This page summarizes . (Links to previously posted Picket Line pages expand on things I mention. You can follow these links by clicking on the “♦” symbols.)
Picket Line Annual Report
, the U.S. attacked Iraq. It was a foolish, brutal, aggressive war, launched on dishonest pretenses, that had disastrous results. For me it was the last straw, and I started what I then called “an experiment” in tax resistance so that I might no longer feel as complicit.♦ My goal was to stop financially supporting the U.S. government.
I hoped at first to do this entirely legally by lowering my income below the federal income tax line. I quit my job to start my own small consulting business in which I could closely regulate my income, and I started taking advantage of additional legal tax deductions and credits, while also attending more to frugality. This turned out to be a successful method to legally avoid federal income tax, as well as a rewarding way to make a living, and I continue to operate this way today.
However, I have been liable for self-employment tax most years (this is different from the income tax but also goes to the federal government). In I decided to stop paying that tax as well. I have not found a useful way to do this legally, so I simply refuse to write the check. Because of this I have accumulated an unpaid tax bill which, along with penalties & interest added by the IRS (minus a bit that they’ve managed to seize from me over the years, and some that is now uncollectible due to the statute of limitations) now adds up to something in the neighborhood of $89,000.
My two-track strategy of legally avoiding income tax while non-legally refusing to pay self-employment tax is somewhat awkward to explain, but works for me.
Several years ago, the IRS levied my bank accounts and seized about $6,200 of the total of about $117,600 that I have refused to pay. I don’t have any fail-safe plan to hide my assets, so the IRS could continue to seize money when they find it. However they haven’t taken anything from me for over a decade, or even seem to have tried, though they still send me pleading letters from time to time.♦ This lack of enforcement may mean they’ve run out of easy seizure targets, or it may mean my overdue amount falls under the threshold at which they start trying harder. (Budget cuts and other crises have made the agency something of a paper tiger, though a recent budget boost for the agency may wake up the sleeping beast.) They may also just be biding their time, as the statute of limitations deadline on the oldest remaining unpaid amount doesn’t run out .
In , the IRS filed a formal tax lien against me in our local court system. They updated that lien in each of the following two years, but since then they seem to have stopped doing so.♦♦ The lien did not have any practical effect on my life or my resistance; it mostly meant getting junkmail from companies promising they could settle my tax debt for pennies on the dollar.♦ The lien didn’t even register on my credit report, which I found surprising.
The total amount I owe at this point is well over the threshold at which the IRS is supposed to notify the State Department that I ought to be forbidden a passport and perhaps ought to have my passport revoked. It took the agency longer than I expected, but they eventually submitted this notification a few years back.♦ This means that the State Department could revoke my passport at any time, and in any case is not supposed to allow me to renew it when it expires. So far they have not revoked my passport.
, when another year of my tax debt became uncollectible due to the statute of limitations, I wrote a check for that amount to the Maximum Impact Fund (now called the “Top Charities Fund”) run by the effective altruism group GiveWell, as a charitable donation to celebrate.♦ I hope to do something of this sort again in a month or two when another year’s taxes seem likely to become uncollectible in the same way.
My 2022 Federal Tax Resistance
After all the dust settled, it turned out that I “owed” and refused to pay $5,793 in federal taxes.
I want to continue to resist taxes for the long term, so it is important (if I want to stick to my below-the-tax-line method) that my expenses remain low enough that my income-tax-free income is sustainable. was a good year for me income-wise. I brought in about $41,000 in profit from my business.
My day-to-day expenses rose last year, thanks to inflation and such. Rents in my part of California are high, and rent amounts to nearly 60% of my annual expenses. As best as I can estimate, my regular costs for things like rent, utilities, food, and transportation that I must pay for out of below-the-tax-line income came to about $1,850 per month, or about $22,200 a year:
Not included in the above pie chart are any business expenses that I can deduct from my taxable income, most healthcare expenses (which I pay from my pre-tax Health Savings Account), my self-employment tax assessment (half of which I can deduct), or money I’m saving for retirement (which I do in tax-deferred accounts).
I now rent an apartment at which many of the utilities are bundled into the rent. This makes it difficult to compare expenses over time, as in some past years utilities were a more significant distinct line-item.
My transportation budget is very low because where I live it’s easy to get around on bike and so I don’t own a motor vehicle and rarely need to use one. I’ve also been learning to do my own minor bike repairs and maintenance at the local “bike kitchen,” which keeps my costs even lower.
My health expenses were low last year, so I didn’t have to dip far into my Health Savings Account. Now it’s replenished enough to more than cover my deductible in case I run into bad health luck.
My yearly living expenses take up all of my “under the tax line” budget, but I’ve got enough squirreled away in savings now that I don’t feel like I’m cutting things too close for comfort.
However, if I were to budget-in the imposed self-employment tax (which I don’t intend to voluntarily pay, but which I expect could be seized from me), that would come to another $5,800 or so of expenses, half of which also counts against my under-the-tax-line budget. And even if the government never gets its hands on that money, I’ve adopted the practice of making charitable donations to match the amount of my back taxes that become uncollectible due to the statute of limitations. For example, if my oldest tax debt is voided by the statute of limitations next month, I hope to write a check for $4,384 to some charity or other to celebrate. I can’t do that within my budget: I have to dip into savings, and I may ultimately have to prematurely tap my Roth IRA if I want to keep that up year after year.
