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June 2, 2011
News Analysis: The Pale King -- Taxes, Tedium, and Transcendence
Joseph J. Thorndike

Full Text Published by Tax AnalystsTM

Every tax professional knows the look -- that mixture of pity and dismay when you tell someone what you do for a living. Sometimes it comes with a flash of fear behind the eyes -- fear of taxes, sure, and probably fear of the IRS. But also, more profoundly, fear that you might actually talk about your job. God help us.

I can almost hear the chorus of complaints that readers are going to raise. "It's not that bad! Some people are really interested in taxes!" Right. If it makes you feel better, you go ahead and tell yourself that. And by the way, I'd love to see the slides from your family trip to Yellowstone last year.

I'll admit that it's probably worse for me. The only thing worse than telling someone you're a tax professional is telling them you're a tax historian. It's a lethal mixture of April 15 and that boring teacher you had in high school. And it's impossible to dress it up as something it's not. I've spent 15 years looking for some way to describe my job that doesn't send dinner companions screaming from the room. I'm here to tell you that there is no euphemism, no obfuscation powerful enough to do the job. People can smell the tedium from a mile away.

Friends Don't Let Friends Do Taxes

Even people who actually like taxes can't help but poke fun. My friend Amity Shlaes, for instance, wrote a whole book about taxes. But in the acknowledgments, she offered me (and Tax Analysts' founder, Tom Field) the classic backhanded compliment: "I'd like to single out Tom Field and Joe Thorndike at the journal Tax Notes, who generously opened the door to their world, a world made entirely of taxes."

Ouch.

If anyone doubts the inherent tedium of taxation, we now have independent confirmation. The late, great literary phenomenon David Foster Wallace singled out taxation as the most boring topic imaginable. In writing his posthumously published novel, The Pale King, Wallace made taxes -- and their administration in particular -- the epitome of soul-killing tedium. "The whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull," he writes.

In the fictional guise of a former IRS employee, Wallace speaks almost fondly of boredom. "I learned, in my time with the Service, something about dullness, information, and irrelevant complexity," he writes. "About negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests and endless wastes. Learned about it extensively, exquisitely, in my uninterrupted year."

Wallace stresses the utility and functionality of boredom, both for individuals and institutions. By embracing boredom, people can achieve transcendence -- an almost Zen-like state of enhanced being that follows immersion in true tedium (one of his characters manages to physically levitate while performing repetitious tasks).

And for institutions, dullness offers practical rewards. "The birth agonies of the New IRS led to one of the great and terrible PR discoveries in modern democracy, which is that if sensitive issues of governance can be made sufficiently dull and arcane, there will be no need for officials to hide or dissemble, because no one not directly involved will pay enough attention to cause trouble," Wallace observes.

The great irony of The Pale King is Wallace's obvious fascination with his topic. Sure, the book demonstrates, ad nauseam, the inherent tedium of technical tax administration (and nontechnical administration, too, like the physical process of opening envelopes to retrieve returns).

But Wallace was clearly absorbed by taxation and tax policy. As Jennifer Schuessler, an editor of The New York Times Book Review, wrote in April, Wallace "pursued tax arcana with an exuberantly obsessive relish that belied the novel's premise that the I.R.S. was the most boring subject on earth." He enrolled in accounting classes and corresponded with tax experts of various disciplines about the minutiae of return preparation, calculation, and administration. He was seriously into tax; setting out to make tax geeks the butt of his literary joke, he ended up part of the joke himself.

A Reviewer's Warning

But that's actually the point of Wallace's book. Or at least I think it is. Before I delve further into a discussion of The Pale King, let me warn you that I am manifestly unqualified to do so. I read history books and trash fiction. The last time I tried to read "serious" literature, I was in college and it did not go well.

But back to Wallace. A central message of The Pale King is the redemptive power of boredom. The book itself is boring, at least for long stretches -- indifferently plotted and endlessly repetitive, it's written to demonstrate, not simply assert, the transcendent possibilities of tedium. Like any other good teacher, Wallace wants to do more than simply lecture to us -- he wants us to experience ennui firsthand.

It didn't work for me, of course; being a literary dolt, I was never destined to experience the Zen state that follows an experience of genuine, bone-crushing tedium.

