Friday, February 26, 2010

Loving the Enforcers

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

My FindLaw column this week, published yesterday, discusses the recent attack on the IRS building in Austin. My major purpose in writing the column was to defend the IRS and its employees against the irresponsible and utterly false attacks from those politicians and commentators who pander to anti-IRS and anti-tax sentiment.

As I often tell my students in the basic Federal Income Taxation course, the truly surprising thing about the IRS is how well it is run. Even though it is systematically and chronically under-funded (precisely because of the political pressures that reflect -- and reinforce -- public hatred of the agency), and even though it faces the Herculean task of interacting each year with virtually every adult and business in the country, it has an enviable record of professionalism.

Consider the records of just a few other agencies (public and private). During George W. Bush’s tenure, the Department of the Interior was rocked by a scandal involving sex and drugs in exchange for favorable treatment for those whom the department was supposed to regulate. Police forces are accused of unjustified killings of civilians, and some of those accusations are found to be true upon investigation. Financial ratings agencies “work the numbers” to keep clients happy. By contrast, the IRS has many thousands more employees, with literally trillions of dollars flowing through the agency each year, yet repeated investigations into the Service’s activities turn up no systemic problems and amazingly low numbers of isolated errors.

One particular aspect of my column is worth emphasizing. I point to the 1998 hearings held in the Senate Finance Committee at the end of the second Gingrich Congress. The committee held hearings that were designed to expose the IRS as a corrupt, arrogant, abusive agency that had spun out of control. People were brought in to tell their tales of horror, with a sympathetic committee assembled to listen.

As I describe in my column, not only was the most shocking horror story later exposed as a tissue of lies -- with the person who testified to having seen the events later admitting that he had not even been present, and the other participant denying the explosive testimony that he had offered to Congress -- but the more pedestrian claims turned out not only to be tiny in number, but also largely baseless.

Writing a column like that one, of course, is one of the benefits of tenure. Being known as “the guy who loves the IRS” might lead to some hostility, but I am not in danger of being fired for my unpopular views. Politicians who know that the IRS is a convenient scapegoat, however, have no guaranteed tenure, and thus they refuse to step up and defend the Service and its employees from irresponsible accusations. This is a tragedy, not only because of the recent Austin attack on an IRS building but because day-to-day threats against IRS employees are high and rising.

None of which should be a partisan matter. In fact, if anything, the group that likes to think of itself as the "party of law and order" should be expected to be especially worked up about showing proper respect for those who are on the front lines of enforcing the law. It is thus interesting to think about when and how different people respond to the suggestion that there is a reason to resist and criticize law enforcement.

In the 1950's and 1960's, liberals frequently disparaged the police and the military. This was based on the belief that the laws were not only unjust but that the enforcers of that law were making matters worse. The civil rights movement faced institutionalized racism, racism that frequently showed itself in brutal police tactics. (The most enduring image is probably Bull Connor's men attacking African Americans in the streets of Birmingham.) The movement against the Vietnam war had two especially memorable moments of violence: the Chicago police attacks on protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention, and the killing of four students at Kent State University in Ohio. Some people took to calling the police "pigs," and the public at large (even those who did not call the police names) was shocked. By the time the seventies came along, the atmosphere of anger toward police was widespread enough that defenders of the police took to putting bumper stickers on their cars with slogans like: "If you don't like cops, next time you're in trouble, call a hippie!"

It would appear, then, that there is a nice parallel: Liberals (loosely speaking) grew to dislike the police and the military because of their belief that those institutions were out of control and not on the side of "the people." Conservatives (again loosely speaking) today dislike the IRS because of their belief that the Service is out of control and not on the side of "the people."

It is a nice parallel at first glance, but it breaks down almost immediately. The evidence was plentiful in the 50's and 60's that more than a few police officers and some military personnel actually had engaged in violent activities aimed at particular groups. Moreover, liberals never claimed that the police or the military were irredeemable or that their basic functions were illegitimate. Instead, institutions like citizens' review boards came into being, in an attempt to end the abuses that we had seen with far too much frequency. Those who vilify the IRS, by contrast, simply believe as a matter of faith -- beyond all objective evidence -- that tax collectors are abusive and corrupt. They do not look for reasonable approaches to improve IRS conduct but claim instead that the Service is beyond salvation. The good news, that the enforcers really are following the rules, is simply too inconvenient.

As I said in my column, no one likes to be caught doing something wrong; and the enforcers of laws will, therefore, always be met with some hostility. What separates those who hate the tax enforcers from everyone else is that the IRS bashers are not reality-based. Why does that problem seem so familiar?


Michael C. Dorf said...

It's true you can't be fired, but you can be audited--and now you won't be. Very clever!

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Curses! You've seen through my scheme.

michael a. livingston said...

But you don't address the actual independent contractor case in which this fellow was involved, and with respect to which he appears to have had a reasonable claim. This doesn't justify his behavior, but it puts things in a rather different light, I think. At any rate we can see the Obama Strategy: make people so angry they become violent and pose as the defender of stability. It worked for Nixon: why not now?

CEP said...

Of course, putting this in some context might help, too. Assume arguendo the worst case: That the accusations of the know-nothings during those hearings had been true, and had reflected a verifiable, fixable systemic problem. That leads to two points:

(1) The issue isn't whether the IRS is flawed; being a human enterprise, that's a given. The issue is whether those flaws can be corrected without a zero-based restart. (Bonus points if you connect this to the way Gingrich used the House Rules Committee.)

