Many unhappy returns

The final proof, I thought, finally came: the proof that up is down, wrong is right, salty is sweet, the janitor's a genius, the priest's a pedophile and nothing is as it seems. The proof came in the Archie McPhee catalog, epicenter of cool, fun toys and kitsch home decor: The "Elvis" playing cards cost $7, while the "Elvis impersonator" playing cards cost $12. Have we gone mad? The world is still without form and void, and where's your messiah now?

But if you need any further proof that the idiots are running the asylum, the congressional General Accounting Office released its audit of the Internal Revenue Service on March 1 and found out, according to overseer Gregory Kutz, that the "IRS cannot do some of the basic accounting and record-keeping tasks that it expects American taxpayers to do." In other words, they botched it. They can't keep track of their own financial records, sent out $17 billion in errant refunds, couldn't balance their books with Treasury Department records and -- gird yourself to something for this one -- are using computers that date back "to the Kennedy administration," according to an Associated Press account of the accountants.

I thought you should know this. Many of you likely spent this week filing your returns and dripping sweat into a box of receipts. You spent hours getting a migraine from those forms that make as much sense as a schizophrenic who's tossed his meds. And apparently you could give me an abacus and I could figure out your return as well as the IRS, and I can't even figure a tip.

Group therapy

It isn't mean-spiritedness that makes me tell you this now. It's a sense of solidarity. We all feel bedeviled, even tormented, by this government agency, and no one wants to feel alone in their torment. Moreover, no one wants to be tormented by an oaf. If you are going to be victimized, you at least want it to be by someone smart who can get the better of you in a fair fight. Being the victim of someone with missing teeth and a dunce cap on is grand mal humiliation.

And they're mean. Most people regard an envelope in the mailbox from the IRS like they might regard a visit from the Kray twins. I once heard Fran Lebowitz say on a talk show that she'd prefer dealing with the Mafia to the IRS because the Mafia would just break your legs.

Trying to give the agency a bad conscience, though, is like trying to seduce a eunuch. A review of a book on the agency, "The Power to Destroy," quotes one employee instructing tax collectors: "Make them cry. ... If you've got an assessment, enforce collection until they come to their knees."

Or their graves. Bruce Barron was a New Hampshire lawyer who committed suicide after bag men from the IRS started seizing his assets, including $300 from his daughter's savings account, and told his clients to pay any money to the agency instead of to Barron. The Barrons, on an accountant's advice, had claimed an $80,000 loss on a bad investment. Six years later, the IRS decided the Barrons owed $225,000 for the error. Then they dunned Bill Barron to death. His suicide note said he hoped his life insurance would pay the agency. Shirley filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, and the agency settled out of court for $1 million.

Owe, sure

Owe, sure

Since stories like these have been coming out, the IRS has been scrambling to make itself more "user friendly." Now in disputes the burden of proof is on the agency, not the taxpayer. That means that before now, we were all guilty until proven innocent as far as tax errors went. They will also upgrade computer equipment. Maybe they'll get themselves a couple of Ataris.

"The Power to Destroy" notes that the current tax code is "twice as long as War and Peace." Considering this bulk and how quickly government projects happen, who knows if we'll see any real results from the reforms in our lifetime. Until then, Americans react to the IRS like abused children: terrified of making one false move, because no matter how hard you try to follow the rules, you never know what the rules are.

Abuse of power is the same in agencies as it is in parents, and this agency has pernicious control for an awfully long time.

Republicans had planned a bill instituting serious IRS reform, but Senate bickering over various measures, including collection tactics and nonpayment penalties, has stalled the bill. It could miss its proposed April 15 deadline, just like most of you.

"It's a national scandal," said Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.), regarding the audit results. "It seems to me you shouldn't let people off the hook like that."

For further proof that black is white and 2 + 2 = 22, this is the first time I've ever agreed whole-heartedly with a Republican on anything. That's almost as scary as the IRS.

But messes like this are what happens when people who seem to be impersonating accountants are running things -- and cost more than real accountants probably would.

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