Friday, May 10, 2013

Just What Should We Expect?

Caption: The IRS building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. What evil are they up to now? Image credit: U.S. Treasury/Wikimedia

It's a day of the week ending in 'y', so it should be no surprise that someone thinks the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is up to no good:

Let’s be very clear: because the Internal Revenue Service holds so much private data, and because it can make people’s lives absolutely miserable, it is of paramount importance in our political system that it both is, and is perceived as, an apolitical entity. If it discriminated against tea party groups that attempted to register as 501(c)4 social welfare organizations, then that’s a grave offense, and it needs to be investigated thoroughly and dealt with severely.

The IRS was wrong to target the tea party. They should’ve gone after all 501(c)4s

Face it, anyone who has ever had to fill out a tax form, and perhaps gotten advice from the IRS that it is in no way to be held responsible for, is going to want to give the IRS the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, that's not a valid reason for assuming it's wrong.

Most of the folks I've seen criticizing this on Twitter, at least, haven't bothered to find out what is actually the norm here. To tell you the truth, I haven't either, but the difference between me and them is this:

I don't assume I know what's going on.

Let's try a thought experiment - suppose you have what you think is a winning strategy for picking lottery numbers, yet you don't ever win the lottery. Is the lottery commission conspiring against you? Of course not. The reality is that the numbers are chosen at random, so even if you understand how those numbers were chosen, the small sample size of winning numbers just about guarantees that you aren't going to win any particular lottery. Any honest mathematician would tell you that.

What we expect isn't necessarily the truth, even when we use logic and reason to arrive at that expectation. In order to understand what you should be expecting, you have to understand what's normal, and how the system works, and what's possible. How the system works in this case is that the IRS is expected to investigate claims for non-profit applications. If, as is the case with the Tea Party, there's a lot of money behind that applicant, then there's probably more reason to investigate.

But what's the norm? How often does the IRS investigate such claims? In a set of Twitter messages today, CNBC's John Harwood explained the IRS's position:

Twitter message(s) from @JohnJHarwood

I've combined the content of several messages into one screenshot graphic. As you can see, to some extent the IRS went beyond what it's expected to do, but there were a great many other organizations investigated for similar reasons.

Expecting the IRS to investigate all of these organizations, as Ezra Klein did in the article I quoted in that first block quote, may be somewhere between difficult and impossible. The IRS, too, will feel the sequestration crunch. Do we really expect them to investigate all organizations, whether they are known to have ties to big money or questionable people or organizations? My guess, and once again it's only a guess, is that we can't really. The number and type of such organizations is bound to increase, given that there is little legal framework for them at the moment. Plus, as we've seen recently, enforcing regulations and the law on those with power and money isn't a big government priority right now.

I can't say whether this is the norm or not at this point, but any serious investigation of this claimed discrimination needs to include a discussion of that point that involves actual evidence. That may take a while, which is probably beyond the attention span of the American public. Meanwhile, though, I'd say if there was any political organization in this country better able to take care of itself, it's probably one of the two major political parties. I suspect they'll soldier on somehow.

Meanwhile, what we should learn from all of this is to ask those basic questions with any story, both of ourselves and the press. What is normal? What is possible? How is the system supposed to work? Ask those questions, and at least you'll have some credible notion what the problem is.

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