A penny for your thoughts

>> Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Maybe you heard about this one over the weekend: an attorney in Detroit gets a bill from the IRS for five cents, which he must pay or risk penalties and interest. Then he gets a letter from the IRS saying the IRS owes him money, but because of the amount--four cents--he has to request it. Understandably confused, he calls an IRS hotline to request clarification, and--predictably--he doesn't get anyone to answer the phone.

Of course there's the to-be-expected "it's not fair" kvetching--

"When I owe them a nickel, I must pay them. It's not optional," he said. "But when they owe me, I have to ask for it."

--but that really doesn't seem to me to be the major thing. Maybe it's because I'm pretty sure that it costs more than four cents of taxpayer money to send somebody a check for four cents (let me add that I'll bet it would cost more than a nickel to collect a nickel, but the bill was probably sent out by computer, which maybe explains everything and excuses nothing). Or maybe it's that I'm unabashedly a tax-and-spend liberal: hey, I like fire departments, public schools, the convenience of highways and while I wish nobody had battleships, if they're going to be a fact of life, I like living in the country with the best battleships, thank you very much. But that's yet another blog entry for later.

No, the thing that actually gets me the most is why is it so typical that the IRS helpline is a completely useless piece of shit waste of time? I mean, let's set aside the triviality of the amounts we're talking about and consider that I have no idea what's happening. Let's see:

  • If the first letter was right and the second in error, the man owes a nickel
  • If the first letter was wrong and the second right, the man gains four cents
  • If both letters are right, the man owes a penny

See, that's the injustice! This poor bastard, is he in the hole a nickel or a penny? Or is he entitled to a four-cent windfall? Only the government knows, and they're not telling! The whole thing is completely Kafkaesque!

I adore Franz Kafka, Kafka is another one of those profoundly religious writers that I can't help admiring, perhaps because his religiosity is of a sort I can understand and might well embrace if I were the religious sort: completely, bitterly hapless, sad and confused. I've heard Kafka described as an existentialist, and that's completely wrong in my opinion; the archetypal existentialist believes there's no meaning to life and the universe, except possibly for what humans attach to it (I believe that myself, actually). Kafka's view, on the other hand, is that the universe has a deep and profound meaning and purpose--it's just that nobody will fucking tell him what it is and they all know, dammit, and it's killing him a little inside even though he has to sort of laugh about it, too (something else about Kafka that's occasionally overlooked, especially by folks who've only read one or two of his stories or maybe The Trial in high school or college--the man was a very funny guy).

It's a view of the universe that would be conspiranoiac if it was better organized. I mean, that's part of the genius of Kafka: it's not that people won't tell him (or his literary alter egos) what the meaning of life is, they just sort of thought he knew and assumed he was being stubborn or was kind of retarded or something.

In a Kafka story, the Detroit lawyer would be named "K." (go figure), and the IRS would be a metaphor for God, and the IRS 1-800 number would be an IRS 1-800 number. And K. would continue to call, having various adventures and maybe an ill-fated sexual misadventure with a plain-yet-unforgettable woman (probably a clerk or a waitress). At the end of the story, a man from the IRS would show up at K.'s door with a large, menacing knife and he would kill K. for not responding to the IRS' "repeated" attempts to contact him about his debt and refund. Then the taxman would drop the penny K. was entitled to the whole time onto K.'s bloody corpse.

Because, per the Franzmeister, that's how God rolls.

So pity the poor Detroit lawyer. Whether the IRS is God or just a faceless, incompetent bureaucracy in the thrall of computers that idiotically spit out incomprehensible junk mail--or whether there's even a difference between the two things (if there is a God, probably not)--the lawyer's fate is the fate of every human being that has ever been or ever will be, his condition the human condition, his crisis of doubt and confusion the story of the human race.


mattw Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 8:29:00 AM EST  
This comment has been removed by the author.
mattw Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 8:30:00 AM EST  

My mom's an accountant, and she would probably say the IRS is more "just a faceless, incompetent bureaucracy in the thrall of computers that idiotically spit out incomprehensible junk mail" than God, but you never know.

I really wanted to make a snarky comment, until I got to the Kafka part, and that's just made me think.

Janiece Murphy Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 9:28:00 AM EST  

Because, per the Franzmeister, that's how God rolls.

How very Old-Testament-y.


Eric Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 9:40:00 AM EST  

How very Old-Testament-y.

While it's tragic that Kafka died relatively young, it's a mercy that he died before the Holocaust. Had he survived (two of his sisters, if I recall correctly, were murdered by Nazis; it may have only been one, not that that would have been less sad or terrible), he would have understood it. That might be something too terrible for a human being to bear.

Leanright,  Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 2:24:00 PM EST  

Eric, as always, your two-cents is greatly appreciated.

Janiece Murphy Friday, January 9, 2009 at 4:28:00 PM EST  

Yikes! I was unaware of his family history - otherwise I would not have made such a tasteless joke.

Sorry, guys.

Eric Friday, January 9, 2009 at 5:58:00 PM EST  

I didn't think there was anything tasteless about your comment, Janiece. And your comment was actually apt because Kafka was attuned to that sort of Old Testament-ey concept of God as a harsh and mercurial father. And Kafka saw tragedy and humor in that, somehow.

I mentioned his family's history because had Kafka lived (he died of TB in 1924), he would have seen something like the hand of that sometimes cruel and temperamental God in the terrible events of the subsequent two decades.

So don't sweat it. There was nothing tasteless in what you wrote, and it was apt.

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