David Gross


Notes on Virtues


I think I see where you're coming from on this, but there are a few things to consider:

First, a lot of your criticisms apply most strongly to my own particular idiosyncratic method, and when evaluating it solely as an effective altruism strategy. In fact, I chose the method I did largely as a variety of conscientious objection, not as effective altruism. My post here highlighted the possibilities of tax resistance as an effective altruism strategy, but my own motives for my resistance are more complicated and I did not choose my own method of resistance to optimize its charitable donation possibilities. If you judge it by that standard, it will admittedly look pretty weak. But it's also possible to choose tax resistance methods differently from how I have done, in a way that prioritizes effective altruism over conscientious objection, if your motives are different from mine.

Second, I think you exaggerate the precariousness of my position. I'm not impoverished. I'm actually doing pretty well. I put aside something like 35–40% of my income for retirement, and every year I put roughly the equivalent of my health insurance deductible into a Health Savings Account in case disaster (or distracted driver) strikes. I make about the median annual income for an individual in the U.S., and have saved up more than the median retirement savings for someone in my age bracket. I'm not "brutally curtailed" or living in "self-imposed poverty". I'm a reasonably well-off person living in the lap of luxury here in California and enjoying the fruits of the most fabulously prosperous time our species has yet experienced. I can't imagine feeling deprived like this.

Third, you underestimate the charitable impact of my resistance if you only include the $5k/year or so that I donate and ignore the hundreds of hours of volunteer work (not, perhaps, effective-altruistically optimized, but nonetheless good) my particular technique has helped me to put in.

Fourth, your argument that "if you wanted to fix any of this, you... couldn't pay off your existing $90k+ liability" is incorrect. If for some reason I changed my mind about all this and wanted to wipe the slate clean, if I were too poor to just pay the full amount, the IRS is like many debt collectors in this regard: it would rather get something than fail to get everything, so it's willing to bargain. It will ask you what you can afford (demanding that you fess up about your income and assets) and then come up with some figure that doesn't totally bankrupt you, telling you that you can eliminate your tax debt entirely if you can come up with this lower sum. It's called the Offer in Compromise program (https://www.irs.gov/payments/offer-in-compromise).

As I mention in my post: "There is a law on the books that makes willful failure to pay taxes a criminal offense. However it is almost unheard of for the U.S. government to criminally prosecute someone who files an honest and correct tax return but who will not voluntarily surrender the money."

American "war tax resisters" have been willfully refusing to pay taxes for decades, often going out of their way to make public declarations of their willful intent (sometimes in letters to the IRS itself). In the last 80 years, of the tens of thousands of American war tax resisters who have done this sort of thing, exactly two have been prosecuted merely for willful failure to pay. One was in 1942, and targeted the leader of an emerging war tax resistance movement (he was prosecuted for failing to purchase a war tax stamp to put on his car, so also this was not really an "income tax" refusal prosecution). The other was in 2005, and targeted an attorney who had two previous tax convictions and whose legal practice tended to get on the nerves of prosecutors by specializing in the vigorous defense of dissidents like Huey Newton, Judi Bari, Dennis Peron, etc.

Given this track record, I think it's accurate to say that criminal prosecution for willful failure to pay your income taxes is not the sort of thing the typical refuser has to worry about.

Thanks for the response. This goes far enough afield of my expertise that I don't think I can give very helpful answers to your specific questions. I don't have any experience with corporate tax refusal of this sort. In the very limited anecdotal reports I've seen, it seems like the IRS is most likely to crack the whip and potentially pursue corporate officers when 1) the corporate entity fails to pay employment taxes (payroll/social-security taxes) after withholding them from employees' paychecks, 2) when there's actual fraud/dishonest filing involved, 3) when there's no filing of required forms; in roughly that order of severity. I'm much less confident in anticipating the IRS's behavior here than I am in the case of individual tax-nonpayers.

