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December 30, 2005

THE WAR TAX ON YOUR PHONE BILL?....Take a look at your phone bill sometime and you'll notice that the telecoms charge something called a "federal excise tax." Of course, a phone bill is filled with a series of modest fees for one thing or another, so most of us just pay the bill and never give these line items a second thought.

But some opponents of the war in Iraq have taken a closer look at that excise tax -- and have decided to stop paying it.

Peace activist Bill Sulzman in Colorado Springs protests the war in Iraq by refusing to pay the federal excise tax of about 50 cents on his monthly phone bill.

Sulzman also recruits others who are against US military involvement in Iraq to stop paying the tax, which was first adopted in 1898 to pay for the Spanish-American War.

The tax raises about $5 billion a year, which activists say goes to fund war efforts. The Internal Revenue Service won't confirm that the money goes exclusively to the military but instead says it goes for general fund expenditures, including military spending.

Apparently, this isn't an entirely new phenomenon. The Denver Post explained that some opponents of the Vietnam War also withheld the phone tax as an act of civil disobedience.

As it happens, the telecoms aren't thrilled with the tax and don't appreciate being pulled into the tax-collection business in the first place. In fact, according to the article, Qwest, Verizon, Cingular, and AT&T all said they'll "adjust" customers' bills to remove the excise tax if customers request it. (The catch, of course, is that the phone companies are also required to alert the IRS with a list of those who don't want to pay it.)

As a rule, I'm not fond of tax resistance, even when I agree with the cause. Once people can pick and choose which taxes are consistent with their ideology, and they start ignoring the "bad" ones, it's a pretty dangerous road.

But am I the only one who didn't know that this war-inspired tax existed?

Steve Benen 1:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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i didn't know you could just tell the ohone company you didn't want to pay it. what about the "universal connectivity fee" or whateverthehell it's called, and the other 'modest fees' that make up $7 every month, can i get out of those too? how about 5 cents a minute instead of 10?

Posted by: e1 on December 30, 2005 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

Can I get out of that w/Vonage? Yes?

Done and Done.

Posted by: Crusty Dem on December 30, 2005 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

I stopped working April 2003 to avoid paying income taxes that supported the illegal invasion and occuption of Iraq. If you do not want to pay phone taxes, stop your phone service.

Posted by: Hostile on December 30, 2005 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

I better nip this one in the bud. My girlfriend works for Spring, in particular, the service provided to those who are deaf/mute. (She actually works for a subsidiary company that Spring contracts out to, but I'm keeping that private.)

Allowing me to oversimplify, those who need the service contact a call center and the operaters (CAs) are the middlemen between them and whoever they are calling. She has taken incalculable ammounts of abuse as well as having to deal with a large number (approx 25%) of calls being made from Nigerian fraudsters, as well as assorted prank calls and wrong numbers.

This phone tax is what pays her salary and health plan. Since she's been in college, and has had 1 or 2 slightly serious health problems since we've been together this has been a huge help. So believe me, I am glad to pay this phone tax.

Posted by: MNPundit on December 30, 2005 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

My point is not that this tax DOESN'T neccessarily go to support the war, but that it also does other things that are important to a facet of our population. The salary of the various call centers and their people are paid out of this tax exclusively.

Posted by: MNPundit on December 30, 2005 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

This wasn't common knowledge? I have a group of friends who have not paid that tax in over 25 years. I personally haven't paid it since the State of the Union address in 2002.

Had I been aware that this was not common knowledge, I would have posted about it long ago.

Posted by: Global Citizen on December 30, 2005 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry, everyone. SPRINT not spring. I hate that you can't edit these things....

Posted by: MNPundit on December 30, 2005 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

I didn't know the tax was "war inspired" in any sense, though I dislike it in principle for other reasons: its a tax on long-range communications. There is no reason for a special federal tax on that, inasmuch as regulating long-distance costs the federal government money, it is money that should come not from user fees, but from income tax revenues. Taxing communication is a bad idea, and inherently counterproductive in a democracy.

The story, though, is ridiculously lazy in its language. From the excerpt: "The Internal Revenue Service won't confirm that the money goes exclusively to the military but instead says it goes for general fund expenditures, including military spending."

