Magazine | June 22, 2015, Issue

Tax Tech

You’ve heard the promise of nanotechnology: Soon tiny machines will repair organs, fight disease, swarm into enemy facilities to disable electronic devices, or even build self-replicating machines on Mars to prepare the way for colonists. Why, it’ll be possible to build a violin two molecules long, which can be used to play a sad song for stories like one recently posted on CNN.com about how the IRS is too broke to do its job.

We’re not talking about the job of sitting back with fingers laced over the stomach, snoring gently, while automatic deposits flow into the accounts. No, it’s the job of keeping hackers out of their systems. Interlopers got over 100,000 Americans’ tax files last month, and IRS defenders say it’s because they’re too broke to afford a front-door lock.

The IRS says it’s underfunded. Republicans in Congress have slashed the IRS budget for five years straight — the same politicians who now criticize the IRS for not having better security. The agency has 10% less money and 13,300 fewer employees than it did in 2010 — but it handles a bigger workload than ever.

Everyone in favor of the IRS’s handling a smaller workload, raise your hand. Use the one you use to write checks to the IRS. As for those 13,000 fewer employees — the IRS still has 92,000 people on the payroll, which would seem to be enough when your primary enterprise consists of depositing money people send to you.

Last year, the IRS spent $252 million on just the tech and computer side of Obamacare — but got no additional funding to pull off the task.

Last year a lot of people’s premiums went up, and they got no additional funding, either.

The IRS still uses Windows XP, which is dangerously outdated, exposed to hackers and no longer supported by Microsoft. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has said it still uses some tech from the days of the Kennedy administration. Its 19-year-old fraud-catching software is antiquated and ineffective. A project to replace it is severely delayed.

The Kennedy administration? Is that why they got hacked? Someone mailed in a punch card with Frank Sinatra’s Social Security number? As for the fraud-catching software, something from 1996 might be calibrated to scan floppies for Y2K exploits, but things have gotten a bit more sophisticated lately. Some Bulgarian miscreants could set up a honey-pot porn site whose name might appeal to naughty IRS Web-surfers — say, an S&M site called “Interest and Penalties” — and while someone streams the video, caught up in the heady moment when the domineering lady really depreciates that asset, a file gets uploaded that spreads through the network and resets everyone’s password to “password” between 2 and 3 a.m. Provided it isn’t already “password,” of course.

Maybe the worker can’t stream it, because his computer is running XP, an operating system so old its “calculator” app is an abacus. Don’t worry, they’ll run something less porous than a colander, but the project to replace the old computers is “severely delayed.” This means the Exploratory Committee to Explore Tasking the Committee That Will Be Tasked with Exploring Options hasn’t finished putting together the Powerpoint on Key Objectives. More excuses:

Some at the IRS tell CNNMoney it’s not just a matter of budget versus priorities. It’s insanely difficult to create programs to stop fraudsters. Consider the current IRS pilot program to give Americans special PINs. This six-digit passcode makes it harder for a fraudster to file in your name. . . . But many people lose their PINs. If the program went nationwide, the IRS would be inundated with millions of phone calls it can’t answer.

Well, since people cannot be trusted to write down the number and put it in a safe place, we need a nationwide call center (with unionized federal employees, naturally) that will give you the PIN if you can rattle off your Social Security number and a special question about your first pet’s name. What? No, it wasn’t “Fido.” I’m sorry, you can’t pay taxes this year. Try again in 2016.

This story is an instructive lesson on the nature and efficiencies of the modern state: The one thing it requires is the constant nourishment of its citizens’ property, extracted through intervention in nearly every human and commercial interaction — and the bureaucrats still can’t get it right. No one wants a ruthlessly efficient IRS, with armies of grim men in black suits and dark glasses who dispatch Taser drones when someone rounds up a charity contribution too generously. No one, however, wants what we have: an arthritic, gouty colossus incapable of responding to alarms and attacks, pleading poverty and overwork but finding the employees and money to investigate people for the crime of funding the Wrong Side in an election.

