Dumping on the IRS


“Why can’t I get through to the IRS?”

Abandoned in Indiana 

Try working for this company: Your budget has been sliced and diced, your workforce is 17% smaller than five years ago  and your computers are vintage 1985. Meanwhile the company is expanding sales at a rapid rate, and your newest products are more complicated than ever.

That’s the IRS.  Charged with processing 160 million tax returns annually, while handling 100 million phone calls and interacting with more members of the public than any other agency, draconian cuts have forced the Service to cut way back on customer service.   Ten years ago nearly 90% of calls were answered in less than 3 minutes. Meanwhile, both parties load the tax code up with more complexities every year, and as the population grows and lives longer, the number of tax returns continues to expand.

CPA’s have access to a “practioners’ hotline.” I tried calling two consecutive days last week.  I could not even get in the queue — “try calling on another day.” And I have a client being audited — I have to supply the auditor with a copy of the full tax return — his system only allows a skeleton summary.

While politicians make hay about allegations that the IRS targeted the Tea Party, customer service disintegrates.  Wonder why interest and penalties are so high when you get those dreaded letters from the agency for non-filing or underpayment? The fees are assessed as of the tax filing date — let’s say April 15, 2012, but it may take them two years to write to you because of the backlog.

Sure, audits are down, you cheer.  Yet who does this benefit? Not the honest taxpayers (there are some!), not the country’s coffers (official estimates say as much as $385 billion goes uncollected every year .

Yes, you read right,  $385 BILLION  — that could pay for a lot more services, tax cuts, college tuition subsidies, health care — you name it.

To be sure, there are many and complex reasons for the “tax gap.” But studies have shown the IRS collects as much as $10 in revenue for every $1 of enforcement.

Add to the budget cuts the political football the IRS has been for decades and it’s small wonder morale there is low.  So despite my frustration when I wait on hold and patiently explain to the Service that their math was wrong again — with the client paying for my time  — I try to keep some perspective.  They don’t write the tax code and they are — some would say intentionally —being starved of resources so that their customer support and enforcement decline even further, while resentment grows. If anything, I commend many of the ones I interact with for putting up with such circumstances and still acting respectfully and doing their best to help.

You won’t hear politicians campaigning to increase the IRS’s budget — not even Bernie Sanders has gone there! — but I suspect most of them on all sides know exactly what is happening, and why.



Over three decades ago I had my first “teaching interview” with the late Zen Master Seung Sahn, the first Korean Zen Master to live and teach in the West. Seung Sahn was the real deal — sharp, compassionate and very, very funny. He asked  me a Zen koan (riddle) and I replied. He then took his Zen stick, tapped me on the head and gently said in his imperfect but perfectly clear English:


“You Jewish — too much thinking!” 


He was right of course.


Because you asked — and by all means, keep asking.

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