As far as the 10-year limitations deadline, again here I have much less information to go on for corporate taxpayers than for individuals. I know in the case of individuals, once the tax debt passes the "collection statute expiration date" it just sort of vanishes from the system and so they stop bothering you about it.

Note that if the corporate entity formally files for bankruptcy that this suspends the ticking of the statute of limitations clock until six months after the bankruptcy is resolved.

Yeah, it's an imperfect first-stab calculation at best. But that doesn't mean that 1 in 12,000 is necessarily an underestimate because while the 8,143,000 denominator may be exaggerated for the reasons you suggest; the 699 numerator is too, for the reason I gave ("even if every one of those prosecutions had been of people who merely refused to pay"). In fact, few to none of those 699 prosecutions were of people who merely refused to pay. An appendix to their report shows how many indictments the IRS pursued in a variety of categories (this adds up to more than 699 because some non-tax crimes e.g. narcotics, money laundering are also prosecuted via the same unit). Non-payment doesn't even make the list:

  • Abusive Tax Schemes: 35
  • Corporate Tax Fraud: 23
  • Financial Institution Fraud: 20
  • Bank Secrecy Act: 338
  • Employment Tax: 142
  • Healthcare Fraud: 69
  • Abusive Return Preparer Program: 112
  • Identity Theft: 88
  • Money Laundering: 701
  • International Operations: 143
  • Narcotics: 475
  • Non-Filer: 115
  • Public Corruption: 27
  • Questionable Refund Program: 51
  • Terrorism: 33

I believe it's not actually true that, if you merely repeatedly neglect to pay your taxes, the I.R.S. will inquire into your motives and intent in order to decide whether to come after you with both barrels blazing. As far as I can tell they do not have the resources or inclination to do that sort of investigation.

I base this largely on the experience of American war tax resisters. They are often loudly self-incriminating about their willful intent: sometimes going so far as to write letters to the I.R.S. explaining their motivation. Of the tens of thousands of Americans who have engaged in war tax resistance over the years, I know of only two in the past 80 years who have been criminally prosecuted merely for willful refusal to pay taxes (there have been others who have been criminally prosecuted or jailed for things like filing inaccurate forms or contempt of court, but those were cases in which they were defying the law in ways that went beyond merely not paying). The war tax resistance movement keeps pretty good records on its "martyrs" so if there were other cases like those two they would probably have come to my attention.

Last I heard, about 40% of U.S. citizens don't have passports to begin with, so I expect that at least for some readers, this isn't such a big deal. For the rest it is certainly a consideration to factor in. Note that it typically takes some time before it becomes a problem: you accumulate $59,000 (actually more, as this number is inflation-adjusted) in delinquent taxes, the I.R.S. notices you're over the limit and submits paperwork to the State Department, then somewhere down the line your passport expires and you're unable to renew it until you resolve the tax delinquency (and go through a State Department paperwork dance of your own).

FWIW, some tips on how to improve your resolve here: Notes on Resolve

Aesthetically, opera seems like it slots in well to a Very Gay modern niche, in that it is flamboyant, is dramatic to the point of histrionic, lends itself well to backstage scuttlebutt about prime donne and other such inside baseball dish, is nicely campy in its traditional overwroughtitude of costume and set design and vocal fireworks and Götterdämmerung, and is a good object to lavish conspicuous aficionado-points on. It's as gay as green is Irish.

I'd also like to see what work people have already done that I don't already know about.

See Notes on Attention for some possible leads.

I'd add "Covid" to the hypotheses. At the time it was difficult to sustain many varieties of coordinated grassroots activity, even something as banal as a book club, just because you didn't want to meet indoors in groups and because alternatives like Zoom were off-putting to some and suboptimal in many ways. People may have relished the opportunity to come out in the streets and protest a bit, or to engage in social media histrionics, but to sustain this sort of activism in a meaningful way requires the sort of organizing and group deliberation that was unusually difficult at that time.

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