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Small shops sell food and snacks on a hillside in Kabul, Afghanistan, where squatters have settled. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

Does nation-building work?

By John Yemma / 06.10.12

Nation-building has a can-do ring to it. You can build a highway, a skyscraper, a Fortune 500 company. Why not a nation?

It isn’t a new idea. Throughout the 20th century – in places as different as Germany, the Philippines, Iraq, Japan, and Kosovo – world powers have worked to turn broken states into healthy ones through a combination of outside force, inside management, and the cultivation of civil society, education, rule of law, and democratic institutions. Soldiers and civil servants have sacrificed their lives. Billions of dollars have been spent.

The outcomes have been mixed, as James L. Payne noted in a 2006 study published in the Independent Review. Some nations (Somalia) reject the effort. Others make it (Austria, Germany, Japan), but we can’t be sure it was due to intervention or popular will. Nation-building works best when insiders take the lead. Some states fail and re-fail and then pull it together (Dominican Republic, Panama – and possibly Haiti, and even Somalia is improving).

It’s easy to criticize nation-building as western hubris. When he ran for president in 2000, George W. Bush argued that the United States shouldn’t be imposing its values on the rest of the world. That changed after 9/11.

Afghanistan was the ultimate nation-building mission,” Mr. Bush wrote in his memoir. “We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better.” Moral obligation, especially after a war, outweighs hubris. 

A 2007 RAND Corporation guide to nation-building notes that US-led military interventions are running at about one every two years, and new United Nations peacekeeping missions occur every six months. 

In little more than a decade, nation-building efforts were launched in Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Note the ascending size of the nations involved. There’s a warning for the future in that, especially at a time of war-weariness and constrained budgets. As the RAND study observed, “the effort needed to stabilize Bosnia and Kosovo has proved difficult to replicate in Afghanistan or Iraq, nations that are eight to 12 times more populous. It would be even more difficult to mount a peace enforcement mission in Iran, which is three times more populous than Iraq, and nearly impossible to do so in Pakistan, which is three times again more populous than Iran.”

In a Monitor cover story, Scott Baldauf takes us to Afghanistan to assess whether the nearly 11-year nation-building process has “taken” well enough that the South Asian country can survive as a tolerant, viable society when NATO scales back in 2014. The pitfalls are plentiful: ethnic animosity, warlords, the Taliban, corruption, opium, external meddling. Most Afghans Scott talked with want foreign troops out. Fewer Afghans want foreign aid to decrease. And almost everybody is worried about what comes next.

As Scott’s reporting and Melanie Stetson Freeman’s photography show, Afghanistan has changed markedly since 2001. If the yearning for peace and normalcy alone could determine a country’s future, Afghanistan would make it. Afghan won’t be totally on its own. NATO contingents will remain, civilian assistance will continue, and $4 billion a year is being promised to bankroll Afghan security forces. Have we left behind something better? We are about to find out.

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

Volunteers place wood floor planks for a house under construction a year after a tornado tore through Joplin, Mo. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Doing well by doing good

By John YemmaMonitor staff / 06.04.12

Is altruism good, or just a good strategy? The biologist E.O. Wilson has described it as both. The purest form of altruism involves self-sacrifice for others – a family, tribe, or cause – with no expectation of reward. The other altruism, which seems less noble, is doing a favor to get a favor.

Poems and statues are dedicated to uncompromising heroes. Most people are turned off by back-scratching deal-makers. But wait. Pure altruism, Dr. Wilson pointed out in his book “On Human Nature,” advances the goals only of a narrow set of people. The hive benefits when a honeybee gives up its life to defend the group. By contrast, dealmaking altruism may look cheesy and hypocritical, but it is essential in a complex, diverse society.

Hard altruism is the stuff of legends. Soft altruism is the infrastructure of civilization.

A family, company, cause, or ideology needs hard altruism to cohere. One for all and all for one. But at some point, even the most tightly disciplined island needs to connect to the mainland. Deals must be done, favors returned. 

Whatever form it takes, altruism is good for others, for us, and for society, which is why versions of the golden rule and the good Samaritan parable exist in most cultures. In communities where social capital is high, hard times are not as hard. 

Periodically, social analysts worry that the wheels have come off society, that economic pressure or new technology or fads or amusements are undermining our social capital, making us more selfish and less caring. In the mid-1990s, Robert Putnam penned a much-talked-about essay titled “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” Americans were spending so much time in front of TVs and computer screens, Dr. Putnam wrote, that participatory democracy, volunteering in the community, even amiable activities like bowling leagues were withering. If people were not connecting, social capital would wither as well.

