The IRS owes me $16.35, but I’m afraid to ask them for it. So I decided to complain instead. To you.
Sixteen dollars and 35 cents is what it cost me to purchase, develop and mail one roll of Kodak black-and-white, 35mm film to the IRS office in Oakland, Calif. This expenditure of my money — and time — resulted from that special form of intimacy between oneself and one’s government: the audit.
I am Taxpayer Identification Number XXX-XXX-XXXX (you’ll forgive the secrecy), married, employee of a local university, where I teach, and “proprietor” of the “principal business or profession — author.” It is in regard to my business as an author that the IRS took an interest in me. And so, in the spirit of that occupation, here is my description of “the audit experience.”
An audit starts with a letter, the first sentence of which reads, “Your federal income tax return for the year shown above has been selected for examination.” That passive voice, selected as carefully as your tax return, is what makes the audit letter Kafkaesque. You’re never really sure with whom you’re dealing on the other end.
They, however, know plenty about me: where I live and work, to whom I’m married, how many children I have, what their names are, to whom I used to be married, how often the kids went back and forth between my ex-wife and me (reflected in the column for dependents), who my parents are (from when I was a dependent), which jobs and residences I’ve had during my adult life, what percentage of my income I give to charity (in case they want to contact my rabbi and tell him when I fail to give 10%) and so on.
That is merely the top level of their knowledge. When the folks at the IRS want to dip below the surface, to determine more precisely your coordinates in the vast bureaucratic unconscious of our nation, they conduct an audit. Then you’re really on the couch. Then you must schlep into the public domain that large cardboard box in which you’ve organized all your documentation — the proof that you are, if you are, who you claim to be. The proof, in my case, of authorhood.
The first instruction of the audit letter, underlined and capitalized so as to inspire a vaguely biblical kind of dread, says, “WHAT YOU NEED TO DO.” Under that heading, you are told that you have “10 DAYS” (boldface type in the original) to schedule an appointment. If, during the phone call in which you schedule your appointment, you inquire about the specifics of your case — “Can you tell me what is the problem with my 2002 tax return?” — the very courteous gentleman (in my case) on the other end will tell you, no doubt truthfully, that he lacks that information because his job is to schedule appointments.
The final sentence of WHAT YOU NEED TO DO says, “For further information, see the enclosed Publication 1, ‘Your Rights as a Taxpayer.’” This is your Miranda clause. It stipulates that those in power must warn you about what will happen if you do cooperate and if you don’t. I found a moment of relief in Publication 1, with its calming, unexpected blue font and its statement of “The IRS Mission,” which expresses the grandeur of America’s democratic and utilitarian traditions: “Provide America’s taxpayers top-quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and by applying the tax law with integrity and fairness to all.” When I read the mission statement, I thought: “Ah, I’ve gotten it wrong; it’s not so bad, after all. Their goal is to give me top-quality service, to serve me as a law-abiding citizen of a democracy. They remember what Jefferson said about what happens to governments that fail to serve the governed.”
But that lasted only a few moments, until I perceived the real implication of the sentence: Somehow you do not “understand and meet” your tax responsibilities, which means you’re violating the principle of “integrity and fairness to all,” and, believe us, Sunny Jim, we’ll “help you understand.” Here I imagined a rolling up of sleeves, a small, dark room with a chair, a table and a blazing bare light bulb dangling over my head.
In the week leading up to my appointment, I Rolodexed through a variety of emotional strategies and decided to go with either outrage or amiability. Outrage (effects: protruding face, pulsating vein in forehead, shrill voice): “Do you mean to tell me that with Enron and WorldCom and billions of dollars of unpaid taxes by corporate finaglers, you’re wasting our nation’s tax dollars trying to squeeze a couple of shekels out of me?” Amiability (effects: toothy smile, relaxed jaw, positive thoughts): “I have no idea how my return ended up on your desk, but I’m sure that whatever the problem is, we’ll get it taken care of.” Although outrage comes more naturally to me, I imagined that in this type of situation, John Madden would do better than Ralph Nader, so I went with amiable.
As it turned out, my IRS representative was a very pleasant young woman, a worthy recipient of my amiability. Before she told me why my tax return had been flagged, the two of us spent several hours sifting through the big box that contained receipts for authorial supplies, copies of articles I’d published and other materials proving that I was a writer — one who routinely failed to show a profit, but a writer nonetheless. Satisfied with that, she explained that the disagreement between the United States and me involved some of the space I
claimed for my home office. Handing me Form 4564, “Information Document Request,” she invited me to submit photographs showing the wall-to-wall books, fax machine and photocopy machine that turned what had once been a bedroom into a workspace. In a panic to please, I assured her that I would do that faster than she could say “federal penalties,” and I grinned and shuffled my way out of her office.
That same day, I scurried out to buy new batteries for my old Nikon, found the right kind of black-and-white film, ran back to the store for a second roll after my old Nikon messed up the first one, photographed the questionable space from six or seven angles — leaving little doubt that it was an office — and took the film to the fastest black-and-white developer I could find, even though he was two towns away. Two days later the prints were ready, and I raced them to the post office, where I consulted with the staff to mail them in the most secure and expeditious way possible. As soon as I got back home, I telephoned my liaison at the IRS and, like a little boy anticipating a reward for good behavior, reported that the photos were en route, well ahead of deadline. But not well enough, apparently, for my liaison informed me — as pleasantly as ever — that my case had been decided: The contested space was disallowed.
She must have heard the sound of jaws grinding amiability into little bits when I asked, “Then why did you have me go to the trouble of submitting those pictures?” To that question, I received no reply, but she and I both knew the answer: Because. Just because.
If you’re reading this, I will have been paid something for the trouble the IRS caused me, and that income shall be dutifully reported on Form 1040 (2005), Schedule C, Line 1 “Gross Receipts or Sales.” But next time, if they want photographs, they’ll have to pay for them in advance. After all, business is business. Unless it isn’t.