Be assured they’ll replace today’s miserable old system with an ugly, confusing program called irsnet or govprog or sourceworks, and it will require a week’s worth of training in a dark room where everyone stares at the instructor with the blank expression of dead souls ferried across the Styx while he drones on about the Multi-Input Task-Selector Option. It will have a thuddingly dull and incomprehensible 57-page manual that goes straight into the drawer, unread. Gradually, workers will adapt to the deficiencies of the new system as they would to a shortened femur. When it’s finally rolled out to every office, it will be the result of a purchase decision made ten years ago, obsolete at its birth, destined to rule for a decade.

And hacked on Day One. There’s only one place to store the information where it will never be seen by outsiders, but Hillary’s not renting out space on her server.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Work-Visa Wisdom

To understand the future of the immigration debate, one must first understand the H-1B visa program. Though not very well known among ordinary Americans, the program, first established in 1990, ...

Features

Politics & Policy

Indefensible Defense

Continual warfare in the Middle East, a nuclear Iran, electromagnetic-pulse weapons, emerging pathogens, and terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction variously threaten the United States, some with catastrophe on a ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

A Rousing Return

There are few stranger curricula vitae in the movie business than the one compiled by the Australian director George Miller. In the late Seventies and Eighties, he was the auteur ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Carry On? Jerry Hendrix is not the first to disparage the Navy’s and the Congress’s decision to continue building and improving the large aircraft carrier. Critics have disparaged this decision all ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ The Clintons have created a shell corporation that exists solely to advance their interests and shield them from accountability. It’s called the Democratic party. ‐ Fox News, which will host ...
Athwart

Tax Tech

You’ve heard the promise of nanotechnology: Soon tiny machines will repair organs, fight disease, swarm into enemy facilities to disable electronic devices, or even build self-replicating machines on Mars to ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

THURBER’S VETERANS They brooded on the porches of Columbus Forty years after ’61, when they went South, crossed the Ohio, battled the rebels And returned. By 1900 there were Still dozens of them left in ...

Most Popular

U.S.

Men Literally Died for That Flag, You Idiots

The American flag’s place in our culture is beginning to look less unassailable. The symbol itself is under attack, as we’ve seen with Nike dumping a shoe design featuring an early American flag, Megan Rapinoe defending her national-anthem protests (she says she will never sing the song again), and ... Read More
Politics & Policy

He Just Can’t Help Himself

By Saturday, the long-simmering fight between Nancy Pelosi and her allies on one side and the “squad” associated with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the other had risen to an angrier and more destructive level at the Netroots Nation conference. Representative Ayanna Pressley, an African-American Massachusetts ... Read More
Books

The Plot against Kavanaugh

Justice on Trial, by Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino (Regnery,  256 pp., $28.99) The nomination and confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was the political event of 2018, though not for the reasons anyone expected. All High Court confirmations these days are fraught with emotion and tumult ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Ilhan Omar Is Completely Assimilated

Beto O’Rourke, the losing Texas Senate candidate who bootstrapped his way into becoming a losing presidential candidate, had a message for refugees who had come to America: Your new country is a hellhole. The former congressman told a roundtable of refugees and immigrants in Nashville, Tenn., last week: ... Read More
White House

On Gratitude and Immigration

Like both Rich and David, I consider it flatly inappropriate for the president of the United States to be telling Americans -- rhetorically or otherwise -- to “go back where you came from.” In consequence, you will find no defense of the president from me, either. What Trump tweeted over the weekend was ... Read More
Sports

We All Wanted to Love the Women’s Soccer Team

For the first time in my life, I did not root for an American team. Whatever the sport, I have always rooted American. And if those who called in to my radio show were representative of my audience, many millions of Americans made the same sad choice. It takes a lot for people like me not to root for an ... Read More
U.S.

The ‘Squad’ Gives a Gift to Donald Trump

On Sunday, Donald Trump gave the Democrats a gift -- comments that indicate he thinks native-born congresswomen he detests should “go back” to the countries of their ancestors. On Monday, the four congresswomen handed Trump a gift in return, managing to respond to the president’s insults in some of the most ... Read More