Morality and taxes

"Tax Dollars" poster

Poster by Eric Gulliver, Engaging Peace staff graphic artist

With April 15 (Tax Day in the U.S.) looming, I consider myself to have three moral obligations:

  • Pay taxes that can provide funding for many vital programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, public transportation, human services, education, environmental protections, and veterans’ benefits.
  • Protest tax policies that further entrench the rich and powerful while robbing the poor, depleting the middle class, and killing innocent people in the names of profit and national security.
  • Protest policies allowing huge corporations like General Electric to make billions of dollars in profits from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while paying NO federal taxes.

To find out where your tax payments go, check out the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL). According to their analysis, out of each dollar paid in federal income taxes in 2010, 39 cents went to fund current and past wars. This is probably an underestimate.

The federal budget deficit has been growing alarmingly since 2001, and it makes sense to look for ways to trim expenditures. But ask yourself, is it moral, is it just, and in the long run is it wise to cut the budgets for programs such as Social Security, job training, and Head Start, while keeping the Pentagon budget “off the table” and maintaining enormous tax breaks for the wealthy (e.g., through recent tax cuts on millionaires’ estates).

For a detailed breakdown of how social programs could be saved if some of the tax breaks for the rich were reduced, see the Center for American Progress.

In last year’s “weak economy,” hundreds of new billionaires emerged in this country while more and more people were losing their jobs and homes and falling below the poverty line. Is this what you want your taxes and current tax policies to support?

Finally, I have some suggestions:

To get some idea about what a cutback in military spending could accomplish, watch this video:

Kathie Malley-Morrison, Professor of Psychology

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17 Responses to Morality and taxes

  1. Erin says:

    I could go on and on about this post for days….
    In my opinion, the vast majority (if not all) of all American social ills can be attributed to the enormous wealth disparities in our nation. How can we rectify some of these ills? Investing in education, welfare, social security, and other institutions while simultaneously limiting the wealth of the powerful via taxes that should be used to fund such programs. As stated in the post, the exact opposite is supported by the government, HOW IS THIS HAPPENING? The government will have to spend less on welfare, prisons, and the legal system in general if proper institutions (such as education) are in place to correct social problems before they even come into fruition. However, the rich control the government, in essence buying independence from moral obligations. The greed and control of the upper classes is “justified” as it coincides with the “American dream” which states that those who work hard will inevitably succeed, and those who are poor only have themselves to blame. This culture is one the rich have created not only for themselves but for all society which they disseminate to the masses in part by the media, another overarching facet of society they control. Clearly this notion is not based in actuality as wealth is typically inherited, there is wide spread racial discrimination, and very little opportunity to obtain well paying jobs in contemporary America.

    In addition, a large portion of our taxes are spent on the prison system. Rather than spending money on the prison system why aren’t we investing in institutions that alleviate the pressure for many young American to commit crimes in the first place? We spend millions of dollars to keep criminals in jail who commit petty crimes for a variety of reasons, many of which stem from poverty, lack of education, little social support, racial discrimination, and a dearth of job opportunities.

    Yet, we are giving tax breaks to the corporations who create this sort of society? Why aren’t those corporations who exploit million of workers in the US and abroad, who violate a slew of human rights, and who essentially rob their low wage workers of the money they truly deserve in prison? Aren’t they more of a threat to society than the majority of those currently in prison?

    • kathiemm says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Erin.
      I hope some of our readers will submit their ideas about the answers to your questions.

  2. Jill Zingarelli says:

    I’m equally as outraged at how our tax dollars are allocated. Thirty-nine cents per dollar on Pentagon spending for past and present wars is undeniably ridiculous. What’s even more infuriating is that only 4 cents of the 39 goes towards war veterans. We spend billions of dollars to provide our soldiers with the most technologically advanced weapons out there, and if they’re lucky enough to make it home, we are probably investing meager amounts into programs geared towards mental health issues such as PTSD. This of course is only one part of this incredibly imbalanced equation. Healthcare and War on Poverty recieve roughly 20cents per dollar each. What’s even more ironic is that only 2c’s goes towards diplomacy and war prevention. A number that if raised dramatically could decrease the out-of-control spending caused by long drawn out, ideologically ambiguous wars.

    It seems to me that we’re doing a little too much of looking at the world in hindsight, a retrospection that is still far from 20-20. We place valuable resources and money into wars we think will keep us safe when our own children are either obese or malnourished, are uneducated, are poor, and are inhabitants of a world under the brink of a climate crisis.

    Here’s more infuriating news about taxes from a 2010 article on “Last year the conglomerate generated $10.3 billion in pretax income, but ended up owing nothing to Uncle Sam. In fact, it recorded a tax benefit of $1.1 billion. Avoiding taxes is nothing new for General Electric. In 2008 its effective tax rate was 5.3%; in 2007 it was 15%. The marginal U.S. corporate rate is 35%”.

