Recently I got a cryptic bill from the IRS for a small amount of money. The reason for the charges was ostensibly explained on the bill, but in a way that only dogs can hear and IRS agents or tax attorneys can understand. It wasn’t a big deal—I could have just paid it—but I thought I’d call to ask for some clarification because the bill seemed to be referring to something I already had paid.
I knew there would be a phone wait of at least an hour to talk to a human being. But that was okay with me because I could just put my phone on speaker or put my bluetooth in my ear while I worked at my computer and waited. The music was annoying, of course, but not as annoying as some while you’re on hold. It’s frustrating not to know whether it will be a half-hour wait or an hour wait or a five-hour wait or whether the line will disconnect. But after about an hour a person suddenly answered, and asked me why I was calling.
Actually, he asked me what I was calling to dispute. I started by saying that well, I wasn’t sure I was disputing anything, but I had gotten a bill about which I had a question…
And then it began. The “service representative” said—in a voice so nasty and dripping with sarcastic contempt that initially I could not believe my ears—“Excuse me; excuse me, I see you’re determined to interrupt me! Now, this time, how about listening to me? I asked you, what are you calling to dispute?”
I could have hung up right than and there, but I didn’t. More’s the pity, because that was the courteous highlight of what turned out to be about a twenty-five minute conversation that degenerated further and further on his part, although I remained scrupulously polite.
There were a number of reasons why I remained on the line and remained civil. The first was that one-hour wait. I didn’t want to repeat it, and I realized there was no guarantee the next agent would be any better. Perhaps this is the new norm at the IRS—abuse the caller and maybe he/she will never call again (by the way, I’ve spoken to the IRS about twice before to ask questions, both times over ten years ago, and the people who answered had been helpful and pleasant).
In addition, I couldn’t believe I was actually hearing what I was hearing. This person was so egregiously rude—so much like a teasing bully on the schoolyard—that it was both shocking and fascinating. How low would he go and how rude would he get? Throughout the entire conversation, I was cut off almost any time I wanted to explain anything or say anything other than what he wanted me to say (and I couldn’t glean what that might be), and then I was accused of interrupting him, or being unresponsive, or worse.
The man’s statements of supposed “explanation” were as hard to understand as the bill itself had been. It was as though his goal was not only to insult me but to keep information from me rather than reveal it, even simple information that he possessed and that could have shed light on the subject. So another reason I stayed on the line was out of sheer curiosity, to study what he was doing and see if any response of mine would change it, and also to see if I’d ever get the answers.
I could go on and try to describe the rest of the exchange, but only a recording would convey what it was like and alas, I don’t have one. I did get my answers in the end, but only because I persevered. I doubt most people would have. It was an “interesting” experience, to say the least, and one I’m not eager to repeat—which may have been part of the reason it was done that way.
It also was a demonstration of the corruption that goes with power. Power—and the IRS certainly has power—gives IRS employees the ability to vent their inner sadists because they know the people they’re dealing with are, for the most part, afraid of them. Each person one speaks to at the IRS is possessed of information that fully identifies you and makes you vulnerable, and if that person wanted to do much worse to you than merely treat you rudely, he or she probably can. It also became clear to me that the IRS either encourages this behavior on the agent’s part or at the very least could not care less about it; afterwards I looked at a bunch of discussion boards where people who’d been treated similarly had tried to complain and gotten absolutely nowhere.
The IRS is an unchecked behemoth. We already know—from its treatment of the right under Lois Lerner prior to the 2012 election, and from her subsequent behavior and that of others in the agency—what the IRS is capable of when political suppression is the goal. But now it may have come down to routine mistreatment of callers, just because they can do it. After all, who will check them and who will stop them? Nobody.
I had forgotten that when the IRS scandal first broke, even the left was upset by it. That ended after a short while, but here are some examples of the initial reaction that shows the universality of the anxiety:
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said: “There is a reasonable fear by all of us, by any of us, that the kind of power the IRS has could be misused,” she further said that this scrutiny of Tea Party groups was “not fair.”
Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart stated that the scandal had taken “the last arrow in your pro-governance quiver,” he further said that this threw doubt on President Obama’s “managerial competence” and had proven correct “conspiracy theorists,” moving the burden of proof onto federal authorities.
ABC News’ Terry Moran wrote that this was: “A truly Nixonian abuse of power by the Obama administration.”
Even though that sort of bipartisan outrage didn’t endure, it reflected the very real fear of the IRS that even Rachel Maddow was able to acknowledge and articulate. That’s a good reason—one of many, actually—to support the scrapping of the IRS (one of Ted Cruz’s campaign proposals, by the way) and the imposition of some completely different system that doesn’t require so much centralization of power and so much intrusiveness.