Saturday, July 06, 2013


In Mike Birbiglia's laugh-out-loud routine "Sleepwalk with Me," he talks about a dream he has after falling asleep while watching a news story about war. In it, he finds out that there is a guided missile heading towards his room. He looks up to find military people standing around his bed (it's a dream, so of course there are military people standing around his bed). He jumps up ready for action, and asks "What's the plan?" They say, "It's come to our attention that the missile coordinates are set not just on this room, but specifically on you." As Birbiglia says, "That's very bad. Because that's one thing for which I don't have a plan."

I thought of this bit as I read the report that the IRS wasn't just targeting conservative groups. Turns out they were looking at liberal groups as well, including in their search strings not only phrases like "tea party" and "patriots," but also "progressive" and "occupy." Actually, targeting is probably too strong a word in either case. The agency was using what turned out to be a ham-handed way to cull through the many organizations that claimed their mission was social welfare (and therefore tax-advantaged) but whose focus was actually more political (and therefore not tax-advantaged). So unlike Birbiglia's dream, the coordinates of this "attack" weren't so tightly defined; it was less a guided missile than a cluster bomb. Damage to be sure, but over a much wider area.

All this is in an environment where a large number left, right and center agree that the tax system is screwed up. And not just in complexity, but notably in the area of equality: a system that is supposed to be a level playing field for all isn't. In that light, you would think that most would welcome an attempt to weed out those who seek to take advantage by not paying their fair share. But using this coarsest of data sorting techniques was bound to create issues. And when initial reports seemed to indicate the sorting was skewed to favor, or more accurately, disfavor one political persuasion over another, it created a firestorm. What's funny is that now that we find that the system treated all sides equally unfairly regardless of ideological stripe, we don't really feel that much better.

I think the problem isn't the concept but the target. Just as polls show that while people didn't like the idea of the NSA checking up on them, when told the target was terrorists, a large majority said it was OK.  It may drive civil libertarians up a wall, but it turns out that while we hold freedom from all forms of intrusion dear, seems we hold not getting killed by a suicide bomber even more dear. So a little poking around in the name of safety seems to trump absolute unequivocal individual privacy, Constitution be dammed.

And so if the IRS could identify the boogiemen we all hate a little more accurately, perhaps we wouldn't be so incensed if they give them a little extra scrutiny. What they need to do is refine those search strings a little bit tighter. We know you can't go after left or right, but we already eliminated "conservative," "liberal" and anything that even comes close. Professions probably wouldn't work either; no way that terms like "hedge fund manager" or "lobbyist" wouldn't draw the ire of those groups, and those boys and girls have some serious clout.

So what's left? What group can we target for a sit down with a bespectacled auditor, who will question what they are actually doing versus what they are claim they are doing? We need a search term that defines a group or groups that routinely misrepresents itself, saying it is working for the public good when in reality its constituency is far more narrowly defined, and in many cases includes a monetary interest. A group that mislabels funds and causes, if not to deliberately mislead, than to at least give the appearance of a broader mission, as opposed to its own vested self-interest.

Unfortunately, even if that was the criteria, odds of the IRS making that one work is slim to none. That's because unless I'm wrong, only one term ticks all those boxes and would therefore warrant a little extra audit time. That search string? "Congress."


Marc Wollin of Bedford feels for the IRS, he really does. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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