Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

30 Apr 2004, 11:00 a.m.

Compare And Contract

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2004 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Currently reading Confessions of a Tax Collector: One Man's Tour of Duty Inside the IRS by Richard Yancey. I find it quite enjoyable, as I did Scott Turow's One-L (memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School) and Mike Daisey's 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @

Yancey got me with the premise and one of the first lines: "I had just turned twenty-eight, and was wearing a ten-year-old suit with a ten-day-old dark blue tie." Lots of close observations, complex cases nicely narrated, and a sense of suspense in the author's personal transformation. Like Daisey, Yancey uses dark humor and extended metaphors to persuade the reader that the demands of his job pressure him to act amorally and to become an amoral person. Yancey's story, though, is weightier; it tells more and covers a more formidable institution. And he doesn't paint his ethical dilemmas with the broad strokes that Daisey uses; I really won't know till the end of the book what he thinks of what he has done.

Just got to a section on clashes with tax protestors. Oh, the tax protestors. Leonard was kind enough to point me to a report on tax protestors from Reason that softened my heart:

Their attitude toward the Constitution and the statutes and legal decisions regarding the income tax are uniquely Protestant, relying on a layman's ability -- indeed, obligation -- to read and study and parse the original documents himself, to come to his own personal relationship with the law and the cases, and to prefer his understanding to that of the priesthood of lawyers, judges, and accountants.


Not merely Protestant, the tax honesty people are strangely reminiscent of fandom -- of the comic book, fantasy, science fiction, role-playing-game variety. They have the same obsession with continuity and coherence within a created fantasy world of words. It's just that, in this case, that world of words isn't a multivolume fantasy epic or a long-running TV series -- it's U.S. law. When these people try to reconcile the definition of income in this subsection of Title 26 of the U.S. Code with the definition in a 1918 Supreme Court case, it's like hearing an argument over the inconsistencies between a supervillain's origin as first presented in a 1965 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man and the explanation given in a 1981 edition of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man.

The tax honesty movement's vision of the world is fantastical in another way. It is not merely obsessed with continuity; it is magical in a traditional sense. It's devoted to the belief that the secret forces of the universe can be bound by verbal formulas if delivered with the proper ritual. There are numerous formulae in the tax honesty spellbook, with rival mages defending them. Which spell is best: The summoning of the Sovereign Citizen? The incantation of the Constitutional Definition of Income? The banishing spell of No Proper Delegation?

The tax honesty folks similarly believe that their foe the IRS must also be bound by these grimoires of magic: that without the properly sanctified OMB number an IRS form holds no power, that without uttering the mystic word liable no authority to tax can truly exist.

And always, always, the ultimate incantation, The Question: Where does it say that I owe income taxes? Show me the law!

Related: "Reading Code is Like Reading the Talmud".