Are We in an Echo Chamber?

(Beware the following is a codger’s rant.)

As I age — yes, I’m old — I get the feeling that I’ve seen this show before.

Just today, the New York Times had two stories that took me back decades. The first about politically-motivated IRS audits and the second about accounting companies blessing questionable corporate balance sheets.

First, a story about two former FBI officials, James Comey and Andrew McCabe, who ran afoul of Donald Trump. The reporter noted that the odds of a taxpayer getting audited in this way were 30,600 to one. That’s about 5,000 returns out of 153,000,000 last year. Hmmm.

But there’s more. Odds of two men who were the top two leaders of the FBI being audited in the same way at the same time must be much higher. I don’t have the mathematical skill to calculate that, but it has to be a multiple of 30,600. Clearly, not chance, despite the protestations of IRS officials that they were merely following the law.

According to ProPublica, a person earning less than $20,000 per year and claiming the earned income tax credit is much more likely to be audited than a person earning $400,000 – 20 times as much. Hmm. But I digress.

Richard Nixon as president made it known that he wanted his “enemies” harassed, er … I mean audited, by the IRS. (For a contemporary report, see NYT) Nixon had his then-henchman, John Dean, deliver an envelope to the IRS director with 200 names that the president wanted “investigated” by the agency. Nothing actually came of it. The IRS director sealed the envelope and put it in his safe.

Under Trump, the IRS actively investigated two top officials that the president deemed political threats. In these cases, one audit resulted in a larger refund and the other a slightly larger tax bill.

For those who do not file the 1040 short form, the process of taxes is a byzantine tour of the lower reaches of the underworld. Even using tax software, one must wade through dozens of questions about obscure topics taken from the Talmudic IRS Tax Code. That’s a document of more than 44,000 pages. (War and Peace runs to 1,225 pages. Moby Dick a mere 635 pages.) But I digress.

Is history speeding up and getting turbocharged? Nixon tried to have the IRS attack his enemies, while Trump actually did it.

In another tax-themed story, the Times detailed how EY, aka Ernst & Young (why the name change? Just getting hip or running away from something?) blessed a tax shelter scheme for a drug company. As I read the story, it sounded very familiar. Was I experiencing news deja vu?

In this case, the IRS is challenging the company’s tax practices and claiming that EY constructed “an abusive tax dodge” — so abusive that an earlier, different audit firm questioned the practice and got fired by the company.

Twenty years ago the big four accounting firms got into PR and legal trouble because their accounting and auditing divisions had a woeful lack of separation and independence. Like church and state, at least for anyone not named Clarence or Ginni Thomas. The conflict of interest issue in accounting firms has clearly not been corrected.

Are these earth-shattering developments? By themselves, no. Taken as steps along a pathway to damnation, they are worrisome. The crimes are coming faster. The amplitude of the illegality is getting steeper.

At least Nixon’s crimes did not get anyone killed directly. Trump has at least five deaths associated with his attempted coup. Will the next attempt be worse? For there will be another attempt if the premise of this essay holds water.

Let’s hope it’s just the musings of a codger and nothing more.

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David Potenziani

David Potenziani

Historian, informatician, novelist, and grandfather. Part-time curmugdeon.