The tax man taketh -- and sometimes giveth

From outside, the workings of a big bureaucracy like the IRS seem mysterious and arbitrary. From the inside, it all makes perfect sense. Actually, you could say that about most workplaces.

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

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

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