Thursday, April 23, 2015

Talking With The Taxman About Poetry (Take II: Send Out For The Advocate)

Yes, I hate to say it:

Of course.
In which a tiny agent
at a tiny desk

with a gleaming
pinprick for a pen

crunched her numbers,
pored over her forms.

--Laura Kasischke, "April"

For many Americans, it's safe to say that April 15 amounts to a day of mourning. Who looks forward to completing those forms, beyond those with a dog in the fight...all of those accountants, collection agents, tax attorneys and related apparatchiks whose labor greases the system? Of course, like so many moments in our stilted national conversation, you won't hear too much honest discourse -- beyond the usual stereotypical hand-wringing about our collective angst over how much we owe Uncle Sam (Scam?).

Then again, fewer societies force their citizens to work so hard -- and so long -- for so little benefit. As the above cover suggests, the IRS's rank and file is struggling with similar issues. Apparently, about half of all taxpayers' assistance calls go unanswered, because there aren't enough agents to handle all the traffic. If you've ever tried to get a human being at an IRS call center, you know what I mean...eventually, you'll get one, but only after a long time. (Half an hour isn't unusual, in my experience.)

It's hard to imagine any business surviving with a 50 percent "go begging" rate, but we should remember that a pro-biz publication like Bloomberg Businessweek often tells only half of the story. Behind the government-bashing ("Same ol' feds, can't even get on the horn to tell you how much ya owe -- nyuk-nyuk-nyuk, snark-snark-snark") are the same dark forces playing those sneaky panther power trip games with our lives...spending untold billions to create the best Congress that their money can buy...which is why the tax code has now ballooned to a mind-boggling 73,954 pages (versus 400 when Americans first began paying it in 1913).

Of course, that's no surprise, given all the goodies that special interests keep demanding. My favorite example is the honey subsidy, which I learned about during the early 1990s. I can still remember our congressman telling me that only 200 people nationwide got this particular tax break. Now, given all the panic about the Incredible Shrinking Honeybee, this hot little item might seem justifiable today...but how many other giveaways still lurk somewhere around the margins? The federal budget -- if you can call it that -- is larded with this kind of stuff.

"And it is for this reason that it is so important for you and me to start organizing among ourselves, intelligently, and try to find out: What are we going to do if this happens, that happens, or the next thing happens? Don't think that you're going to run to the man and say, "Look, boss, this is me." Why, when the deal goes down, you'll look just like me in his eyesight; I'll make it tough for you. Yes, when the deal goes down, he doesn't look at you in any better light than he looks at me." --Malcolm X (After The Bombing [of his home]: Speech At Ford Auditorium, February 14, 1965)

Of course, there's always another side to the story.  Will Bloomberg's cover story make me get out the hankie and start shedding rivers of tears for all those poor IRS agents tasked with shaking me upside down?  Um...the verdict is...not quite. Or, as a certain urban ghetto clown used to say: "It almost brought a tear to my eye. I said...almost."

From a strict customer service standpoint, my encounters with the IRS's Finest have been hit and miss. Last winter, for example, I wrote to inquire if it was possible to reduce our federal IOU (which is somewhere around $6,200 and some change, give or take) based on hardship (since I'm also a caretaker).  What did I get for my trouble? A boilerplate form letter stating that, as far as the agency could tell, I hadn't been assessed incorrectly -- plus a pamphlet in the mail. Gee, thanks, Mr. Wizard!

One other phone encounter from last summer also sticks out, when I had to add another year to our installment agreement. For those who don't know, that's something you wind up doing when you can't pay in full. Your monthly amount typically goes up, which also raises the interest and penalties that they tack on -- which is how people wind up working (literally and figuratively) forever to pay off the same monster that gleefully ships jobs overseas and keeps wages frozen at subzero levels....but I digress.

Anyway, when I explained that we'd have to add another year on the current agreement -- which, if you believe the IRS website, is a fairly straightforward process -- the agent got really huffy. I've dealt with some brittle customer service representatives in my time, but nothing like this woman, who didn't have a chip on her shoulder...more like a towering inferno. I've blacked out most of the play-by-play, but essentially, she said that as the overall amount got larger, "we get really particular about things like that, if you're paying on multiple years..." 

I gently pointed out that, as a practical matter, the "or else" ultimatum might not lead to a positive working relationship...especially since my income fluctuates quite a bit...which means that by the time all that government machinery finally creaks into gear...there's not much left to collect.

No matter. She pressed on and on: I had an obligation...blah-blah-blah...which means the following consequences, real or therefore, you need to consider...blah-blah-blah. Which, roughly translated, means: "We're the biggest, baddest motor scooter...and, by God, you'll do it our way."

Someone forgot to slip Jam Master Jay that particular memo, evidently...when he was murdered, it came out that he owed the IRS $500,000. Actually, the original amount was $100,000, but once all those interest and penalty rocks get the picture. Heads, you lose, tails, you lose.

In the months after that conversation, I responded in two ways. On those rare occasions when I did have to talk with someone at the IRS, I'd continue the conversation if the voice sounded like an older white or black man. If a woman or someone with an accent came on the line, I'd "lose" the call and re-dial. It's nothing personal -- I follow the same policy when I negotiate on my phone bill. When you've been snakebit, your first response is to avoid any creature that starts hissing and flicking its tail.

This month, when the Squawker and I trooped off to the United Way for our annual assistance with our tax return, we asked the volunteer preparer what sorts of options existed for our particular situation. My overall income had dropped roughly 30 percent from the year before, reducing the overall rattling of coins falling into the Man's bucket. (Then again, after the conversation I've cited above, would you feel like taking another run on the hamster wheel, and keep busting your hump?  Like the clown said: "I don't think so.")

Our thought a moment, then pulled out a sheet of paper, and wrote something down on it. He handed it back to me, saying: "Try the Taxpayer Advocate's Office. They're a sub-agency of the IRS, but they don't actually work for them, or get their money from them. I've written down the regional number for you."

The Squawker and I looked at each other, and that same refrain crossed our minds: "I'm from the government. I'm here to help you."  We thanked our volunteer preparer and went home.

We've heard that refrain before, but who knows, maybe there's something to it this time...we'll have to see.  I'll call them up next week and see how it goes. I won't hold any expectations, pro or con, until I hear what's involved. Hopefully, I won't get another brittle woman with a towering inferno on her shoulder...but, like the song says: "You cannot win if you do not play." --The Reckoner

Links To Go (I Owe, I Owe, So Off To Work I Go):
The New York Times: Tax Break
(At Tax Time, No Accounting For Poetry):

And -- How We Got Here From There:
Forbes: IRS Gone Bad: Are Things About To Get Worse?:

The Washington Post:
Declining IRS Workforce Leaves Calls Unanswered

As Tax Day Approaches, Union Says:

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