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The Pale King Excerpt Chapter 14

Page history last edited by Meaghan Skahan 7 years, 9 months ago

 

The Pale King

David Foster Wallace

2011

 

CHAPTER 14

 

  It’s an IRS examiner in a chair, in a room. There is little else to see. Facing the tripod’s camera, addressing the camera, one examiner after another. It’s a cleared card-storage room off the radial hall of the Regional Examination Center’s data processing pod, so the air-conditioning is good and there’s none of the summer’s facial shine. Two at a time are brought in from the wiggle rooms; the examiner on deck is behind a vinyl partition, for prebriefing. The prebriefing is mostly just watching the intro. The documentary’s intro is represented as coming from Triple-Six via the regional Commissioner’s HQ up in Joliet; the tape’s case has the Service seal and a legal disclaimer. The putative working title is Your IRS Today. Possibly for public TV. Some of them are told it’s for schools, civic classes. This is in the prebriefing. The interviews are presented as PR, with a serious purpose. To humanize, demystify the Service, help citizens understand how hard and important their job is. How much at stake. That they’re not hostile or machines. The prebriefer reads from a series of printed cards; there’s a mirror in the near corner for the on-deck subject to straighten his tie, smooth out her skirt. There’s a release to sign, specially crafted—each examiner reads it closely, a reflex; they’re still on the clock. Some are psyched. Excited. There’s something about the prospect of attention, the project’s real purpose. It’s DP Tate’s baby, conceptually, though Stecyk did all the work.

There’s also the VCR monitor for letting them see the provisional intro, whose crudeness is acknowledged up front in the prebriefing, the need for tweaking. It’s all set pieces and shots from photo archives whose stylized warmth does not fit the voiceover’s tone. It’s disorienting, and no one is sure what is up with the intro; the prebriefers stress it’s just for orientation.

‘The Internal Revenue Service is the branc of the United States Treasury Department charged with the timely collection of all federal taxes due under current statute. With over one hundred thousand employees in more than one thousand national, regional, district and local offices, your IRS is the largest law enforcement agency in the nation. But it is more. In the body politic of the United States of America, many have likened your IRS to the nation’s beating heart, receiving and distributing the resources which allow your federal government to operate effectively in the service and defense of all Americans.’ Shots of highway crews, Congress as seen from the Capitol’s gallery, a porch’s mailman laughing about something with a homeowner, a contextless helicopter with the archive code still in the lower right corner, a Welfare clerk smiling as she hands a check to a black woman in a wheelchair, a highway crew with their hardhats raised in greeting, a VA rehab center, & c. ‘The heart, too, of these United States as a team, each income earner chipping in to share resources and embody the principles that make our nation great.’ One of the prebriefer’s cards directs her here to lean in and insert that the voiceover script is a working draft and that the final product’s voiceover will have real human inflections—to use their imagination. ‘The lifeblood of this heart: the men and women of today’s IRS.’ Now a number of shots of what may be real but unusually attractive Service employees, mainly GS-9s and -11s in ties and shirtsleeves, shaking hands with taxpayers, bent smiling over the books of an auditee, beaming in front of a Honeywell 4C3000 that is in fact an empty chassis. ‘Far from faceless bureaucrats, these [inaudible] men and women of today’s IRS are citizens, taxpayers, parents, neighbors, and members of their community, all charged with a sacred task: to keep the lifeblood of government healthy and circulating.’ A group still of what’s either an Exams or Audit team arranged not by grade but by height, all waving. A shot of the same incised seal and motto that flank the REC’s north facade. ‘Just like the nation’s E pluribus unum, our Service’s founding motto, Alicui tamen faciendum est, says it all—this difficult, complex task must be performed, and it is your IRS who roll up their sleeves and do it.’ It’s laughably bad, hence its intrinsic plausibility to the wigglers, including of course the failure to translate the motto for an audience of TPs who all too often actually misspell their names on returns, which the Service Center systems catch and kick over to Exams, wasting everyone’s time. But are presumed to know classical Latin, it seems. Perhaps really testing whether the prebriefed examiners catch this error—it’s often hard to know what Tate’s up to.

