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5/2/2002
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Secret CIO: Is Technology The IRS's Enabler In Disguise?

IT pros may unwittingly make it easier for the IRS to keep the tax code complicated

Kratmeyer, our executive VP of international operations, rarely talks to me except when he wants something or decides that it's time to make a sarcastic comment or two about the IT group. I'm just as happy that we have this type of relationship. It makes it a lot easier for me to understand exactly which role he expects me to take when we converse: obedient business staff flunky or compliant object of disdain.

But on April 12, when Kratmeyer slammed himself down into the seat opposite me in the cafeteria as I had my morning coffee, I had some trouble discerning which posture I was supposed to adopt.

"Herb," he said explosively, "I just finished my income tax. This year, I bought one of those computer programs to check my accountant, and I'm appalled at all of the nonsense that passes for tax law. I've never completely trusted him. I couldn't believe I had to pay the government so much, and when I ran the program, I found phaseouts and exceptions and all other sorts of idiocies that meant that I paid a lot more than my fair share."

"OK," I thought (to interrupt Kratmeyer when he's fuming isn't a good idea), "you don't like paying so much, but so what? As for your fair share, considering the pain you inflict around here, 110% of gross sounds reasonable to me. Anyway, you make a lot of money, and besides, why complain to me?"

"You know," he went on, "if you IT people hadn't computerized all the IRS stuff, the government would never have had the guts to build in the complexity. If people had to do everything by hand, they never could put in the time to do it themselves, and nobody could afford the money necessary to hire an accountant to do it for them."

And with that, the great man got up and stomped off, no doubt to rip the wings off of a butterfly or reduce a marketing manager to tears, whichever hapless creature he chanced upon first.

I've heard Kratmeyer spout a lot of nonsense over the years, but this monologue was classic. None of us enjoys income tax time, but to blame IT for aiding and abetting the moronic complexity of the federal tax code was silly beyond belief.

On second thought, maybe there was some germ of twisted validity in what he said. There's no doubt that IT people--even those who work in the environs of the Internal Revenue Service--aren't responsible for the mess we have. We don't make the laws; we simply make it possible for the system to function. And, therein, as much as I hate to think Kratmeyer ever says anything worth hearing, he did have a very modest point.

The U.S. tax code is a zero-sum game. There's a finite number of players (the taxpayers) and a given total amount to be contributed (how much has to be collected). If Kratmeyer pays less, then someone--maybe me--has to pay more.

On the other hand, if he pays more (and he can afford it), then possibly I can pay less. It's to each individual's advantage to keep the other guy from getting too many breaks so that there are more deductions available to each of us.

The more complex the rules, the harder it is for any of us to really know whether we're being hosed or catching a break compared with our neighbors. Cynically, any simplification of the tax code would make it harder for our legislators to be able to say to us that we personally are benefiting from their latest addition (there rarely are subtractions) to the volume of tax rules. It's a great system for the IRS.

As IT people, just imagine if we could tell all of our users that we're looking out for their interests by doing more for them, seeking ways to reduce their costs, and getting the necessary money from another department that we service. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

As incomprehensible and politically charged as the tax code is, what does it have to do with IT professionals? How much responsibility do we have for the way the technology we develop is used? Are scientists accountable for the ways in which the atomic bomb is used? Automobile companies for highway carnage? IT for facilitating the lack of privacy in society--and, as Kratmeyer thinks--for helping the government implement a dysfunctional tax system?

My musings came to an end. I decided to finish my coffee at my desk. I don't like to have my morning routine of relaxing a few minutes with a steaming cup of the cafeteria's finest interrupted by a perplexing problem. And Kratmeyer, true to form, had articulated just such a riddle.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty) as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company. Send him E-mail at lovelace@comcast.net.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Herbert Lovelace's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Herbert Lovelace, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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