A Unified Theory of War and Taxes

world war oneFollowing World War I, various taxes were no longer needed. In 1921 and 1924 Congress repealed the excess profits tax but left the income tax in place, rather than adopting a sales tax favored by business groups. The top rate of taxation on income was reduced from 77% to 25%, but that was still more than double where it had been before the war. Meanwhile, the estate tax remained in place, and corporate taxes were actually increased during the 1920s. Taxation and progressive taxation survived the outbreak of peace.

Then came the most glorious war of all, and with it massive taxation for all. World War II spending, taxation, and — of course — the draft, were off and running long before Pearl Harbor. And by the end of this worst catastrophe in human history government funding had been transformed:

“The personal income tax, long confined to the upper strata of American society, became mainstream. Between 1939 and 1945, Congress lowered exemptions repeatedly, converting what had long been a ‘class tax’ into a full-fledged ‘mass tax.’ . . . [B]y 1945, more than 90 percent of American workers were filing income tax returns. At the same time, lawmakers significantly increased tax rates, with marginal tax rates peaking at 94%. . . . By the war’s end, the tax was raising 40% of total federal revenue, making it the largest source of federal funds.”

Corporate taxes were increased as well, with a top statutory rate of 95%, and generating almost a third of wartime revenue. An excess profits tax came within a month of the draft. A shift to the sales tax was still successfully resisted. But a relatively progressive tax system was still a tax system, with many Americans were forced to pay up for the first time. This required a new round of sweet smelling Donald Duck droppings, otherwise known as propaganda. Taxes were renamed “the Victory Tax.” In a Disney cartoon, the narrator warned Donald Duck that “It takes taxes to beat the Axis!” An Irving Berlin song was titled “I Paid My Income Tax Today.” Among the lyrics:

“You see those bombers in the sky?
“Rockefeller helped to build them,
So did I!”

In 1943 Congress overrode a presidential veto to shift the tax burden more heavily onto working people. Corporations would never again to this day shoulder the share of public funding that they had in the early years of World War II.

Taxes were reduced again after the war. But again, they were not returned to pre-war levels. The 1948 reduction was the only time taxes have been cut by overriding a presidential veto. President Truman was envisioning a permanent military state while millions of other Americans were hoping war had ended at least for a while.

But in 1950 and 1951, Congress passed new tax bills, including an excess profits tax, to pay for war in Korea, and to return the tax system to roughly what it had been during World War II. There was support for “sacrifice” in the air at the start of the Korean War that later fizzled.

The Vietnam War was a different story. In the earlier years of its major escalation, President Lyndon Johnson avoided raising taxes, apparently largely out of fear that talking about the financial strain of the war would lead to cuts in domestic programs. Or, as LBJ delicately put it:

“I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved — the Great Society — in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs. All my hopes to feed the hungry and the homeless. All my dreams.”

korean warOf course, he would also kill huge numbers of human beings, most of them Vietnamese, and destroy any dreams held by anyone in that country. And he did so. But the war grew unpopular at home, as did the idea of sacrificing financially to pay for it. Nonetheless, the tax bill that was passed in 1968 was the largest single-year increase since World War II. On March 25, 1969, just days after secretly beginning to bomb Cambodia, President Nixon began lobbying Congress for more taxes.

And then came George W. Bush. War as a joint sacrifice was out the window. Wars would be fought by the poor and the privatized. Mercenaries and contractors would outnumber troops. Massive spending would be dedicated to recruitment. Those recruited would meet lower standards and be held for longer periods of “service.” Everyone else would benefit from war. There would be patriotism, entertaining news coverage, and major tax cuts, instead of increases. Out as well was progressive taxation, the notion that the wealthy should pay at a greater rate than those who actually need their money. So, something new arose on the horizon of U.S. history: major and repeated regressive tax cuts during an immensely expensive pair of simultaneous wars.

This pattern has essentially continued during President Obama’s tenure. Military spending continues to increase, while taxes continue to decrease. The result has been a huge budget deficit. And the impact of these and related policies on the economy has been disastrous, leading to an even huger budget deficit. A lot of ideas have been proposed to solve this problem: cut back or eliminate self-funding programs that are doing fine financially, such as Social Security or Medicare; or cut back or eliminate basic goods provided through our government, such as schools or healthcare or environmental protection.

david swansonThe fact that over half of our income tax goes to the military and wars, and that a majority of us want those wars ended and that military reduced — such obvious solutions are not discussed in corporate media.

The fact that wars created the taxes, and that the taxes have now been cut back as the wars expanded — such insights would require a knowledge of history. One solution would be to give everyone a copy of Bank and Stark and Thorndike’s book, “War and Taxes.”

David Swanson
War Is a Crime

Published by the LA Progressive on April 23, 2011
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