Frustrated with President Donald Trump’s first four weeks in office? So far, he’s rolled out a sloppy and disgraceful travel ban on Muslims (notably omitting countries he has business ties to), and used taxpayer money to pay for his sons’ jaunts to other countries to promote Trump family businesses. His presidency has been rife with conflict of interest but he has not released his taxes, so there remain few ways to prove it.
It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of talk has surfaced among artists and progressives about not paying income tax this year in protest of the Republican administration’s policies. Is this a good idea?
The short answer is, “No.” It is a very, very bad idea that’s not only misguided and dangerous, but will be absolutely ineffective.
As an expert on taxation, I have some insight on why this is so problematic. So, let’s look at some of these issues and talk about some ways to direct this energy that will make meaningful change.
First, not paying your taxes punishes you, the protester. There is no moment when the IRS “accepts” your protest, and discharges your debt to the US Treasury. Instead, you will incur non-payment fines and daily interest. When you continue to not pay, the IRS can garnish your wages, place liens on and even auction your property, and ultimately, they are authorised to put you in jail. And I’m not even touching the subject of your legal and accounting fees or your credit score.
Second of all, it plays right into a long-standing right-wing strategy of reducing government income, then declaring that there isn’t enough money to fund education, environmental protections and anti-poverty programs. George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq gave cover for the Republican-controlled Congress to cut spending on these programs without having to accept responsibility for it. They simply had to point to the budget and cry “deficit.” In short, a tax strike is likely to cause more harm to the programs you are fighting for, than a long run benefit.
Paying taxes is patriotic. It gives you the moral authority to demand action and fair representation. Trump is deeply unpatriotic – and his skirting of the tax rules and flouting the convention of releasing his tax returns prove it.
Lastly, while your intentions may be good, and even put your own well-being on the line, it is easy for the opposition to paint your motives as selfish. One protester who fails to put aside his or her tax money and spends it can be spun into a never-ending narrative of irresponsible liberal spending. Don’t let this happen to you.
There are better ways of registering your discontent with the government. For example, you can participate in the tax day protest on Saturday, April 15. During this tax march protesters will demand Trump release his taxes. And if you want to stage some good tax-related PR*, you can organize a group of people to send their tax returns to the White House and to the media (with all identifying info redacted), with a statement to the effect of, “I paid my taxes. Did you?”
You can also support organized, state-level non-payment. California is considering ways to become an organized non-payer of Federal taxes, if the Trump administration makes good on its threat to withhold Federal money to “sanctuary cities.” It’s not yet clear how this would work. But California’s economy is bigger than France’s. So if state lawmakers can agree on how to do it, there’s no question that it would hurt Trump’s agenda. If you live in California, let your state legislators know that you support this effort. And others in deep blue states can advocate for a similar withholding of their state’s Federal tax.
A critical tax-related action is to pressure your members of Congress to force Trump to release his tax returns. Specifically, encourage them to support Rep. Ron Wyden’s bill to this effect. Unless the Republican majority grow a collective spine sometime soon, passing legislation to correct this ethical failure means winning back the House (and Senate too – I’m aiming high) in 2018. So focus some energy on that key goal.
In sum, pay your taxes as the law requires. It’s the right thing to do. But let it empower you to demand that your money be spent in a way that reflects your values. And if you want to protest, please channel that energy in a productive direction. Our country will be better for your efforts.
*credit to my brother Alex Cole, for this idea.
DISCLAIMER: True tax advice is a two-way conversation, and your accountant needs to hear your full situation to apply the rules correctly in your case. This post is meant for general information only. Please don’t act on this alone.