Now, as clearly what the IRS did is flatly deny that it was exclusively military levy and point out that it is, indeed, a general fund levy, which is a verifiable, objective fact, the article should have stated that, rather than spin its as merely "not confirming" the claim which it flatly contradicted (and which contradiction, were the reporter interested in being useful rather than portraying controversy, is verifiable.) The story, as the newsmedia often does, is carefully crafted to, without outright lying, exaggerate the appearance of a genuine controversy, to portray everything in the world as "he said/she said".

And, of course, this -- unintentionally on most of the media's parts -- plays directly into the far right's war on independent thought that seeks to portray all controversies as clashes of opinion to be resolved on the basis of factional identity and parochial authority rather than independent investigation and critical analysis and a search for underlying, objective fact.

Posted by: cmdicely on December 30, 2005 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

Those fees aren't so modest to the lower class.

Posted by: Michael7843853 on December 30, 2005 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

It's a curious thing -- people who are pointing out that Bush is not above the law when it comes to wiretapping argue that they are above the law when it comes to paying a phone bill. The whole concept of civil disobedience needs to be evaluated rationally, which I plan to do in my next book.

Posted by: Bob G on December 30, 2005 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

The tax doesn't go exclusively to the military - it goes to the general fund. Telecom companies don't like the tax and have often made the (rather irrelevant) political point that it was originally introduced as a temporary levy to pay for the Spanish-American War, telephones being a luxury item in those days. The tax lapsed for a few years and was then reintroduced to pay for World War I.

The other fees on your phone bill are all pass-throughs of various regulatory mandates.

Posted by: Dan Ryan on December 30, 2005 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

I stopped working April 2003 to avoid paying income taxes that supported the illegal invasion and occuption of Iraq.

How do you manage to obtain food, clothing and shelter?

Posted by: Edo on December 30, 2005 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

Various Quakers have been war tax resisters for a long time.

Posted by: Jim on December 30, 2005 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

It's commendable to refuse to pay taxes, but with this particular "administration," I fear the "no-fly" and other lists of enemies of the State.

Posted by: Hedley Lamarr on December 30, 2005 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

Erm, I'm confused. The IRS says the money goes into the general fund. Is there any evidence at all that it exclusively funds the military?

Even if it did, does withholding it affect the military budget at all? Or would it just be made up by siphoning money from other programs, or adding onto the debt that you pay for through other taxes anyway.

And if it did actually hurt the military, are you prepared to accept that you might have contributed to the deaths of US soldiers because they didn't get what they needed?

MNpundit ... how does you GF who works for a company who works for Sprint get paid through the tax? It is a private company, it cannot tax. It can add on other fees, but it can't call them a tax. Does the government pay Sprint to offer the service?

Tax evasion is about the lowest form of "protest". No one knows you are doing it, so its not protest at all - it makes no public statement at all. The money will be made up, on the backs of your fellow citizens. If it were made public, the obvious charges of selfish delinquency will obscure any other message that was trying to be sent. And frankly, I think they would be legitimate in many cases.

Posted by: Mysticdog on December 30, 2005 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

I reccommend this approach to all the tax cut zombies that demand ever more tax cuts: Get a 100% tax cut today! Quit your job!

Posted by: CurtisE on December 30, 2005 at 2:43 PM | PERMALINK


I stopped working April 2003 to avoid paying income taxes that supported the illegal invasion and occuption of Iraq.

So you are also not paying FICA/medicaid, and not supporting all of the other things that income taxes pay for; HUD, NIH, Education, etc. Smooth move, Captain Spite.

Posted by: loser on December 30, 2005 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

Let's suppose this tax really does fund the military. Now let's suppose that every American refused to pay, and the government was out $5 billion. What do you think would happen?

a) They'd take the hint and stop waging immoral wars, or
b) They'd cut $5 billion from Medicare, school lunches, home heating assistance, and other programs and keep right on waging immoral wars, or
c) They'd borrow $5 billion from the Chinese, passing the debt on to our grandchildren and keep right on waging immoral wars?

Now, I don't know if the answer would be b, c, or a combination thereof, but it sure as rain wouldn't be a. So what's the point?

Posted by: libdevil on December 30, 2005 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

How do you manage to obtain food, clothing and shelter?

Paid off my mortgage in less than nine years; final payment was in May 2003. Savings paid for food, clothing, utilities. Returned to employment May of this year. My wife insisted.

Self sacrifice is not just for soldiers who serve war pigs.

