In a normal year, April 15 would mark the day our federal tax returns are due. This year, of course, is anything but “normal” and the deadline for filing has been extended three months.
Still, Tax Day in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, is a good time to examine our national priorities. What do our taxes actually pay for? What keeps us safe, and what doesn’t? Sometimes a crisis highlights fault lines that are less visible in ordinary times.
It is now impossible to ignore that our fragmented and mostly privatized healthcare system is not up to the challenge of a virus pandemic. A government infrastructure weakened by decades of corporate-friendly policies is incapable of producing and delivering vitally needed lifesaving medical equipment or personal protection supplies even for healthcare workers in direct patient care. Nor is it able to deliver timely relief to workers and small business who face economic disaster.
And while establishment opinion has been almost unanimously opposed to universal public health insurance, millions of newly-laid-off workers are facing the loss of health coverage provided through their jobs. Decades of massive incarceration, even for minor non-violent infractions, are exposing imprisoned populations to potentially fatal plague conditions from which there is no escape. And in a society deeply scarred by institutional racism, it is no surprise that communities of color are suffering disproportionally from the COVID-19 outbreak.
The truth is that we have reached this point through many years of choices we have made – or allowed our political decision makers to make in our name.
Few people realize that military spending has long taken up the bulk of the annual budgets passed by Congress and paid for by our federal income taxes. This is referred to as “discretionary spending.” It’s the money actually appropriated and spent every year, as opposed to programs funded separately out of payroll taxes like Social Security and Medicare. Recently, military spending has taken up nearly 60 percent of our annual discretionary spending – and that does not include nuclear weapons (funded by the Energy Department), homeland security, veterans benefits, national intelligence, and interest on a national debt that has been generated largely by wars and military expenditures.
Altogether, we spend around one trillion dollars annually on “security.” During the past 20 years, the US is estimated to have spent 6 or 7 trillion dollars on Middle East wars alone.
Meanwhile, our combined spending on health, housing, and transportation amount to only 13 percent of annual discretionary spending. Yet, when expanding healthcare coverage or advocating for affordable housing or better funding for our schools, the question is always asked: “How will we pay for it?” In the face of the pandemic and a looming economic crisis, isn’t it time to re-examine our priorities and ask the question: What do we really need to make us safe?
Universal access to healthcare or endless wars? Paid sick leave for everyone or a $738 billion Pentagon budget? A well-funded public health system or a vast military-industrial complex? Increased spending for medical research or a military space force? Affordable housing for all or tax breaks for corporations and the rich? Quality free public schools and colleges or more useless weapons systems? Good jobs and a rebuilt infrastructure or more prisons and mass incarceration? A livable planet with better public transit or government subsidies for fossil fuels?
The federal budget is both a choice and a moral statement. Failure to change our priorities will continue to put the lives of ourselves and our families at risk while threatening the destruction of our planet.
Jeff Klein is a retired local union president and a member of Dorchester People for Peace.