    How is this possible?? (warning: economic jargon is a bit over my head. I mean in the moral sense of the question)

    • kathiemm says:

      Thanks, Jill, for your comments and for mentioning the findings from that article. And moral questions are always important questions, however daunting it may be to try to address them.

  3. Jim says:

    I can understand the urge to resist paying taxes that pay for wars and corporate welfare. But it’s troubling to me that a similar urge is not voiced for the seemingly charitable causes mentioned. I say seemingly for 3 reasons: first all semblance to charity is erased by the way the funds are collected-forcibly in the form of taxes. To call such charity completely misses the true nature of charity-contributions made by individuals without any coercion either overt or subtle. To feel my meaning here just dig into your pocket and give to a worthy cause the price you pay for some simple pleasure in your life, forgoing that pleasure for a month. Secondly, a very significant portion of these funds are obtained via loans; loans which will be repaid by our progeny. Is there any way to view this behavior as charitable? Lastly, even these seemingly charitable charitable causes are far from pure. Just for example, our richest partake in the benefits of Social Security and Medicare as the poorest of us. Isn’t it morally corrupt to forcibly take money from our citizens and borrow money to be repaid by our offspring to pay these benefits to our richest? I’d bet many of us who follow this blog are well off enough to live simply without taking Social Security or Medicare benefits. Do we do so? No one forces us to take these benefits. Our actions speak louder than our words, words my mom drilled into our young heads.

    • kathiemm says:

      Thanks, Jim, for a thought-provoking comment. You make some very strong points about charity and about the regressive nature of Social Security and Medicare benefits that are available to people who don’t need them; a related point is of course that those obligations take so much larger a portion of the income of the poor than of the rich. One wonders how anyone can argue that taking money from hard-working lower-income people to give it in one form or another to the rich is morally justifiable.

  4. Ed Agro says:

    The casting of the question of taxpaying as a moral obligation has led me to some questions.

    * How does one protest? It’s pretty clear (at least to me) that something around half the taxpayers in the country don’t subscribe to the imperatives in your second and third points. In particular they wouldn’t be inclined to protest what you and I would call militarism. On the other hand they would protest such things as abortion funding and equitable health care. Since protest (presumably to “the government”) against militarism is up against this great block of equally sincere citizens, would not a better use of energy be to speak to our neighbors directly before hoping for new priorities at the top? To write a letter to a relative, or maybe a local official, rather than to some bigwig in Washington?

    * When imperatives collide: Payment of federal taxes is separate from the uses the government makes of the collected money. Given the way that things have fallen out in our country, the hope that some part of our taxes will (half-heartedly) pay for the good things you mention is always accompanied by the reality that some other part will be (enthusiastically) used for the bad things. Thus doesn’t your first point (a moral obligation to do one’s part in funding the common good) contradict the other two (moral revulsion at being obliged to help fund communal criminality)? Is it psychologically sound to pay over monies that one knows will at least in part be used for morally repugnant ends? Or to put it in a perhaps wimpier way, how do we measure our moral imperatives against our desire to be good citizens, not to mention against the taboo of materially stepping out of line in America?

    • kathiemm says:

      Dear Ed (and I think my reply here is relevant to Jim too).
      In starting my post, I wanted to be clear that I am not against all taxation. I think some form of taxation, now that the age of barter has passed, is a reasonable way to provide for services to the community. On the other hand, I do think decisions about how tax moneys should best be used should not be made just by the rich, the powerful, the entrenched interests. I continue to long for a real democracy in which citizens can share their views, in a civil manner, on all the important issues, including militarism, and abortion, and health care, and decide together which decisions, which compromises, which goals best serve the whole community, including the global community. I agree that speaking with your neighbors is a great place to start that process.
      The question of what it means to be a “good citizen” and the extent to which it means or does not mean being a “good person” also seems worthy of discussion among family members, friends, colleagues, etc., in a variety of fora.
      Like this one. Please continue to share your ideas on these difficult questions.