The chair is unpadded. It’s all very spartan. The light is the REC’s fluorescence; there are no lamps or bounces. No makeup, though in the prebriefing examiners’ hair is carefully combed, sleeves rolled up exactly three flat turns, blouses opened at the top button, ID cards unclipped from the breast pocket. No director per se in the room; no one to say to act natural or tell them about the loopholes of editing. A technician at the tripod’s camera, a boom man with headphones for levels, and the documentarian. The Celotex drop ceiling’s been removed for acoustical reasons. Exposed piping and four-color bundles of wire running above the former ceiling’s struts, out of the frame. The shot is just the examiner in the folding chair before a cream-colored screen that blocks off a wall of blank Hollerith cards in cardboard flats. The room could be anywhere, nowhere. Some of this is explained, theorized in advance; the prebriefing is precisely orchestrated. A tight shot, they explain, from the torso up, extraneous movements discouraged. Examiners are used to keeping still. There’s a monitor room, a former closet, attached, with Toni Ware and an off-clock tech inside, watching. It’s a video monitor. They are miked for the earplug that the documentarian/interlocutor stops wearing when it turns out to emit a piercing feedback sound whenever the Fornix card reader across the wall runs a particular subroutine. The monitor is video, like the camera, with no lighting or makeup. Pale and stunned, face’s planes queerly shadowed—this is not a problem, though on video some of the faces are a drained gray-white. Eyes are a problem. If the examiner looks at the documentarian instead of the camera, it can appear evasive or coerced. It’s not optimal, and the prebriefer’s advice is to look into the camera as one would a trusted friend’s eyes, or a mirror, depending.

The prebriefers, both GS-13s on loan from some Post where Tate has unspecified suction, were themselves prebriefed in Stecyk’s office. Both are credible, in coordinated navy and brown, the woman with something hard beneath the charm that suggests an ascent through Collections. The man is a blank to Ware; though; he could be from anywhere.

As is to be expected, some examiners are better than others. At this. Some can actuate, forget the setting, the stilted artifice, and speak as from the heart. So that with these, briefly, the recording techs can forget the job’s sheer tedium, the contrivance, the stiffness of standing still at machines that could run on their own. The techs are, in other words, engaged by the better ones; attention requires no effort. But only some are better...and the question at the monitor is why, and what it means, and whether what it means will matter, in terms of results, when the whole thing is given to Stecyk to track down the line.

            Videotape File 047804 (r)

            © 1984, Internal Revenue Service

            Use by Permission

            945645233

 

‘It’s a tough job. People think deskwork, pushing papers, how hard can it be. Government work, the job security, pushing papers along. They don’t get why it’s hard. I’ve been here now three years. That’s twelve quarters. All my reviews have been good. I won’t be doing rotes forever, trust me. Some of the fellows in our group are fifty, sixty. They’ve been doing rote exams over thirty years. Thirty years of looking at forms, crosschecking forms, filling out the same memos on the same forms. There’s something in some of their eyes. I don’t know how to explain it. My grandparents’ apartment building had a boiler man, a janitor. This was up near Milwaukee. Coal heat, this old fellow fed the coal furnace every couple hours. He’d been there forever; he was almost blind from looking into the mouth of that furnace. His eyes were... The older ones here are like that; their eyes are almost like that.’

 

968223861

‘Three or four years ago, the new president, the current one, got elected into office on the promise of big defense spending and a massive tax cut. This is known. The idea was that the tax cut would stimulate economic growth. I’m not certain how this was supposed to work—a lot of the, like, upper policy ideas didn’t reach us directly, they just trickled down to us through administrative changes in the Service. They way you know the sun’s moved because now the shadows in your room are different. You know what I’m saying.’

Q.

‘All of a sudden there were all these reorganizations, sometimes one right after the other, and repostings. Some of us stopped even unpacking. This is where I’ve been the longest now. I had no background in exams. I came out of Service Centers. I got reposted here from 029, the Northeast Service Center, Utica. New York, but upstate, in the third quarter, ’82. Upstate New York is beautiful, but the Utica Center had a lot of problems. At Utica I was in general data processing; I was more like a troubleshooter. Before that I was at Service Center substation 0127, Hanover NH—I was in payment processing, then refund processing. The Northeast districts were all in octal code and the forms with sprocket holes that they hired Vietnamese girls to sit there and tear off. Hanover had a lot of refugees. It was eight, nine years ago, but a whole different era. This here is a much more complex organization.’

Q.

‘I’m single, and single men are the ones in the Service that get reposted the most. Any repost is a hassle for Personnel; reposting a family is worse. Plus you have to offer incentives for people with families to move, it’s a treasury reg. Regulation. If you’re single, though, you stop even unpacking.

‘It’s hard to meet women in the Service. It’s not the most popular. There’s a joke; can I tell it?’