And yet one key measure of social capital – rates of volunteerism – has risen steadily since then. More than a quarter of Americans now give their time to charitable causes. Back when Putnam wrote his essay, the term “Generation X” – those people who were born in the 1960s and ’70s – was usually modified by the word “slacker.” But as that generation has matured, its members have been volunteering at rates higher than the national average.

That’s the antithesis of slacking.

Twenty-first century social capital isn’t built so much through bowling leagues and welcome wagons. Among other things, Internet-enabled social networks have become a powerful force for altruism, pinpointing needs and marshaling resources. Struggling individuals and companies, for instance, have benefited from “cash mobs.” Organized online (usually via Facebook), these bring to bear scattered do-gooders in ways that door-to-door solicitation never could.

Altruism may look different today. But whether it is mowing a neighbor’s lawn, giving a renter a break, or cash-mobbing a mom and pop store, altruism flourishes because it helps others and us and civilization. Even if we cherish the island where we were born – even if we would sacrifice everything for family, nation, or honor – we also know that we are part of something larger. We are a piece of the continent, a part of the main. 

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.

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An indigenous woman holds a rooster for sale during the weekly market IN Chichica stenango, Guatemala. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File )

Fowl weather report

By John Yemma / 05.27.12

A new generation of spring chickens, fuzzy and endearingly incompetent, arrived at our New England home six weeks ago. They are replacements. During the hungry winter months, a red-tailed hawk visited. Hawks are admirable in their own way. So despite the drama, there are no hard feelings. And because this is the time of year the biota of the Northern Hemisphere bust loose, predators now have other options. 

With Memorial Day approaching, we are well beyond spring’s delicate, tentative sprouting – the mix of last year’s memory and this year’s desire, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot. The fiesta of summer is about to begin.

The new chicks have their pinfeathers and are experimenting with flying (which they’ll never win prizes for, but, hey, a hawk can’t hit Mach 1). During the warm-up of mid-May, we moved them to a mini-coop adjacent to the shed that houses the backyard flock we’ve had for the past three years. The class of 2012 (Rhode Island Reds, Wyandottes, and Sex Links) has bonded over water and mash and a popular warming light. Now their range is extending. Ahead lie the treacherous shoals of integration with those who arrived before them.

Precedence is a powerful force. No matter how gradually integration is engineered, there’s no way to avoid issues as older fowl assert their pecking order. No amount of human intervention – not helicopter parenting, not shaming, not a court order – can stop the hazing. Generation 1 did it to Gen 2. Both will do it to Gen 3.

But we intervene anyway. Nature doesn’t get to take its course in a backyard. Without intervention, without the human impulse to adjust the balance, try something different, build or spend or pay without a thought of return on investment, nature would prevail. We’d have no artwork, cultivar roses, sonatas, or soufflés. As seen in a thousand PBS TV shows, nature can be magnificent. But left to its own devices, it can also break your heart.

Which is not what chickens do, unless you are a worm.  Chickens are an odd mix of adventurer and comedian. Even their physiques are amusing – plump, friendly bodies that look like miniature Spanish galleons, bracketed by boney talons and wary faces. Happen upon a few in the garden and they’ll shriek and run for their lives, certain you are eyeing them for dinner. But work the ground for a minute and they’re practically riding your spade to get a look at the freshly turned earth.

The best part about chickens (besides the eggs) is encountering them after a long day when they’ve been busy doing their own thing – scratching, pecking, and worrying every interesting inch of a garden. Suddenly, they see you – and you’re a rock star. With no thought for decorum, they race zanily in your direction, a madcap armada hoping for a handful of corn. They practically throw themselves in your path, crouching to be petted. Choose me! No, me! 

The other best part is when they put themselves to bed at night, setting aside their political snits and cooing contentedly, as if they are talking about what a great day they had, because, well, they all got to be here at this time and this place, enjoying this sun, and dirt, and these interesting circumstances.

We can have deep and heartfelt differences with each other. We can be Sunni or Shiite, Republican or Democrat, chicken or hawk. Summer is a reminder that we all get to enjoy the same sun warming the same magnificent planet.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. You can reach him at yemmaj@csmonitor.com.