Posted by: Hostile on December 30, 2005 at 3:05 PM | PERMALINK

It's a curious thing -- people who are pointing out that Bush is not above the law when it comes to wiretapping argue that they are above the law when it comes to paying a phone bill. The whole concept of civil disobedience needs to be evaluated rationally, which I plan to do in my next book.

The study of civil disobedience was a big deal back when I was going to college, and was even a class subject. One main idea was that true civil disobedience involves being willing to face the proper legal consequences, hopefully while helping to make your point.

Peacefully going to jail for not paying a tax you don't believe in (or otherwise disobeying a law one feels is wrong,) is tough, but it's moral and consistent, and civil rights leaders through history have set an example on this.

BTW, out here in the dark forests where the conservatives hang out, the example of the "temporary" Spanish-American War tax is very well-known.

Posted by: tbrosz on December 30, 2005 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK
Let's suppose this tax really does fund the military. Now let's suppose that every American refused to pay, and the government was out $5 billion. What do you think would happen?

a) They'd take the hint and stop waging immoral wars, or
b) They'd cut $5 billion from Medicare, school lunches, home heating assistance, and other programs and keep right on waging immoral wars, or
c) They'd borrow $5 billion from the Chinese, passing the debt on to our grandchildren and keep right on waging immoral wars?

d) They'd pass a tax cut notionally to spur additional economy activity and thus replace the lost excise tax revenue, which would in the end cost another $95 billion per year, initially, and borrow $100 billion, annually, from the Chinese, etc., to go right on waging immoral wars.

Have you paid no attention to these guys?

Posted by: cmdicely on December 30, 2005 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

cm, I really like your posts.

Posted by: Hostile on December 30, 2005 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

Do the folks who want to boycott the excise tax want to boycott the estate tax too? It's entire history up to WWI was as a special tax to raise money for the military?

1797 - Naval armament for Barbary pirate wars
1860 - Civil War
1898 - Spanish-American War
1916 - WWI

It was repealed in every case at the end of the war until WWI.

Posted by: Campesino on December 30, 2005 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

"phone bill is filled with a series of modest fees "

Individually some may be modest, but collectively they often accumulate to be nearly the cost of the underlying service. Nothing modest about that!

Posted by: RickG on December 30, 2005 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

MNpundit ... how does you GF who works for a company who works for Sprint get paid through the tax? It is a private company, it cannot tax. It can add on other fees, but it can't call them a tax. Does the government pay Sprint to offer the service?

Mysticdog, it works like this. She works for CSD, a company that is an arm of Sprint. Individual state governments decide if they want a call center to exist in their state to provide service to the deaf and hard of hearing. There is currently a call center in each state save Hawaii (Hawaii calls are now routed to the Minnesota call center).

The Federal government gives states money generated via this excise tax to supplement their own paysments to Sprint who in turn pays CSD who pays her. I think for the tax purposes of CSD it is classed as a quasi-public business.

There is also a rival MCI company.

Posted by: MNPundit on December 30, 2005 at 4:51 PM | PERMALINK

As a rule, I'm not fond of tax resistance, even when I agree with the cause. Once people can pick and choose which taxes are consistent with their ideology, and they start ignoring the "bad" ones, it's a pretty dangerous road.

Yea, God forbid that "consent of the governed" actually mean real consent, instead of "consent or we'll toss you in jail".

Posted by: Scott on December 30, 2005 at 5:07 PM | PERMALINK

Scott,

We have a representative democracy (we're supposed to anyway) not an adhocracy. We all can't just go about paying for what we think is a useful expenditure, while ignoring all other priorities of our society.

What's the difference between that and a total free-marketeer who sees occasional benefit in pooling free wealth to do something? All you're asking for is a tax rate of 0%.

Posted by: Dismayed Liberal on December 30, 2005 at 6:43 PM | PERMALINK

Scott:Yea, God forbid that "consent of the governed" actually mean real consent, instead of "consent or we'll toss you in jail".

if you get to ignore some taxes that you don't like, and i get to ignore some taxes that i don't like, does that extend to other laws as well? can i drive 95MPH on the interstate and say to the Trooper "i don't consent to this law, so i reject your ticket"?

then there's this point by mysticdog: The money will be made up, on the backs of your fellow citizens.