Q.

‘You meet a woman you like at, like, a party. She goes, what do you do. You go, I’m in finance. She goes, what kind. You go, sort of a type of accounting, it’s a long story. She says, oh, who for. You go, the government. She goes, city, state? You go, federal. She goes, oh, what branch. You go, US Treasury. On it goes, narrowing down. At some point she figures it out, what you’re dancing around, and she’s gone.’

 

928874551

‘Sugar in a cake has several different functions. One, for instance is to absorb moisture from the butter, or perhaps shortening, and release it slowly over time, keeping the cake moist. Using less sugar than the recipe calls for produces what’s known as a dry cake. Don’t do that.’

 

973876118

‘Suppose you think along the lines of power, authority. Inevitability. You’ve got your two kinds of people now, when you get down to it. On one hand you’ve got your rebel mentality whose whole bag or groove or what have you is going against power, rebelling. Your spit-in-the-wind type that feels powerful going against the power and the establishment and what have you. Then, type two, you’ve got your other type, which is the soldier personality, the type that believes in order and power and respects authority and aligns themselves with power and authority and the side of order and the way the whole thing has got to work if the system’s going to run smoothly. So imagine you’re  a type two type. There’s more than they think. The age of the rebel is over. It’s the eighties now. If You’re a Type Two, We Want You—that should be their slogan. In the Service. Check out the blowing wind, man. Join up with the side that always gets paid. We shit you not. The side of the law and the force of the law, the side of the tide and gravity and that one law where everything always gradually gets a little hotter until the sun up and blows. Because you got your two unavoidables in life, just like they say. Unavoidability—now that’s power, man. Either be a mortician or join the Service, if you want to line yourself up with the real power. Have the wind at your back. Tell them listen: Spit with the wind, it goes a whole lot further. You can trust me on that, my man.’

 

917229047

‘I had an idea I’d try and write a play. Our stepmother always went to plays; she’d drag us all down to the civic center all the time on weekends for matinees. So I got to know all about the theater and plays. So this play, because they’d ask me—family, fellows at the driving range—to give an idea what it was like. It would be a totally real, true-to-life play. It would be unperformable, that was part of the point. This is to give you an idea. The idea’s that a wiggler, a rote examiner, is sitting poring over 1040s and attachments and crossfiled W-2s and 1099s and like that. The setting is very bare and minimalistic—there’s nothing to look at except this wiggler, who doesn’t move except for every so often turning a page or making a note on his pad. It’s not a Tingle—it’s just a regular desk, so you can see him. But that’s it. At first there was a clock behind him, but I cut the clock. He sits there longer and longer until the audience gets more and more bored and restless, and finally they start leaving, first just a few and then the whole audience, whispering to each other how boring and terrible the play is. Then, once the audience have all left, the real action of the play can start. This was the idea—I told my stepmom all about it, it was going to be a realistic play. Except I could never decide on the action, if there was any, if it’s a realistic play. That’s what I tell them. It’s the only way to explain it.’

 

965882433

‘There have been frequent studies. Two-third of taxpayers think an exemption and a deduction are the same thing. Don’t know what a capital gain is. Four percent every year don’t sign their returns. Shit, two-thirds of people don’t know how many senators a state has. Something like three-quarters can’t name the branches of government. This is not rocket science we’re doing here. The truth is, most of our time is wasted. The systme kicks us mostly shit. You spend ten minutes filing out a 20-C on an unsigned return, it goes back to the SC, a bullshit letter audit requesting a signature, nothing at stake. And then now in Rotes we’re reviewed on the basis of increased revenue from audits down the line. It’s a joke. Most of the stuff we’re looking at isn’t auditable, it’s just rank stupidity. Carelessness. You should see people’s handwriting—average people, educated people. The truth is, they waste our time. They need a better system.’

 

981472509

‘Tate is a moth at the arc lights of power. Pass it on.’