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A prison guard oversees inmates on their way to dinner at Calipatria (Calif.) State Prison. (Gregory Bull/AP)

Prison: civilization's 'dark flower'

By Editor / 05.20.12

Prisons have been around since the dawn of civilization. For all that time, prisons have been a dilemma. 

We lock up murderers, thugs, and thieves both to punish them and to keep them away from law-abiding citizens. Yet prisons are notorious hotbeds of crime, from which first-time offenders too often emerge as hardened criminals. We spend millions persuading prisoners to go straight, giving them occupational training, and coaching them on reentry into civilized society. Yet the mere mention of a criminal record can disqualify a felon from employment, wilt a budding friendship, and relegate an ex-convict to a shadow life of halfway houses, dependence on charity, and possible recidivism.

Well, we tell ourselves, they had it coming; their victims are the ones who really suffered. Lock ’em up and throw away the key. But we also believe in redemption and second chances, at least for ourselves and those we know and love. If anyone close to us spends time behind bars, we experience – and are appalled by – the inhumanity of the penal system, the institution that Nathaniel Hawthorne called the “black flower of civilized society.” 

And here’s a practical fact: While there’s no denying that criminal behavior leads to dire consequences, there’s also no denying that the eventual outcome of prison for the vast majority of inmates will be their release back into society. Less than 3 percent of the 1.6 million people in US prisons are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. The rest will at some point be living in our neighborhoods.

More than ever, that point is now. As Sean Miller reports a Monitor Weekly cover story, record numbers of inmates are leaving prison because of tightening budgets for correctional programs, new thinking about how to handle nonviolent offenders, and the completion of sentences by a bulge of people convicted during the higher-crime, tougher-sentencing era of the 1970s and ’80s.

Sean takes us to California and tracks the difficult post-prison prospects of a handful of men convicted of major crimes – murder, drug trafficking, gang violence. All now say they are sorry for what they did, weary of prison, and ready to abide by the law. “Most of them just got tired of it,” says Sean. “And most of them acknowledge what they’ve done wrong.” They have served their time, sworn themselves to self-improvement, gained job skills, and are hoping for a second chance. 

But life after incarceration, which has never been easy, is especially tough in today’s job market. With time on their hands and few options for earning a living, it is too easy for ex-cons to end up hanging out with old friends and returning to bad behavior – especially to drugs, which most abused before and even during prison. 

What everyone is worried about, says Sean, is that some felon among the thousands being released will commit a shocking act that tars other ex-prisoners and prompts a backlash against de-incarceration. Fear of a new Willie Horton – whose crimes while on prison furlough became a factor in the 1988 presidential campaign – has police, ex-cons, social workers, and parole officers on edge. 

We send men and women to prison when we have despaired of any other way of dealing with their abhorrent behavior. But prison is not a permanent solution. It is at best an opportunity to change a criminal mentality into a moral one. We owe it to the prisoner, the victim, and to us to make that the permanent solution.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. 

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In this photo from NOAA, what is believed to be a tornado is seen touching down in Grand Isle, La., Wednesday, May 9. (Courtesy of Tim Osborn/NOAA/AP)

Riding the whirlwind

By Clayton CollinsWeekly edition editor / 05.13.12

Tornado survivors often supply similar accounts of their ordeals. They describe the horrifying sound, like a train much too close, and the disheartening sights that reveal themselves once the fury has subsided. They reach for war images in trying to describe the devastation: It may look as though a bomb has gone off. Many marvel at the vagaries of swiveling twisters: One neighborhood is leveled; another is left with not a shingle askew.

Often those who ride out these most American of severe-weather occurrences also remark on the kindness of others in helping them, quite literally, to pick up the pieces. That they can count on.

But easy predictability is not a characteristic of tornadoes. These Great Plains-stalking storms form suddenly, sometimes in bunches, lurching down from supercells like the hammers of Thor.

The people who study them – and whose important work ultimately pays off in ways ranging from improved storm-warning times to better home-building techniques – have their own lexicon. They talk about "wall clouds" and "hook echoes." And because they can learn just so much by peering at a computer monitor, they go out into the field. They go in pursuit.

For this week's cover story, veteran Monitor science writer Pete Spotts immersed himself in the highly collaborative culture of responsible funnel hunters, riding with Kiel Ortega from NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.

"It's far more responsible than some of the storm chasing you see on TV," Pete says, describing a kind of informal hierarchy among those who essentially crowdsource the detailed information that becomes the basis of high-stakes weather forecasting.