My 1040: A walk-through
Here’s how my 1040 worked out this year. First, my Total Income:
My total income is all business income, which came mostly from two sources: my contract work as a technical writer, and sales of my books.
Now on to my Adjusted Gross Income:
|Adjusted Gross Income||$19,930|
|½ self-employment tax||−$2,897|
, I put away $14,525 for retirement and $3,650 for medical spending. Together, those savings represent more than 35% of my income.
The self-employment tax deduction works like this: When you work for someone else, your employer pays half of your FICA and the other half comes out of your paycheck. This means the half paid by your employer doesn’t count as your income and so you don’t pay income tax on it. If you’re self-employed, you pay both halves of the tax, so the IRS lets you take half (roughly) of your self-employment tax as an income tax deduction to even things out (even if you’re refusing to pay, like I am).
My Adjusted Gross Income is below the $20,500 threshold at which I get the maximum rate on the Retirement Savings Contributions Credit. That is the target I try to hit in order to get my federal income tax down to zero.
Now we go from Adjusted Gross Income to Taxable Income:
|Adjusted Gross Income||$19,930|
|Qualified Business Income deduction||−$1,396|
The last big tax law added a 20% Qualified Business Income deduction: 20% of that portion of my income that comes from self-employment (but capped at 20% of what my taxable income would be without the deduction). This levels the playing field for people who declare business earnings on their personal income tax forms: The last big tax law cut corporate income taxes dramatically, so it was thought that we non-corporate business entities deserved a similar break. (The law has a provision that eliminates the credit for service providers like myself, but that provision does not apply until I reach a minimum income threshold, which I’m not close to.)
Anyway, from there, my tax owed:
|Retirement Savings Contributions Credit||−$558|
I plan to file a tax return that shows these accurate amounts, but I will not include a check for the tax due.
I would like to encourage other people to resist taxes too, and I have tried to make The Picket Line a good resource for people who are resisting or considering it. But I’ve been much less active than usual on this front. I didn’t publish any new articles or record any new seminars. I haven’t been particularly active in the national or international war tax resistance network. I haven’t done any consulting for the various tax-resistance-adjacent campaigns that erupt around the world from time to time.
I’ve gotten a little tired of being a tax resistance scholar and activist, and feel like I’d rather decenter tax resistance in my life, make it more incidental, and occupy myself more with other pastimes. I read something recently that introduced me to the concept of vānaprastha — a sort of mellow midlife metamorphosis in which it seems appropriate to step back a bit from worldly concerns (as the rising generation begins to screw things up anew in their own special way) and devote yourself instead to community service, transcendental exploration, and occasional gentle emissions of avuncular wisdom. I thought, “yeah, that kinda sounds like my mood these days.” I remember turning my back on political activism at some point in my twenties — driven not by vānaprastha but by a prematurely world-weary cynicism verging on nihilism with hedonism as a backstop — and I remember also eventually coming to regret that and to dive back into an activist life more earnestly in my thirties and forties. I don’t feel like I’m making the same mistake now, but I can’t be sure it isn’t just a slightly different mistake of the same basic sort. But I think for the time being I’ll step back from making tax resistance my “beat” (though I don’t intend to relax my stance of not paying).
Much of my “activism” of late is much less focused on politics and protest and rebellion, particularly on the national/global scale, and much more focused on embarrassingly wholesome direct action at the local scale. I’ve been volunteering regularly for the local food bank’s gleaning project at one of our farmers’ markets, bringing thousands of pounds of fresh produce to a food pantry to give to hungry families. And I’ve been supervising volunteers at a mobile shower trailer program that serves homeless people in our community several times a week. (All of this is much easier for me because of the reduced and more-flexible work hours that are part of my tax resistance, and so can be seen as another form of tax redirection.♦)
I’ve also been working on a sequence of essays examining the virtues and how to improve in their practice — that’s the “occasional gentle emissions of avuncular wisdom” part of my metamorphosis, I guess — and I see this as a political as well as personal effort:
I think the longer, harder, more subtle project of helping people improve is a more reliable path to a better future than trying to impose wise policies on them from on high. If people become braver, wiser, more just, and more honorable, public policy will follow their lead. If people become more cowardly, foolish, grasping, and disreputable, conniving politicians will lead them by the nose.
Prospects for the coming year
Assuming no major unexpected expenses or windfalls, and assuming no more big changes to the tax law, I’m well-positioned to live comfortably and well under the income tax line again , though I will likely again “owe” (and refuse to pay) self-employment tax.
I’ve prepared for the possibility that the IRS may try to seize money from me for unpaid back taxes, so in case this happens, it won’t be a disaster. And, if they fail again, I’m also prepared to dip into my savings to give to charity in celebration.
So on to of what no longer seems like an experiment so much as a way of life.