Beto O'Rourke's 'War Tax' Misses the Point

Illustration for article titled Beto ORourkes War Tax Misses the Point
Photo: Brynn Anderson (AP)

Former Rep. and current Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke released a policy proposal today, which in and of itself is surprising. The proposal, a multifaceted plan to care for military veterans, includes something called a “war tax.”


What is a war tax? Well. It’s a tax that we would pay to go to war, something O’Rourke has proposed before during his time in Congress.

On the surface, it makes a certain kind of sense. The obvious argument for a war tax is that making people pay overtly for a war (through a tax hike) makes them not want to go to war, which makes them vote against people who want to go to war. Politics!


Under O’Rourke’s plan, at the beginning of any new armed conflict, Congress would levee a tax to build up a “Veterans Health Care Trust Fund” for people who fought in said conflict.

Under Beto’s plan, every new VHCTF would be paired with enactment of new war tax. This new tax would serve as a reminder of the incredible sacrifice made by those who serve and their families.

  • This modest tax would be implemented on a progressive basis, with taxpayers who make over $200,000 per year (adjusted gross income) paying $1,000 in a new tax for each war.
  • The tax would be levied on households without current members of the Armed Forces or veterans of the Armed Forces.

There are a few issues here. While the top-level argument—that increasing taxes for wars would make people less likely to support wars—is fine, it doesn’t really square with our current political reality. Since the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) dropped a bunker-buster on Congress and the Executive branch’s traditional relationship to declaring war, the public often has very little say in where and when we authorize force. It also pretty much ignores the fact that the VA is already funded by taxpayer dollars. A far better way of increasing care for veterans would be to increase taxes on the wealthy and allocate more money to hiring doctors and nurses in the existing system. Who knows, if we did enough of that we might even be able to pay for free healthcare for every American as well.

Speaking of the wealthy, they get off pretty easy. Per CNN, the war tax isn’t a particularly progressive tax, as it caps at $1,000 per household. People like, say, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, who made $21.5 million in 2018, really aren’t going to feel the brunt of an extra grand in taxes when they’re reaping the benefits of a massive spike in weapons sales. From CNN:

Households making less than $30,000 per year would pay $25; those making less than $40,000 would pay $57; those making less than $50,000 would pay $98; those making less than $75,000 would pay $164; those making less than $100,000 would pay $270; those making less than $200,000 would pay $485; and those making more than $200,000 would pay $1,000.


Then again, if we actually instituted a just “war tax” on the top-earning families in America, I’m sure they’d suddenly discover their youngest children had burning desires to join the Air National Guard or something, as families with current military members or vets are exempt.

O’Rourke mentions ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in his plan—this tax is for all of the new conflicts we’ll get into. Here’s another idea: maybe... we... don’t do that? It’s not that a “war tax” is inherently a bad idea, it’s more that it’s a stopgap idea that doesn’t address the key issues facing veterans and American people in general: the rich make money off wars while the poor fight them, then come home to a health system that those same rich people are attempting to privatize and sell off to corporate interests. Meanwhile, everyday Americans don’t have guaranteed healthcare. Instituting an extra tax on people struggling to pay their insurance premiums might make them vote against some of those interests, but won’t fundamentally change the system that empowered it. As the notoriously political pop country artist Taylor Swift once said: band-aids don’t fix bullet holes.

Contributing Writer, Splinter

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