With twenty-four Democrats running for president, it can be hard to get attention these days—just ask Beto O’Rourke. Touted by many just months ago as the face of a new Democratic Party, Beto is currently mired in the low single digits in polls, typically running fifth or sixth or seventh in a crowded field.
In such conditions, it helps to have a gimmick, or several. Which may explain why, when Beto announced a new initiative to support American veterans on Monday, a centerpiece of the proposal was something he called a “War Tax.”
The idea of the War Tax is that at the start of every war America becomes involved in, Congress should establish something called a Veterans Health Care Trust Fund, or VHCTF, to provide for the health care needs of the future veterans of that war. That VHCTF would be funded by an income tax surcharge, ranging from $25 per household for the poorest families to $1000 per household for the richest, to be assessed every year until the war ended. War Taxes would be stacked—one war, one surcharge, five wars, five surcharges.
One obvious problem with a designated tax—any designated tax—is that there is no guarantee that the revenue generated will match the need. If one of Beto’s VHCTFs brings in less money than is needed to pay for the health care of the veterans of that war, those veterans will suffer. If each VHCTF brings in more than is needed, the priorities of the federal budget will be thrown out of whack. (Or, in either case, money will be shuffled around, in which case the designated tax ceases to be a designated tax.)
The VHCTF is such a clumsy tool, in fact, that one suspects that funding health care isn’t its primary goal—that Beto’s true purpose is, as he put it in a Monday tweet, to “not only end” America’s current wars, but “make it harder politically for Washington to start new ones.” As he argued in a follow-up tweet, “if politicians want to send our kids, our parents, our neighbors into combat, they should have to explain why every single one of us should bear the costs of war’s consequences.”
That “every single one of us” line explains why the War Tax would be imposed even on low-income families. It’s supposed to be imposed on everybody, on every American family, bringing us together as one nation, united in our contribution.
So while the War Tax is intended to impose consequences for supporting a war, it would be imposed on those who opposed that war as well as those who supported it. You may speak against the war, write letters to the editor, vote for antiwar candidates, march in opposition, chain yourself to the White House fence—but you still have to pay the tax. Everybody has to pay the tax.
Only it’s not quite everybody.
Because though neither poor people nor opponents of war are exempted from the War Tax, it does have one exception—it is, Beto says, is only to be “levied on households without current members of the Armed Forces or veterans of the Armed Forces.” If you’re serving, or have served, or a member of your family served, you don’t have to pay.
While one sees the intent behind this decision—that those who serve in the armed forces have, the argument goes, paid their dues in person—the exemption for servicemembers and veterans is actually, to my mind, the most serious, and most insidious, problem with Beto’s proposal.
An initial impulse is to quibble with the terms of the exclusion: Is Beto saying that those who live with a family member who served in peacetime sacrificed more than those who mourn a family member who was killed in war? What about those who spend their days caring for the child of servicemembers, or treating the psychological scars of those who return? What if you spent years in prison because you refused to submit to the draft in a war you consider immoral?
Different people will answer those questions in different ways. But that fact illuminates the problem—that even to ask those questions, in this context, is to concede something that must not be conceded.
To put it bluntly, our personal moral and professional choices should not be the business of the Internal Revenue Service. It is not the task, must never be the task, of the federal tax code to make determinations as to which of us are more patriotic, more worthy, more American, or to assess financial penalties against those of us who fail to measure up.
The United States currently has a president who is obsessed with questions of national loyalty, obsessed with adjudicating whose chosen profession makes them a patriot (police officers, members of his administration) and whose a traitor (journalists, Democratic mayors, his former associates)—a man obsessed with making pronouncements regarding how and in what ways and by whom those who fail to meet his own personal standards of public virtue should be penalized.
The Democrats will win in 2020 by rejecting those impulses, not by co-opting them.
Angus Johnston teaches history at the City University of New York. He can be found on Twitter at @studentactivism
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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