Paying up

So one major credit rating agency has announced it has a bad feeling about the long-term value of U.S. government debt. Whatever could our government—which is to say, we, the U.S. public—have done to warrant that? How about refusing to collect revenue that could pay down existing debt:


Sure, government spending increases debt, and the U.S. government spends money to do lots of things I’d be happy to stop doing. But government does lots of things that any sane person agrees are necessary—paying for police and firefighters, building roads, preventing people from pissing in my drinking water—and even if we cut all those basic services to zero, we still wouldn’t have a balanced budget. (Non-defense discretionary spending for 2010 ≈ $530 billion; 2010 federal budget deficit ≈ $1,294 billion. Everyone can agree that 530 is not larger than 1,294 … right?)

When the government borrows, it borrows against tax revenue that it could, theoretically, collect to pay off the debt. Our collective decisions as U.S. citizens, expressed via elections—with admittedly varying degrees of accuracy and wisdom—have run up historically high national debt while driving the proportion of national income collected as taxes to a historical low. If you were loaning more and more money to a friend who kept working fewer and fewer hours a week, wouldn’t you start to get a bit edgy?

And if all this sounds a bit abstract, here’s a nice concrete number: the increased cost of U.S. debt associated with that credit rating agency’s bad feeling comes to about $322 per U.S. citizen. If I’m not mistaken, that’s a pretty big chunk of the refund I got back when the last round of big tax cuts took effect, ten years ago—and it’s just the start. ◼

The pacifist prepares his taxes

Todd: Daddy, what do taxes pay for?
Ned: Oh, why, everything! Policemen, trees, sunshine! And let’s not forget the folks who just don’t feel like working, God bless ’em!
— Exchange between Ned Flanders and his son Todd, from The Simpsons episode “The Trouble With Trillions”

I usually send in my tax return as soon as I get all the year-end paperwork, because it’s so insanely easy to do it online these days, and I like to put a refund in the bank. In fact, I’ve already got my refund, and put some of it toward a new camera. The IRS didn’t give me a total refund, though—which leaves me to contemplate what the Feds are doing with the little bit they kept.

In principle, I’m in favor of taxes. There are lots of things that are simply only do-able by lots of people banding together and chipping in, like roads and other infrastructure, the arts, scientific research, or the social safety net. Or national defense. This last gives me pause every tax season for the simple reason that I’m opposed to violence, including the officially-sanctioned kind. Partly this is because I was raised in a pacifist religious tradition, but if my country’s militaristic foreign policy of the previous decade proved anything, it’s that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

Photo by Darren Hester.

I know I’m in a minority among Americans; but it’s a frustrating minority to be in. As the national debate fixates on government spending, everyone is worried about the Federal budget deficit, but no-one seems to be interested in how the Pentagon is contributing to it. The Obama Administration has proposed the biggest military budget since World War II, and while spending associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is supposed to end in a couple years (good luck with that), the baseline Pentagon budget will just keep growing, overwhelming savings from the spending freeze the Obama Administration has proposed for select non-military programs. It’s not as though the Pentagon is some paragon of responsible spending—there’s certainly room to cut its budget, if only the Administration would put in the effort.

In short, balancing the budget without cutting military spending will end up cutting non-military Federal programs in support of greater and greater military spending. The Federal spending that’s mostly unproblematic for me threatens to be overwhelmed by the Federal spending that I mostly don’t support.

So what’s a tax-paying pacifist to do?

Some folks who think like me withhold a symbolic portion of their taxes. Many join the campaign for a peace tax fund—the right to request on the tax form that one’s taxes go only toward non-military spending. A very few others make lifestyle choices that let them live on an income below the lowest tax bracket. But each of these options has its own problems.

Withholding taxes implies that the money is used for military spending against my will; but it’s not as though I have any less say in how it’s spent than any other taxpayer. More, in fact, since I vote in off-year elections. I’d object to another American withholding taxes in protest of, say, funding for the National Science Foundation—I can’t very well do the same for military funding.

Similarly with the Peace Tax Fund: I just don’t believe that spending decisions should be made at the level of the individual tax return. Passage of a Peace Tax Fund would imply that there could be an Anti-Medicare Tax Fund, or an Anti-National Endowment for the Arts Tax Fund (under, presumably, less-cumbersome names).

Finally, living below the taxable income threshold is a sacrifice I’ll admit I’m not willing to make. I live pretty simply as a graduate student; I’m frankly not sure how I’d make due with less, even given Northern Idaho costs-of-living.

All of which leaves me to vote for slightly-less-militaristic Democrats, fill out my online 1040EZ, and wait for my refund.