There are enthusiastic people with laptops, cellphones with signal amplifiers, GPS locators cross-linked with those of other chasers. The coordinated effort of this army feeds a website. Most are not mere thrill seekers setting out for YouTube fame, though as with anything, there is a fringe element.

"There are some people chasing who have official-looking stuff on their cars, but are not tied to any official group," one source told Pete. But you need to have taken a basic online weather course in order to upload to the chaser website that federal forecasters monitor.

With a college undergraduate at the wheel, and Mr. Ortega's colleague Kristen Calhoun helping with observations and strategy, Pete spent a recent Saturday in a Honda CR-V roaming around a very active slice of "Tornado Alley."

The group intercepted four storms. Three of them fizzled. Then the fourth, the last in a chain, "began to do interesting things," Pete recalls. Was that a wall cloud forming?

"It ended up being the one that dropped down a dozen twisters, and sent one through Wichita," Pete says. (The event in Kansas was nonfatal.) Pete and his team chased the storm across the state line, watching it backlit by lightning before breaking off their chase at around 10 p.m. and swinging back toward Norman.

"On the prairie, they can be spectacular to watch," Pete says of the powerful storms. "Out there it seems as though the greatest risk is the driving of other storm chasers. Obviously, tornadoes lose their luster when they threaten cities and towns."

Clayton Collins is the editor of the weekly edition. Monitor editor John Yemma returns to this space next week.

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A giant Russian national flag is on display near the Kremlin in centra l Moscow. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Russia's one-man brand

By Editor / 05.07.12

Not long after joining the world, we are immersed in brand options: first Pampers or Huggies, later Coke or Pepsi, Apple or Android, Republican or Democrat. Companies spend billions on sharpening brand distinction, touting their brand’s benefits, and trying to win brand loyalty. Whatever tools are used, however, the one constant for marketing mavens is that image and reality have to match. Quality can’t be faked. The product has to deliver.

Nations polish and sell their brands, too. A good brand image facilitates commerce and tourism, and is money in the bank in an international crisis.

Last month, Brand USA, a new public-private consortium established by Congress, released a video titled “Land of Dreams” to promote the United States as a tourist destination. Rosanne Cash sings amid scenes of gorgeous landscapes and a dazzling variety of people enjoying themselves. The video is notable for what it doesn’t show: flags, presidents, monuments, and military might. After the controversial wars of the past decade, America has badly needed image improvement. Reminding the world of its people, natural beauty, and possibilities seems a promising shift.

Other countries have memorably burnished their brands. Remember “Cool Britannia,” “Israel is Real,” and “Incredible India”? Those were hits because they were human-scaled and genuine.

Russia is a country that needs brand help. Russia has plenty to work with. It is vast, beautiful, and historic. But Russian history has been dominated by czars, commissars, and tough rulers. What always seems invisible are its people, who over the years have been inconsiderately lumped together as serfs and proletariat and are only now emerging as citizens.

In a Christian Science Monitor special report, Angus Roxburgh, a longtime Moscow correspondent and former adviser to the government of Vladimir Putin, looks at the man whose image seems to be defining modern Russia. Mr. Putin is a onetime KGB agent who feints toward democracy and the rule of law, but too often uses his forceful personality to keep an iron grip on government. Putin’s goal, forged in the desperate years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been to restore Russia’s power and pride.

It would be a historic achievement, however, if instead of only restoring Russia’s prestige, Putin used his time in the Kremlin to nurture Russian democracy. After all, citizens, not rulers, own a country. What if, Mr. Putin, you made Brand Russia about the Russian people – and made Russia the land of their dreams?

 John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.

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How the Monitor is doing

By Editor / 05.01.12

On May 1, the Monitor entered its fourth year as a Web-first news organization.

Here's where we have traveled since 2009: Our Web traffic has grown five-fold following our shift from being primarily a daily newspaper. Our weekly news magazine, which we redesigned and relaunched in early April of this year, is doing well in print and in its iPad and e-reader editions. Our Daily News Briefing has a steady subscription base. Advertising revenue is growing. Content sales are healthy. The fiscal year that ended on April 30 was the best we've done financially since 1963.

