How to Retake Money from the Government to Give to the Poor

was a slow day at the VITA center. I helped three households do their tax returns and retrieve $1,832 from the U.S. Treasury.

One of these days I should write in more detail about how I feel about working with the IRS to help people file their tax returns. As you might expect, I have conflicting feelings about it. On the one hand, just about everybody I work with is getting a refund, and the sum of my work helps take money from the U.S. Treasury, with the money going back to families who have had it taken from them all year in the form of FICA and federal income tax withholding.

On the other hand, it requires me to collaborate in the tax filing system in an uncomfortable way. And to some extent I participate in the IRS’s attempt to recast itself from a bullying olympian of larceny into some sort of social welfare agency — “look at us giving money to the poor!”

And as much as I may promote tax resistance and tax evasion here on The Picket Line, when I put on the hat of a VITA volunteer, I play by-the-books. If someone wants to resist or evade taxes, that’s their decision, not one I’m going to try to make for them.

For example, one of my clients a couple of years ago — a rare example of a client who ended up owing additional taxes at the end of the year — told me that he was in the process of applying for political asylum in the U.S. If I had played fast-and-loose with his return to try to get him a refund, it might have made me feel clever, but it might have later caused him problems with his asylum application. It’s not my place to make other people take risks for stands I want to take.

The War Resisters League has released their annual Where Your Income Tax Money Really Goes pie chart.

Military spending took a jump this year and now, according to the League’s analysis, takes up 54% of what the government spends your income tax dollar on. And don’t expect that figure to drop much any time soon:

In , the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the [Iraq] war had so far cost about $500 billion. That figure was obviously far higher than initial Bush administration estimates, but [Joseph] Stiglitz and [Linda] Bilmes suspected it was still much too low. After researching the issue, they published a paper in that conservatively estimated that the true cost of the war would be between $1 trillion and $2 trillion. Even at the time, they regarded that estimate as excessively conservative, but didn’t want to appear extreme. Stiglitz and Bilmes’ [new] book, which is based on that paper, doubles their earlier estimates to $3 trillion, making Iraq the second most expensive war in U.S. history, trailing only World War Ⅱ, which cost an adjusted $5 trillion (and in which 16.3 million Americans served in the armed forces, with 400,000 dying). But the authors regard even their new figure as conservative: Their estimates range from $2 trillion, in the best-case scenario in which the U.S. withdraws all combat troops and fewer veterans need medical and disability pay, to more than $5 trillion. Add in the cost to the rest of the world, and the price tag could exceed $6 trillion.

As the authors detail, the Bush administration has used every trick in the book to hide the real price tag — concealing non-combat casualty figures, keeping double sets of books, not factoring in support troops, and allowing the Pentagon to produce budgets so contradictory, obscure and incompetently presented that there is literally no way to determine how much it has spent. The authors had to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain much of the information in their book.

But the administration’s biggest sleight of hand has been ignoring the enormous future costs of caring for the hundreds of thousands of disabled veterans who will require vast medical and disability payments, many for the rest of their lives. Those costs will be staggering: an estimated $717 billion. Relatively little attention is paid to those costs, because they haven’t shown up on the books yet. But as the authors point out in one of the book’s more arresting statistics, they’re coming: We’re already paying $4.3 billion a year to the veterans of the first Gulf War, which lasted less than two months and in which only 148 U.S. soldiers were killed.

…the monthly “burn rate” to pay for the wars has gone steadily up, from $4.4 billion in to $16 billion . This means that every American household is spending $138 a month on the current operating expenses of the wars.