 

951458221

‘It’s a fascinating question. The background is interesting, if you delve into it. Type of thing. One of the tenets of the incoming administration was the belief that marginal tax rates could be lowered, especially in the top brackets, without caushing a catastrophic loss of revenue. This had been an explicit part of the campaign. Platform type of thing. I’m no economist. I know the theory was that lower marginal rates would spur investment and increased productivity, type of thing, and there would be a rising tide that would cause an increase in the tax base that would more than offset the decrease in marginal rates. There is a whole technical theory behind this, though some dismissed this as voodoo science. Type of thing. By late in the first year, sure enough, the regs are different, the top brackets are lowered. It goes on that way. By, say, two years in, though, it’s fair to say the results contradicted the theory. Revenues were down, and these were hard numbers that could not be fudged or massaged. There were also, I believe, very large increases in defense spending, and the federal budget deficit was the greatest in history. In adjusted dollars type of thing. You have to understand that this was all playing out at a far higher level of government than the level we’re working at here. But anyone could understand the budget problems were a real rock-and-hard-place type of thing, since backpedaling and raising marginal rates again was politically unacceptable, ideologically you could say, as was compromising on the military, and gutting social spending any further would make relations with Congress unworkable. Type of thing. All of this one could almost know just from reading the newspaper, if you knew what to look for.’

Q.

‘Yes, but in terms of what we knew here, at our level here in the Service. Some of it was not in the papers. I know the executive branch had several different plans and proposals they were considering, to address this problem. The deficits, the hard place. My sense is that most of these were not appealing. Type of thing. Understand, all this is filtering down from a great height, administratively. The version we got here on the regional level is that someone very high up in the Service’s structure, someone close to what’s known around here as the Three-Personed God, resurrected a policy paper originally written in either 1969 or 1970 by a macroeconomist or systems consultant on the staff of the former Assistant Commissioner for Planning and Research at Triple-Six. The one that resurrected it was, under this account, an Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Systems, which by that time had absorbed the Planning and Research Branch as now a division of Systems in a reorganization, Systems had, type of thing, although that previous Planning and Research Ac was also now the DCS.’

Q.

‘Now meaning in terms of when the Spackman Memo was resurrected, which was in or around the fourth quarter of 1981.’

Q.

‘The DCS is part of what’s known as the Three-Personed God, the [inaudible] term for the top triad of Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner for Systems, and Chief Counsel. The three top spots in the Service organization. The national office of the Service is known as Triple-Six because of the address. Type of thing.’

Q.

‘These types of high-level proposals and white papers are generated all the time. Planning and research has what amounts to think tanks type of thing. This is common knowledge. Full-time teams exclusively tasked to generating long-range studies and proposals. There’s a famous policy paper from a P&R group in the 1960s, type of thing, on the implementation of tax protocals following a nuclear exchange. Called “Fiscal Planning for Chaos,” which became rather a famous terms around here, a kind of joke when things because hectic, chaos type of thing. Overall, few of them are made public. From the mid-sixties. Your tax dollar at work type of thing. This one that was resurrected in this context, though, was far less grand or explosive. I don’t know its precise title. Sometimes it’s known as the Spackman Memo or the Spackman Initiative, but I know of no one that knows who the eponymous Spackman was, type of thing, whether he was the author of the policy paper or the P&R official for whom the thing was written. It was generated, after all, in 1969, which was lifetimes ago in the institutional life of the Service. Most of them get filed away, type of thing. Undertand, this is a compartmented agency. Many of the procedures and priorities of Triple-Six are simply out of our area. Type of thing. The Initiative’s reorganizations, though, affect us directly, as I’m sure someone has explained. The original paper was said to be several hundred pages in length and very technical, as economics tends to be. Type of thing. But on a general level, the effective principle of the part or parts that came to later light was said to be quite simple and it—[inaudible]—through routes unknown, it came to the attention of parties at the very highest levels of either the Service or the Treasury Department, and created interest because, in the budgetary impasse of the current executive branch, it appeared to describe a politically more appealing way to ameliorate the rock-and-hard-place of unexpectedly low tax revenues, high defense outlays, and an uncuttable base floor in social spending. At root, type of thing, the paper’s proposal was said to be very simple, and of course the current executive approve of simplicity, arguably because this administration is somewhat of a reaction type of thing, or backlash, against the complex social engineering of the Great Society, which was a very different era for tax policy and administration. But it’s preference for simple, instinctive arguments is common knowledge. Type of thing. By the way, I can’t help noticing you’re wincing.’

Q.

‘By all means.’

Q.

‘As we understood it, the Spackman paper’s root observation was that increasing the efficiency with which the Service enforced the extant tax code could provably increase net revenues to the US Treasury without any corresponding change in the code or a raising in the marginal rates. Type of thing. Meaning it directed attention to Compliance and the tax gap. Should I define the gap, type of thing? Is this already defined by someone else? Are you asking everyone the same type of thing for this? Would the Service prefer that I not go into this?

 

 

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