will shave another day or so off the “Tax Freedom” concept.
National parks? Some whack jobs might want to sell off Yellowstone and Yosemite. But red-blooded, Ken-Burns-loving Americans, not such much.
The list goes on. Keep in mind that Tax Freedom Day is not just about federal taxes, but also about state and local taxes. A lot of these go to services like garbage collection, local police, schools, and firefighting.
When it comes down to it, the portion of government budgets that the Tea Party people would see as actually embodying tyranny is pretty small. While they might spend some time in January contributing to programs they don’t particularly approve of, there are far more people in this country who opposed the invasion of Iraq and yet are stuck paying off endless Congressional appropriations for it. If only we could get some corporate-funded think tanks to make a holiday for us…
ACTUALLY THERE is a holiday that is something of a truly populist counterpart to “Tax Freedom Day.” It draws attention to a far more legitimate outrage in our economy. It is called “Take Back Your Time Day” and it falls on October 24. On that day, if our country’s workload were on par with the rest of the industrialized world, you would have the rest of the year off. I wrote about the relevant stats a few years back:
“When compared with workers in Western Europe, the average American will work 350 hours more per year, the equivalent of nine extra weeks. Furthermore, a study by the International Labor Organization reports that in 2000 the average U.S. worker put in 199 more hours than in 1973.”
In one of the more unintentionally radical moments of his column, Goldberg explains, “you have a right to own what you create.” Those who endorse that idea have far more to gain from “Take Back Your Time” efforts than from philosophically dubious anti-tax arguments. The time campaign aims to highlight the uneven distribution of benefits from the huge productivity gains we’ve experienced in this country over the past 35 years. Working people are putting in longer hours, experiencing stagnated pay levels, and losing their sick days and vacation time. A few people in our society are making a lot of money from this system (hint: they the same people who’ve seen their tax burden decline precipitously over the past 50 years), but they aren’t the folks, by in large, who have been going to Tea Party rallies.