Tax Protesting on the Cheap
tags: Vietnam War,taxes,Protest
My years in grad school (1964-68) coincided with LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War. The more I learned about our actions, the less defensible they seemed. Continuing and even expanding the war was neither humane nor in our country’s Realpolitik best interest. Finally, I vowed not to support it with my tax dollars.
By my calculation, about half of our budget went to the military, especially if one included interest on the national debt, which had largely stemmed from World War II, the Korean War, and now the Vietnam War.
But how to protest? From my Harvard teaching stipend, the government already took out more tax dollars than I owed.
Luckily, I was the “proctor” of the “Harvard Co-op House,” which meant I lived and ate free, so I had saved a few hundred dollars from my fellowship and invested them in stocks. My choices had made money, so I owed taxes on my profits. Indeed, I owed exactly $9.96.
I filled out my IRS tax return and paid exactly half. Then to my tax return I attached a letter explaining why my check was for $4.98.
For weeks I heard nothing. Well, each month I got a reminder notice that my obligation had gone up, with penalties and interest, first to $5.20 and then I think $5.50. Then one morning an undergraduate rushed up to my room. “Loewen, Loewen!” he gasped, “there’s an IRS guy downstairs in a trench coat and he’s asking for you!”
His anxiety was contagious. I combed my hair, straightened my clothing, and came down the stairs, heart pounding.
The man indeed wore an ominous dark trench coat, but he proved to be a sweetheart. “Sorry to bother you,” he began, “but it’s about your taxes.” He went on to tell me that he understood my motivation perfectly; his own son was doing the same thing! He went on to explain that he wasn’t a collector. His job was to explain to me my options, which were three:
-- “You could pay what you owe.” I was considering doing just that, but he went on immediately, “I don’t suppose you’ll do that, or you would have paid in the first place.” “Oh, right,” I replied.
-- “You could do what Joan Baez and all those other celebrity tax resisters do,” he went on. “Tell us where you assets are, and the government will seize the money. That way, you’ll be off the hook, but not through any act of yours.”
That sounded a bit hypocritical to me, so I asked, “What’s the third option?”
“Oh, we’ll hound you to death,” he replied.
That actually sounded interesting. “I’ll take number three,” I said.
“OK, then,” he said, explaining again that his job that morning was to give me my options and record my response.
Later that day I went to my two banks, one where I had my checking account and the other a small savings and loan where I had my savings, and closed both accounts. I figured why make it easy for the government to seize my assets?
I had forgotten about my paycheck, however. At the end of the month, my usual envelope came from Harvard with my salary for being House Tutor. It contained not just my usual check, but a letter on government letterhead, signed, or at least stamped, by the Treasurer of the United States. He explained that the government had garnished some $6 from me, which explained why my check was short that month. Since a citizen cannot sue the government without its consent, the letter went on, my only recourse was to ask the Treasurer to give it back to me.
That would be unlikely to succeed, I concluded. But what if the government had made a simple error in computing my taxes and instead of $6 claimed I owed $6,000,000? Could they garnish all my pay? Forever? With no recourse? A scary imbalance of power!
Although I had lost $6, I was satisfied. Surely I had cost the government hundreds of dollars to collect my six. That had to have registered somewhere in the bureaucracy.
After finishing my degree, I moved to Mississippi to teach at Tougaloo College. One or two war protesters had flatly refused to pay taxes in Mississippi and were facing prison terms in Parchman as I recall, even though Parchman Penitentiary is a state facility. Again, however, that option was not open to me, because at year’s end, the government would owe me money back from my withholding. However, I now had my own phone, which meant I now had my own phone bill. Every month I paid not only Southern Bell (the temptation to add an “e” is almost overwhelming) for my calls but also an “excise tax” to the federal government. This 10% levy was put on phone bills during World War II, explicitly as a war tax. After the Korean War ended, it was being phased out, when Lyndon Johnson reimposed it to help pay for the Vietnam War. Across the country, antiwar activists were refusing to pay it.
At first, phone companies simply carried over the unpaid amount as if it were part of the phone bill. When the amount grew too large and went unpaid for too long, they shut off the phone. Having no phone made it hard to participate in modern society. By 1968, most phone companies were taking the reasonable position that they were not a collection agency for the federal government.[i] They reported the unpaid assessment to the government, then dropped the amount from the next bill. Then they repeated the process for that month’s new excise tax.
In Mississippi, no one had raised the issue, so Southern Bell kept piling up my unpaid amounts. I could see where this was headed, so I phoned them. (Back then, you could phone the phone company.) As soon as they heard my plea, with the precedent of other companies elsewhere, they changed their policy to match. Now my excise tax obligations were piling up where they belonged, between the federal government and me.
Again, the amounts were miniscule – less than $2/month. Again the government spent much more money threatening me each month. I honestly don’t remember how this tempest wound down, but I think I might have taken the easy way out. I was now engaged in social change in Mississippi, a full-time calling, as well as teaching at Tougaloo, and didn’t have time or energy to spare. But I still salute those heroes, from Joan Baez and Jane Fonda to lesser-known folk like Steve Trimm and John McAuliffe, who opposed the war with their whole being. They played a major role in ending it. Me, only a minor one.
[i]This position may have resulted from a court ruling.
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