Bottom line: With revenue increasing and modest cost reductions year over year, we've halved our church subsidy and are committed to zeroing it out. Our journalism, which is reaching many times more people than ever before, remains strong and original. Recent examples: The April 9 Monitor Weekly cover story on the reversal of immigration from Mexico, which painted a human-scale picture of why that is the case, was in readers' hands weeks before a recent Pew report confirming the trend. We explained America's gun culture and the "stand your ground" movement weeks before Trayvon Martin was killed. We've been in Myanmar during the stirrings of democracy; Afghanistan during each turn of the war; Egypt before, during, and after Tahrir Square.

 We have correspondents around the world and throughout the US. We're on the campaign trail, at the Supreme Court, and on top of techscience, and the environment. If you read us, you have context for the news in advance of the news.

The point is that our tradition of global, humane, explanatory journalism is not only undiminished by our digital-first strategy but is more timely, relevant, and widespread than ever. (Sure, I'm biased when I say that, but you can easily judge for yourself.)

You might wonder if we are a model for the rest of the news industry. Yes and no. Every news organization has to make the shift from print to digital, to figure out how to carry on the vitally necessary mission of journalism in a new economic environment. Timing varies, depending on business conditions. Our circumstances are unique and always have been. But you might see the systematic decrease of our longstanding subsidy as similar to the erosion of print ad revenue at a locally based newspaper.

 Model or not, the most important thing is that we have adapted and are making steady progress toward break-even. Our journalism is strong and distinct. Our goal is to become self-sustaining, which will safeguard the continuation of the Monitor's 104-year-old journalistic tradition. 

 John Yemma, editor

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What makes The Monitor tick?

By Editor / 04.26.12

For more than a century, the Monitor has chronicled humanity’s journey. We do not flinch from writing about wars, repression, and corruption. But we also make a point of watching for progress.

Why do we see that as the Monitor’s mission? Keith Collins, a former Monitor staffer, has written a well-researched history of this newspaper that examines that question. The story he tells is valuable if you are a journalism buff, a Monitor fan, a Christian Scientist, or a person of any faith (or none) who wonders what drives this 104-year-old enterprise – which carries the name of a religious denomination but is widely accepted as a nondenominational source of thoughtful, accurate, world news.

Not every part of Mr. Collins’s book, “The Christian Science Monitor: Its History, Mission, and People,” will make everyone happy. As in any history, some facts and conclusions are arguable. I found this to be so in a section dealing with the internal tensions that led to the resignation of Kay Fanning as editor in 1988 and the subsequent rise and fall of an ambitious broadcasting venture. 

Collins distills the central question facing the Monitor as this: Did Mary Baker Eddy found the Monitor as “mainly a good, public-spirited newspaper that represented a more constructive approach to journalism?” Or was it “not designed to make people comfortable so much as to upgrade how they thought, helping them become less fearful and selfish, more perceptive and generous?” He notes that throughout the Monitor’s history, its editors, reporters, governing boards, subscribers, and members of the church have sincerely stood on both sides of that question. But why should it be either/or? Why not both/and? Public-spirited journalism and the decreasing of fear and selfishness are not mutually exclusive.

In any endeavor – from government to business, family to church – people disagree. But if motives are honest and noble, they have a divine source, which allows us to respect and value each other’s best efforts.

Many readers will value and respect Collins’s work. And who can argue with his conclusion – that the Monitor is not living up to its full potential? Like humanity itself, the Monitor can always do better. 

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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A lone truck drives down Mt. Lemmon Highway near Tucson, Ariz. (David Sanders/Arizona Daily Star/AP/File)

The 'long war' for energy security

By Editor / 04.26.12

Synfuel technology had been developed by oil-starved but coal-rich Germany. It was put on the back shelf during the postwar era of cheap gasoline and was now getting a fresh look. Synfuel processing was complex and expensive, but the oil era was ending, many analysts believed. Any alternative would be useful in the new energy war.

A few years later, while on a trip to Saudi Arabia, I heard oil industry specialists speaking with alarm about a coming bust. Those higher prices in the late 1970s had prompted an oil glut. In 1984, the bottom fell out. Synfuels and most alternative energies were packed away. From Texas to the North Sea to the Middle East, oil fields were shut down and workers were laid off. 

Oil stayed relatively cheap until the first decade of this century, when it surged again as demand increased in China, India, and other developing economies. Once again, a warlike effort was urged to break foreign oil dependence – this time by developing alternatives such as solar, wind, and geothermal as well as reviving nuclear .

