Ethical Bullies, Part 2

You know you’re having a bad summer when you could be asked how your administration is weathering the scandal and you must genuinely reply, “Which one?” Washington scandals have long been filled with equal measures of the profound and the petty. Comedians have fresh material each night because the character list of each scandal is filled with people bearing foibles, everymen who acquire some power and suddenly climb heavenward, and loudly crash earthward, with modern-day wings of Icarus. But some of this lighter fare conceals the darker side of human behavior.

The recent issues with the Internal Revenue Service and their targeting of specific groups seeking not-for-profit incorporation are humorous in their absurdity (the IRS asking for reading lists and content of prayers is as laughable in its bureaucratic hubris as it is disturbing) but offer some real cautions for Americans.

Americans’ disdain for the IRS is legendary and crosses socioeconomic lines. That itself offers some comfort. There is a “we’re all in this together” sense that is as American as the notion of government by the people, for the people. That is what makes this recent scandal so upsetting. Columnist Peggy Noonan in her recent blog gets to the bottom of what makes this different from that more sanguine, egalitarian animus. One of her friends comments that in the gold standard of political scandals, Watergate, it “’was elites using the machinery of government to spy on elites. . . . It’s something quite different when elites use the machinery of government against ordinary people. It’s a whole different ball game.’”

The IRS has grown to be an organism so large that it has developed its own culture, taken on its own agenda. That agenda may be supportive of the presidential administration in power or opposed to it. It WILL be supportive of a larger role for government which will ensure its eternal survival and flourishing. It’s really something quite primal: the purpose for which the entity ever existed is replaced by the continued growth of the organism by whatever means. Comedian Bill Maher, whose comic genius was long ago supplanted by an indulgent biliousness, asked, “Is it unreasonable to target an anti-tax group? This is after all a group that named itself after a tax revolt that wants to abolish the IRS. It’s like when a cop gets shot, the cops kind of take that personally.”

Maher was too clever by half. The IRS collects revenue; it doesn’t provide defense against evil. Maher thinks they should go after anyone, even institutionally weaker prey, which form an existential threat to the growth of the organism that is the Internal Revenue Service. But in accepting that we must also begin to reject the notion that we have a government that, despite a few bad apples, genuinely seeks to serve the public, the citizens who give it power and a mandate. The IRS is not the police, who protect the public from dangerous and fearsome people, but is increasingly fearsome itself. There is something to be grieved there. A close family member, not usually a crackpot, who faces an IRS audit for the first time ever felt constrained in speaking about it with me for fear that our telephone conversation may be under surveillance. I wanted to laughingly dismiss her talk; I couldn’t.

Within this current unpleasantness for the IRS come fresh reminders that it will be integral in the implementation of Obamacare, something that should offer cheer to no one. Those who claim to “know” Obamacare, on both sides, must know more than its architects and implementers, none of whom seem to know much at all until it starts to play out. Its dismal public polling numbers may reflect a number of factors, but there is a necessary push to reverse those numbers to keep the law alive in the court of public opinion.

This is the Obamacare “perfect storm”: an act predicated on “affordability” must prove itself financially, where it won’t matter just how many people are covered and how darn good that coverage is for all kinds of things if the premiums for the young and healthy go up 80 percent, implemented by massive government agencies like the IRS and the Department of Health and Human Services, in which the public has increasingly lost faith.

I wonder if, in retrospect, the desire for broader, bipartisan support (which never materialized) that made affordability such a tenet of the new law, was a grievous error. For now we have an agency that has proven its ability to bully ordinary people, even as they form larger groups. These groups are no match for an institution, a leviathan within a leviathan, which can consume them as it grows in size and stature. Yes, there is hyperbole there. But these huge organisms we call the IRS and HHS MUST make “affordable” WORK. If Obamacare goes down, the larger organisms will get smaller. That can’t happen. The path of least resistance to affordability is the weak. It is the elderly and the disabled in particular. They are, at least once sick, terribly expensive and quite easy to bully. Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia and “selective reduction” and the “abortion assumption” for mentally or developmentally-challenged fetuses seem less gruesome when a huge government agency that has to “make things work” grows too large and self-perpetuating to see that flesh and bone human beings will reap the harvest of their decisions. The IRS and HHS, like other large bureaucracies, have developed their own ethics, and will have sophisticated answers to why the decisions they make are right. Agencies with agendas and “house ethics” have been given tremendous power, and we have much to fear that this power will be abused.

I genuinely hope I’m wrongheaded here. I know that many, many people in government, including people who work for the IRS, have servant hearts and genuinely hope to see a nation and a world positively transformed by their work. But I also see institutionalized bullying at work here, and think that it is not too great a jump to see an organization dedicated to self-flourishing, charged with making a very expensive thing “affordable” as a means to that flourishing, doing what must be done to ensure that the numbers add up. So whether you support the various Tea Party groups or not, or have some dedication to the quirky, sometimes misguided and often cranky groups that have kept our democracy in check for over 200 years or not, there needs to be a serious level of concern about the IRS scandal. Americans deplore anything that would submit healthcare to the forces of bullying (the HMO’s of the 1990s proved that). The IRS scandal reminds us that we ain’t seen nothing yet.

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