      • Jim says:

        Kathie, good points and I mostly agree. However, I view democracy in a different way. While such a system works reasonably well at a local level, it is quite unworkable at a national level. Our founding fathers recognized this and ultimately settled on a republic form of government. So while we can and often do have free and open discussion on important topics (which is great!), we are not ruled by what has been called the tyranny of the majority. Our national government was set up to put limits on what government can do and more importantly can’t do; and to specifically identify certain freedoms each of us hold as individuals. With power divided among the 3 branches of government and the checks and balances among them it was hoped that important changes could only move forward under tightly constrained conditions. Two things have happened over the course of time that have undermined the effectiveness of our republic. First, the limits on government have been gradually eroded such that we now have a government that exercises all kinds of power over us, powers never intended by our founders. Second, the general level of morality in our society has degraded significantly. It was recognized early on that our government was only suited for a moral society and would not work if the moral constraints on individual behavior were eroded. There are plenty of examples I could offer to illustrate what I’ve said, but that would make for a very long comment. And in any event, I’m sure you and our readers can provide many from their own experiences. Nuff said. Jim

  5. walensy says:

    Thanks for this informative post. We need to be aware of what our tax payments are being used for and where they are going. Our financial system may be rigged by people with malevolent interests for their own power or wealth, in a way such that the outcome for the normal person is high debt, low savings. Savings may be taxed so much more than spending it just makes sense to leverage oneself to the limit. People have the intellect to decide, and the commitment to understand the implications. We therefore need to start opening our eyes to the truth.

  6. Lawrence Rosenwald says:

    I read both the original posting and the comments with interest and admiration. I’d add only this, speaking only for myself, not trying to impose a norm: the other obligation I feel in relation to taxpaying is to refuse to pay those taxes going towards what I can’t in good conscience support – i.e., military taxes. So whatever the military percentage of the federal budget is in a given year (I get the figure from the War Resisters League), I refuse to pay that percentage of the taxes I owe. I’ve been doing that since 1987. This is, by the way, illegal; and given where I’m located, it’s also a bad way to keep money out of the hands of the government. But for me at any rate it feels obligatory in conscience, and better than the alternatives. I’ve written about this – there’s an essay online at, in case any readers want to pursue this. Good wishes to all, Larry Rosenwald

  7. kathiemm says:

    Thank you, Larry, for following and contributing to this discussion. I respect and admire you for sharing with us the direct and courageous way you have chosen to protest the diverting of a substantial portion of our taxes into what is death, destruction, and ruined lives for thousands (including our own military personnel) if not millions, while providing huge profits for the military industrial machine.
    Thanks also for mentioning the War Resisters League and providing the link to your essay. I hope many readers will read it and respond.

  8. Ed Agro says:

    Wow, the discussion here has certainly brought the issues into focus! The only one that seems to be missing is the extent to which the disparities between rich and poor, powerful and powerless are in the end just a symptom of our finally having outrun what the rest of Nature can give us for free, and we’re fighting among ourselves for the scraps.

    I have also to say that it seems to me that Larry Rosenwald isn’t protesting – he’s resisting.

    Of course we could use more people simply protesting injustice. But: protest is allowed in this country, and one of the reasons is that protest often lets off steam without effecting change. This is one reason I’ve become disinclined to put on my ratty campaign jacket and march in every yearly anti-imperialist rally.

    Yet it’s not always the case that protest is pointless. Protest seems to be leading to change in Wisconsin, where workers’ demonstrations are being followed up by recall petitions and what looks like to be a change in state leadership.

    When I began to refuse paying war taxes the war of the moment was so unjust that even the most unsophisticated citizen could see it, and one didn’t need to appeal to any higher morality to resist it; common sense and common decency were quite enough. Things are not so clear-cut now, for lots of reasons, and I’m one of those in the curious position of refusing to pay war taxes while also agreeing that the current intervention in Libya is on balance worth supporting. While my war-tax refusal may satisfy an internal sense of right action, I recognize that at this time it’s not going to contribute to a diminution of America’s overall obsession was war making.

    And as the years have gone by and I’ve become more aware of my neighbors’ immediate struggles and lack of opportunity to resist (my neighbors are more or less the “working poor”), I’ve become reluctant to urge them to go forth and do likewise. In fact I’m beginning to think that direct resistance to American’s propensity to war may not be the only way to go. Though it greatly risks co-option, the burgeoning budgetary-redirection/economic-fairness movement may have a better chance of undercutting the obsession with war. The question is, will protest of the great economic disparities that are increasingly apparent lead to resistance? I think both are necessary, and on a large scale, to return America to fairness and right action.

    Many of the principles of the economic-fairness movement have been reflected in the posts to this topic. So I hope you folks won’t mind if swipe ideas from your comments to use in my tax-day tax-resistance letter to my local paper. I suppose my letter will be taken as the usual harmless crankiness by my neighbors, but perhaps an appeal to their material concerns rather than underlying moral issues will encourage people stronger than I to summon up the courage to build a widespread war-resistance movement.

  9. kathiemm says:

    Hi, Ed.
    I would appreciate it, and I am sure all our readers and commenters would appreciate it, if you would send a copy or link to your tax-day tax-resistance letter to your local paper. That will be a great way to keep the dialogue going.