Now a curious thing is happening. The hydrocarbon supply chain is forking. The oil side is still costly and dependent on overseas sources. The natural gas side, which used to rise or fall in lock step, is emerging as the great hope of energy independence. As Alex Marks writes in a Monitor special report, natural gas has become so plentiful and cheap that it has fundamentally altered the energy security outlook for the United States

The natural gas economy came on us virtually overnight thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. It is based on the breakthrough idea that there are huge amounts of natural gas trapped in subterranean formations, the product of ancient plant and animal life smashed under miles of geological strata. By fracturing this rock, the gas is extracted and fed into the gas network. The technique is somewhat controversial because of concern over contaminants, though nowhere as dangerous as a seafloor oil well blowout or a nuclear meltdown. 

Natural gas could give the US and other parts of the world several decades of relatively clean energy. The energy war, in other words, may be winding down – for the moment.

Before we disarm, let’s acknowledge that both the oil and gas eras will end at some point – probably before the century is out. Consumption will deplete resources. Wells will get more expensive to develop. Prices will rise and rise again. 

And then what? 

Synthetic fuels rely on coal, which, though plentiful, is dirty. Nuclear has its well-known downsides. Renewables have not yet shown the muscle needed to support a thriving global economy. Conservation always helps, but gains made from conservation are usually gobbled up by new energy appetites. (In the Carter era, no one plugged in a cellphone at night; now everyone does.)

The bright blue flame of natural gas has given us an important weapon in the energy war: time. Let’s use it to discover what lies beyond the age of hydrocarbons. 

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Employees exit the Internal Revenue Service building at the end of the day in Washington, D.C. (Ann Hermes/Staff)

The tax man taketh -- and sometimes giveth

By Editor / 04.12.12

Franz Kafka described an impregnable bureaucracy in his last novel, “The Castle.” George Orwell’s “1984” took all-powerful government to sinister extremes. Even Steven Spielberg’s rollicking “Raiders of the Lost Ark” ended with a shot of an incomprehensibly vast federal warehouse.

We’ve all stood in front of the mist-shrouded fortress wondering how to get some action from the people inside. Sometimes you’re dealing with a runaround at the zoning department. Or a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles breaking for lunch just as your number comes up. Or an unsupportive tech-support specialist. 

From the outside, any institution can look like Byzantium. But when you are inside, you learn the ropes, understand the policies, close ranks with fellow workers, and even feel justified sometimes in bouncing an especially obstreperous caller from one voice mail to another. This is as true with the local food co-op as it is with the Pentagon. It has even been known to happen in a newsroom.

The presumption on the outside is that a bureaucracy is a sea of uncaring robots making arbitrary decisions, incapable of sympathy. The presumption on the inside is that there are barbarians at the gates, that if people would just follow a few simple rules and fill out Form 573(c): subsection d, everything would be fine.

In a Monitor special report (click here), Mark Trumbull introduces you to Nina Olson, an Internal Revenue Service employee trying to humanize the tax collecting process, to decrease the complexity of filing and make the 100,000-person agency more responsive. It’s a big job, not just because the tax code is so complex but also because the IRS is no one’s idea of warm and fuzzy. Ms. Olson told Mark she sometimes looks out her office window and sees passersby cringe as they approach.

If you’ve ever been notified of an audit, you know the feeling. It’s not just the hassle of digging out old receipts to justify income and deductions. It’s not just having to, essentially, do your taxes twice. It’s the implied guilt of being in the company of Al Capone and Leona Helmsley.

Back in the 1980s, my wife and I were notified of an audit. We hired an accountant, sorted through paperwork, sat down with an IRS agent, and ended up owing nothing. The next year we were audited again: another arduous reconstruction of our taxes; another “not guilty.” The accountant surmised that our having returned from three years in a country known as a tax haven might have triggered IRS computers.

So when the third audit notice in three years arrived, we decided we could skip the accountant. I took an afternoon off work and lugged our tax files downtown. An IRS agent checked her calendar and frowned. My appointment was the following day, she said. But I couldn’t take two afternoons off in a row, I said. She sympathized. I proposed returning next week.

“But the funding for these types of audits runs out this week,” she said. “If you can’t come tomorrow, we can’t audit you.”

Imagine my lack of disappointment. 

But that’s the thing about big institutions. Sometimes their seeming arbitrariness can work in your favor. Sometimes they just go away. No other audits occurred. I’m happy about that. Dear IRS friends, I hope you are. 

You can reach me at editor@csmonitor.com.

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