(2) Hold comparable hypothetical hearings regarding every other taxing authority in the world and see how well the IRS fares in comparison. That is, consider "the perfect is the enemy of the good" in context. Specific example: Just try dealing with Inland Revenue (UK) during the Thatcher years... especially on behalf of a furriner.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

We had a horrible experience with the IRS not long ago when they credited money we paid to the wrong year and then claimed we still owed them the money, with interest and penalties on top of that. We were sent "misinformed" and threatening collection letters and they eventually took the money from my very meager paycheck! The amount was actually comparatively small (less than $500.00; although it's quite a bit to us) and we eventually got things taken care of, but it helped me intimately appreciate the more insidious effects of bureaucracies (not to mention automated phone systems). Moreover, I have little doubt that the time they spent going after us cost them close to if not more than the money owed. And to add insult to injury, one reads in the paper that "Jamie and Frank McCourt [owners of my beloved Dodgers], who are now separated, made $108 million from 2004 through 2009 but paid no federal or state income taxes." I told myself over and over again, "Patrick, don't generalize from your experience, think of the necessity of the agency, and so on."

So, no hard feelings, but I can imagine those with similar experiences yet lacking a political perspective identical or similar to mine, coming to far darker conclusions, ones likely to reinforce their ideological beliefs about "big government" and the like.

Sam Rickless said...

I don't have much sympathy for those who think that a government agency should be eliminated just because they have had a bad experience with one or more of its employees. The reasoning here is so bad that it isn't even worth criticizing it.

I agree with most everything you say, Neil. But there is one point with which I disagree. You say that those who now vilify the IRS believe as a matter of faith that tax collectors are abusive and corrupt. My sense is that this is false. A large number of those who vilify the IRS (or who refuse to condemn acts of violence committed against IRS agents) do so because they believe that the IRS should be abolished. They are perfectly willing to grant that IRS agents are honest and hardworking, but they would much prefer a national sales tax to any kind of income tax.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Patrick O'Donnell's description of his unpleasant interaction with the IRS is interesting on a number of levels. All of my similarly infuriating experiences have been with non-governmental bureaucracies. It took me over a year to settle a problem with a wrongly-coded hospital visit, requiring hours of time spent on letters and phone calls to insurance company bureaucrats. I was also screwed out of $2000 by an agent's error at United Airlines. Appeals were denied. Mike Dorf had a ridiculous multi-year experience with a cable company called Verizon Neighborhood, as well as similar hassles with his wireless provider. (Ignoring these things is not a serious option, because failure to pay can destroy one's credit rating; so it's not a question of more serious consequences.)

The interesting question is why people buy into the "IRS as monsters" narrative, thus (as Patrick says) allowing their own relatively petty negative IRS experiences to support a much uglier conclusion.

The first version of the movie "Fun With Dick and Jane," made in the 1970's, included a scene in which the lead characters robbed a payment office of the phone company at gunpoint. When the other customers figured out that the bandits were robbing the phone company (a private, for-profit, regulated monopoly), they began to cheer. So, it is possible for people to hate non-governmental agencies, but the IRS seems to be the subject of special ire.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

In response to Sam Rickless: I'm sure you're right that some people who vilify the IRS do so out of hostility to its mission only, and not to its employees. I do, however, follow this issue reasonably closely, and it is my opinion that a great deal of the anti-IRS hostility is to both the agents and the agency. As always, I'd prefer to be wrong. Sam's is a much preferable reality.

Sam is also correct that a large number of IRS bashers say that they want the agency to be abolished and for the income tax to be replaced with a consumption tax. Of course, someone has to collect the consumption tax. As I've written elsewhere, maybe the collectors of this consumption tax could be called the "Not-IRS."

Sam Rickless said...


Perhaps we both have pieces of the truth. I am thinking in particular of Rep. Steve King's widely publicized remarks after the recent attack on the IRS building in Austin:

"As a founder of a small business who has endured I.R.S. audits, I understand the deep frustration with the I.R.S. In the early days, my company could not run without me on the job. I once had to shut it down just to be in the room with the I.R.S. I did not get a fair shake, but I channeled my frustration the American way and ran for office. Americans looking for an outlet for their frustration should join me in calling on Congress to pass a national sales tax and abolish the current federal tax code and the I.R.S."

I think that King is probably representative of those who are unhappy with the IRS. And this quote expresses both frustration with IRS employees and a desire to abolish the federal tax code, replacing it with a national sales tax. Now of course, as you say, we will need a government agency to collect sales taxes. But these taxes will not be collected from individuals, but rather from businesses. The agency will therefore be less intrusive (for example, the non-IRS will audit you at your place of business rather than coming to your home).

I hasten to add, of course, that King's statement makes no sense. If one is concerned about wasting time with a tax collection agency as a business owner, then replacing the IRS with an agency whose mission it is to collect sales taxes from businesses won't address the concern.

AF said...

I agree with you about the IRS, but doubt that defending it soberly would be particularly career-threatening even in the absence of tenure.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Thanks to Sam for the Steve(n) King scariness. The anti-tax crowd holds a hodgepodge of views; and it's good that at least some of them don't demonize the actual IRS employees. Others do, unfortunately.

AF is right about some jobs, wrong about others. I wasn't being literal in my comment about my own situation, since GW certainly would not have fired me pre-tenure for my pro-IRS views. At a state university, it's not a firable offense, either; but it is also the type of thing that can be used in state legislatures to make noise. ("Those crazy liberals at Enormous State University are being paid by our hard-working citizens, and they're *supporting* the IRS. We have to send them a message." You get the idea.)

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