Or maybe it's that some parts of the book are not boring enough. Because for this tax geek, the sections dealing with taxation -- and tax policy in particular -- were actually fascinating. Wallace manages to put his finger on what makes taxation genuinely attractive to smart folks like the readers of Tax Notes.

At one point, for instance, a character in Wallace's story makes the connection between taxes and civil society. (Don't ask me which character. I get so lost in Wallace's stream-of-consciousness dialogue that I often lose track of who's doing the talking.) "There's something very interesting about civics and selfishness," the character says, "and we get to ride the crest of it."

Wallace repeatedly hints at the profound implications of taxation. "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," he writes. Such statements are self-consciously pretentious and self-mocking. But they have a certain conviction, too.

Civic Responsibilities

Wallace even has something to tell us about corporate taxes, and corporate tax avoidance in particular. "I think it's absurd to lay moral and civic obligations on [corporations]," says one character. "Their only obligations are strategic, and while they can get very complex, at root they're not civic entities."

But if corporations are soulless (and therefore, in some sense, guiltless), flesh-and-blood taxpayers have no such excuse. "What my problem is is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude," one character says. "That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves. That unless it's illegal or there are direct practical consequences for ourselves, any activity is OK."

This passage anchors an extended discussion of taxpaying in a democracy. Wallace seems to be crafting a brief of sorts for civic republicanism and the notion of a common good. But his presentation is framed as a lament for the passing of such ideals. "Something has happened where we've decided on a personal level that it's all right to abdicate our individual responsibility to the common good and let government worry about the common good while we all go about our individual self-interested business and struggle to gratify our various appetites," he writes.

To my mind, Wallace has offered a fine diagnosis of our civic malady, at least when it comes to public finance. Somehow, the notion that taxes are a communal responsibility has atrophied in recent decades. In American political culture, taxes are no longer the price of civilization -- they are the lifeblood of a parasitic state.

As Wallace is quick to point out, we shouldn't romanticize the past. "I'm wary about doing the old-fart move of saying people aren't civic-minded like they were in the good old days," he writes.

As a historian, I'm wary of that, too. But history is about change, as well as continuity, and American attitudes about taxation have changed during the past 40 years or so.

According to Wallace, our weakened version of fiscal citizenship derives from a pervasive sense of alienation among voters. Once upon a time, he writes:


    It seems like citizens -- whether on taxes or littering, you name it -- did feel that they were part of Everything, that the huge Everybody Else that determined policy and taste and the common good was in fact made up of a whole lot of individuals just like them, that they were in fact part of Everything, and that they had to hold up their end and pull their weight and assume what they did made some difference the same way Everybody Else did, if the country was going to stay a nice place to live.

To be sure, there's a whiff of romanticism in this passage. Many Americans have long felt alienated from the state. In fact, back in the not-so-good old days, many Americans were legally excluded from that state -- women before 1918, for instance, or African-Americans before the Voting Rights Act.

Still, modern political rhetoric has become increasingly nihilistic, with government demonized and individuals exalted. Both elements of that dynamic have a long and even noble history, but they have always been balanced by a commitment to common purpose and shared responsibility. Nowadays, those counter-elements seem weak indeed.

At least that's what Wallace seemed to think, and I agree with him. Such themes recur throughout The Pale King, although they are not exactly central to the story. (Assuming there really is a story in this nonlinear collection of ideas fastened between two pieces of cardboard.) The central premise, after all, is that all this tax stuff is boring (wink, wink), and that only by embracing this boredom can people really reach transcendence.

Whatever. Such themes are not the province of Tax Notes -- or most Tax Notes readers, I suspect. They're certainly not the subject for a hopelessly empirical tax historian. Purely as a survival strategy, I focused my reading of The Pale King on passages that were actually interesting. And Wallace's take on taxpaying is one of those passages.

What's more, Wallace knew it was fascinating. When one character objects that taxes are dull, you can hear Wallace's authorial voice in the quick retort: "Sometimes what's important is dull. Sometimes it's work. Sometimes the important things aren't works of art for your entertainment."

But of course, Tax Notes readers already knew that.