  10. Ed Agro says:

    Okey-dokey, will do. I hope all the discussants to this thread are so moved. Not to push WTR, of course, but writing to local newspapers from their own viewpoint. It would be neat to compare the results our letters garner.

    • Edward Agro says:

      Back in early April I promised to reply to Kathie’s post “morality and taxes” with a report of the results of my tax-day letter to the editor of my town’s weekly.

      So here it is already, almost the end of July. As per my usual dilatory practice I haven’t yet even looked at my tax forms (which tardiness is typical of me and no big issue for my vast financial empire). But I never did get around to writing that letter, which does bother me and which I’ve been thinking about since April 15th.

      I have a lot of excuses: Just when I was sitting down to write about the civic virtue of war-tax refusal, our list wherein we discuss WTR concerns went down and I spent the rest of tax season working on getting it back up. I spent time back-stopping and supporting resisters whose jeopardy, small as it is, is greater than mine. Finally, our town newspaper out here in the ‘burbs is little more than an advertising rag which recently saw fit to replace the letters to the editor with some “cutest cat of the week” affair. Still, that latter was a poor excuse; one has to work with the materials one has.

      So why did I confine myself during tax season to working with the already committed, and not stretch myself out to reach my neighbors?

      I think partly it had to do with conversations I’ve had with them on and off in the months prior to April. My immediate neighbors are mostly apartment dwellers like myself, and mostly working-poor to middling middle-class folk. Most of them seem to have to own some sort of SUV or other, which has in fact a lot to do with the rest of my story. Issues of peace and war in faraway places and civic responsibility are way down at the bottom of their lists of priorities, and I can hardly blame them when they’re seriously worried about the loss of livelihood and the loss of roofs over their families’ heads. When I was a wage earner and risking a certain amount of my own peace and quiet via war-tax refusal I felt comfortable urging others to share the same risks. But now that I have the luxury of being poor by choice and so immune from jeopardy I’m not comfortable with urging risk, small as it may be, on others. I certainly don’t want to add an ounce to my neighbors’ considerable and real economic woe, even if to some extent they have brought that woe upon themselves by buying into an over-consumption and mindless-growth economy.

      The other reason I didn’t write my letter turns out to have been a very useful revelation to me. I’m not a pacifist and have no – indeed I distrust – readymade solutions to the problem of war and peace. I feel most competent when I’m dealing in an immediate way with concrete issues. This was easy, say, during the Vietnam or Contra wars or even GWB’s invasion of Iraq; the injustice and criminality were palpable, almost inarguable, plain to even the most apolitical. But what’s the situation now? Despite what one feels about the cruelty and futility of war in general, the US involvements in Afghanistan and Libya as they present themselves concretely to us now are not palpably and willfully evil.

      The question about Afghanistan at present, is not exactly one of right and wrong but rather how we get out of there without doing any more damage to the Afghanis than we already have, without leaving them entirely to the mercies of tribalism and religious fanaticism. As to Libya, the question is How exactly does a country come to the aid of a beleaguered people trying to throw off a dictatorship? If we damn the United States for not supporting the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in 1938, why do we then also damn President Obama for coming to the aid of the Libyan insurgents?

      I’m not here trying to defend these positions or to take sides but only to say that these are difficult questions for any thinking person interested in right action rather than opinion. Speaking for myself – which is what I’d have to do in my letter to the editor – the situation of war and peace at the present time is far, far from obvious. The only thing that’s clear to me is that disinvolvement, the washing of hands, would be cowardly, and I find myself in the position of struggling against war in general while being inclined to “support” a particular one. Which makes my preaching of WTR a perilous business, let me tell you.

      So I’ve been led to make those sorts of compromises that seem to be part of any attempt at an authentic life. I still refuse my mite & write my monthly letter to the phone company (those who don’t know what I’m talking about here, just ask), while explaining to my more absolutist comrades that, while I admire their following the leading of their consciences and will go all out to support their struggles, I won’t in good conscience do exactly as they do.

      Finally, the revelation led to what I hope will prove useful after all. The war- tax resisters in the mailing list I mentioned above are cognizant of the doubts I’ve expressed here, and instead of trying to convert one another to our own philosophies, we’ve been engaged in a conversation of how to use those philosophies together to move from a relatively impotent community of resistance toward something like a “movement” – that is, something that large numbers of people with a civic conscience can join and make effective regardless of personal viewpoints. We’re trying to remake of WTR into the civic action that it originally was. Of course none (well, hardly any) of us think we’ll succeed in the short term given the social/political situation in the country and the difficult question of the relationship of violence and nonviolence. But it’s excellent training, I think, in the sort of critical thinking and argumentation that will prepare us for the time when a large movement for social change, whether involving WTR or not, will again be possible in America.

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