23 May 2013

IRS scandal = profiling?

Farhad Manjoo, a writer for the Slate website, attempts a bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu this week by arguing that conservatives outraged over the apparent targeting of Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny of their applications for tax-exempt status by the IRS should now oppose profiling as a police or national security policy. The offended TPs, he argues, now know how it feels to be profiled. They were investigated because superficial details -- the words "Tea Party" or other conservative signifiers in their organization names -- caused tax people to suspect that their claims of tax-exempt "social welfare" status were spurious. Moreover, Manjoo argues that the IRS scandal proves again that profiling doesn't work:

The [Inspector General] says that as a result of profiling, there was also a high false-negative rate—investigators were quickly approving certain groups even though they were likely to have engaged in political activity, all because they didn’t fit the profile. This is the Richard Reid scenario: Sometimes, a white guy tries to blow up a plane. Sometimes, two Caucasians blow up a sporting event. If you’re only looking for the brown guys, you’re going to miss those cases. Based on a statistical sample of applications it reviewed, the IG says there were a total of 185 cases that should have been flagged for further review but weren’t. That’s because, instead of looking at those cases, investigators were spending their time looking at groups with “Tea Party” in their names....By profiling Tea Party groups, not only was the IRS applying its rules unfairly, it was also spending a lot of time investigating good guys, and it was letting a few bad guys through without extra scrutiny. If you wanted to make a case against profiling, you couldn’t pick a better example than what happened here.

Manjoo takes the consistent position that profiling on any level is wrong, but he fears that few will be as consistent in their outrage. He expects Republicans and TP types to make a distinction between criminal profiling, which they'll continue to support despite evidence of ineffectiveness, and inherently illegitimate political profiling, which is how they might describe what the IRS was doing. From their perspective, the problem with the IRS wasn't whether or not "profiling" took place, but that any application by a dissident group for tax-exempt status was questioned. Again, the assumption is that dissent should be given the benefit of the doubt, and that anything else amounts to government harassment of dissent. It's arguably the same distinction the IRS official Lois Lerner made the other day, by taking the Fifth, between the official oversight function of a congressional committee and the politically-motivated persecution she assumed the committee chairman to have in mind. When people tasked with enforcing objective rules are not perceived as objective actors, the rule of law takes a hit. I suppose that same argument can be made in defense of profiling, against those who presume that the process is always tainted by bias. The possibility of bias is indisputable, but it's not just the bias of officials that undermines the rule of law. The bad faith of the people at large, the refusal to trust that rules are being or can be enforced objectively, is just as bad -- but the people ought to be able to take care of both problems at once.


Anonymous said...

To my (limited) knowledge, tax exemption is generally provided to a) religious organization which are supposed to remain non-political; and b) Non-profit organizations which exist to give aid and "social welfare".

I don't believe any group with the words "Tea" and "Party" in their name is religious and non-political. Neither, given their disposition towards capitalism in general and their own self-interest, do I believe any such group merits distinction as non-profit seeking or conducive to general welfare.

I am always willing to admit when I'm wrong, but in this case you'll have to prove it first.

Samuel Wilson said...

The tax-exempt status of 501(c)(4) groups depends on a hair-splitting distinction that allows you to remain "non-political" as long as you don't explicitly advocate voting for or against specific candidates. In other words, you can't engage in electioneering but you can, presumably, disseminate ideological propaganda designed to steer people's votes one way or another regardless of a specific election. Given our country's increasing ideological polarization, this is arguably a distinction without a difference.