For your holiday long-read pile, here’s an excellent ProPublica look at the long-running Republican war on the Internal Revenue Service. Republican efforts to hobble the nation’s tax collecting apparatus stem from multiple ideological beefs, from conservative conspiracy theories about the agency targeting Republicans over Democrats to the usual insistence that waste, fraud and abuse must surely be rampant to far-right hostility toward income taxes, rather than consumption taxes, in general to the war on Obamacare and other specific legislation that the party doesn’t like.
The result is precisely what one would expect: The same Republicans who insist that government cannot do anything right have spent the last two decades making damn sure the IRS cannot perform its core functions.
As of last year, the IRS had 9,510 auditors. That’s down a third from 2010. The last time the IRS had fewer than 10,000 revenue agents was 1953, when the economy was a seventh of its current size. And the IRS is still shrinking. Almost a third of its remaining employees will be eligible to retire in the next year, and with morale plummeting, many of them will.The IRS conducted 675,000 fewer audits in 2017 than it did in 2010, a drop in the audit rate of 42 percent.
Aside from the obvious loss of many billions in revenue—easily enough to pay for, say, a Trump-branded border wall across not just the southern border, but the northern one and perhaps the beginnings of a nationwide plexiglas dome—there is a problem with this, and it is not unsubtle. A decrease in overall investigative experience means tax cheats are more likely to be successful in hiding their crimes. A ten-year statute of limitations means it is becoming increasingly likely that tax cheats can get away with their crimes. And anyone who succeeds in getting away with tax evasion one year is much more likely to attempt to do the same in subsequent years, multiplying lost revenues.
Add that all up, and tax experts warn there is a potential precipice ahead. If American taxpayers begin to believe that the chances of being called to account for even blatant tax evasion have gone from moderate to low to vanishingly low, the number of Americans who will attempt those evasions will skyrocket. It is simple game theory.
Koskinen replied with a speech he’d given many times before and would give again. A collapse in tax compliance was really possible, he said. People will catch on. He worried about the U.S. becoming Italy or Greece. “What I don’t want to do is have somebody later on say, ‘You never warned us,’” he told Congress. “This is your warning.”
It’s worth a read. It’s one thing to nave a national debate over what taxes Americans should pay or which taxes the nation can do without imposing, and another to coax a system into being where most Americans must pay the taxes we have settled upon, while anyone with access to (ahem) a certain kind of accountant can shirk those obligations easily and without consequence. Unless your “ideology” is simple kleptocracy, that seems a mistake.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.