Posted by: e1 on December 30, 2005 at 6:44 PM | PERMALINK

"As a rule, I'm not fond of tax resistance, even when I agree with the cause. Once people can pick and choose which taxes are consistent with their ideology, and they start ignoring the "bad" ones, it's a pretty dangerous road."
Rather its a pretty exciting road that would genuinely reflect representative taxation. I've read that if we only donated taxes to those causes we supported, most people would support education, social services and a modest yet realistic defense budget!
Progressives have floated the idea- it scares the hell out of the corporate government types- Dems and Repugs-- cause we might actually get what we wanted and what we paid for.
Carry it forward!

Posted by: bluestorm on December 30, 2005 at 7:10 PM | PERMALINK

Steve - I remember "Hang Up On War!" from the Vietnam era.

But it's pretty silly to refuse to pay a phone tax that goes into the general fund, just like income taxes and estate taxes do, just because of its onetime connection to a 19th-century war.

Posted by: RT on December 30, 2005 at 8:11 PM | PERMALINK

As a rule, I'm not fond of tax resistance, even when I agree with the cause. Once people can pick and choose which taxes are consistent with their ideology, and they start ignoring the "bad" ones, it's a pretty dangerous road.

Yea, God forbid that "consent of the governed" actually mean real consent, instead of "consent or we'll toss you in jail".

Not to mention that very very few of us actually choose to be governed at all; it's something one is born into, with no choice in the matter at all. Renouncing one's citizenship is not a choice either. Where would a stateless person go to live?

We are born into a kind of slavery as more or less unwilling 'citizens' of one country or another, with most of us having no realistic prospect of changing rulers, much less not having rulers at all.

Posted by: just me on December 30, 2005 at 9:16 PM | PERMALINK

Tbrosz offers up the old illogic that civil disobedience is somehow alright provided that you are willing to pay the price by doing your jail time. Obviously this is not a universal principle, or it would be alright to cut someone's arm off as a protest against war, say, as long as you are willing to serve your 8 years in jail. No matter how long or little you serve, that didn't make your act right. So, I would submit, the act was either right to begin with or it was not. If it was right to begin with, then the court should free you, and if it was wrong, it is still wrong whether or not you are in jail.

I never did understand the logic behind that old argument. I suspect that it was an attempt to deal with protests that were essentially symbolic, took up a relatively minimal amount of police and court time, and never actually accomplished much anyway. So the learned profs could dance on the head of a pin, as it were, and argue over not paying their taxes, while leaving enough in the bank so the IRS could collect it anyway, and thereby they could stay out of jail.

Posted by: Bob G on December 30, 2005 at 9:29 PM | PERMALINK

That cuts it, I'm filing a tax extension in protest.

Posted by: tbrosz2 on December 30, 2005 at 10:01 PM | PERMALINK

Bob G:

Of course a civil disopediance person would say that the court SHOULD not put you in jail. The whole point of the practice is to break an unjust law, suffer the consequences of breaking the law, and do the whole thing publicly as a means by which to highlight the inherent injustice of the law. If Rosa Parks was just some woman who gave up her bus seat, noone would have cared. Instead, she was the woman who went to jail for SITTING DOWN.

So the argument is a false dichotomy. This method only works when the person is defying an inherently unjust law. And I think it's where this tax protesting breaks down--taxing is not inherently unjust, even in wartime, there are meany beneficial services that government provides, and if a person is jailed for not paying tax b/c of the war, I doubt it would be an act that resonates with the public in the same way that, say, Gandhi's Salt March or Rosa Parks keeping her seat on the bus would.

In the end, the only way to slow or stop the war is to work toward a Democratic majority in Congress for 2007.

Posted by: bittergradstudent on December 31, 2005 at 1:10 AM | PERMALINK

There are few real heros in the world today. I guess there have never been many. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, Thoreau understood civil disobedience and realized that often it comes at a high personal cost. Not paying an excise tax is a sort of symbolic protest but hardly real civil disobedience. I just read through Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience' again. I wish I were braver...

Civil Disobedience

Posted by: nepeta on December 31, 2005 at 2:39 AM | PERMALINK

Ohh, my God, now we have internet hoaxes pasing for news at the Washington Monthly....what is this. The Los Angeles Times?

Posted by: Patton on December 31, 2005 at 6:55 AM | PERMALINK

During the Vietnam war, I refused to pay the phone tax; the phone company was uncharacteristically cooperative, apparently because it didn't much care to be a tax collector. The result was that every few months the IRS would spend what was no doubt several hundred dollars in administrative costs to garnishee my wages for sums usually of about $10.00.

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