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By Steve Kelman

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How the IRS scandal is like ethnic profiling

TSA agent

One might not think that questions of airport security and IRS scrutiny would be connected, but Steve Kelman finds a link. (Stock image)

In following the IRS Tea Party scandal, I've been struck by an analogy. The targeting of Tea Party applications for tax-exempt status and debates about whether, say, young male Muslims should be targeted for extra scrutiny at airports raise the same set of issues.

It is simply a fact that most terrorists threatening the United States, Europe or Israel are young male Muslims. A strong argument could be made that random extra scrutiny of airport passengers is highly inefficient – producing bizarre anomalies such as heightened scrutiny for 85 year-old grandmothers – and that ethnic profiling would increase the chance of catching a terrorist. Indeed, this has been Israel's strategy at airports.

Similarly, it is simply a fact that a group such as the Tea Party that is fundamentally a political organization is more likely to violate the (apparently very expansive) rules limiting political activity for social welfare organizations than is a Knights of Columbus chapter that might do a small amount of political activity on issues such as abortion. To treat both organizations the same way is inefficient. Indeed, if one wanted to use more dramatic language, one could say that treating both kinds of organizations in the same way would be an example of government waste.

If anything, targeting young male Muslims is more problematic than targeting local Tea Party organizations. Although most terrorists are young male Muslims, the vast majority of young male Muslims are not terrorists, so in targeting them, the government would be overwhelmingly targeting innocent people. By contrast, the chances that a local Tea Party organization would be engaged in political activity that would produce a failure to qualify for tax-exempt status would seem to be much larger. (To be fair, though, the downside of failure to pick out a terrorist is much greater than the downside of failure to catch an organization that shouldn't be getting tax-exempt status.)

But the demands for ethnic profiling at airports (which were rejected in the United States, even in the height of post-9/11 anxieties) and the IRS profiling of Tea Party organizations both remind us of the old saw that government is not just about efficiency. We are, and should be, willing to sacrifice some degree of efficient performance in government for protection and fair treatment of innocent individuals or groups.

There is an irony here, though, which is that I am guessing that Tea Party supporters and Republican conservatives are more likely than most to have supported ethnic profiling of potential terrorists. There is a second irony, which is that an important mission of the congressional government affairs oversight committees is to promote efficiency in government.

While I definitely agree – as illustrated by the IRS and ethnic profiling cases -- that efficiency is not the only goal in government management, it certainly should be an important goal. Too often in government, the correct statement that government cannot care only about efficiency morphs into a philosophy that efficiency is not important at all – a philosophy that then causes the same oversight committees to rail against government waste. And certainly the efforts to criminalize bad judgment by IRS civil servants here are unlikely to foster a mentality inside government that one should aggressively be looking for ways to be more efficient.

Posted on May 23, 2013 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Mon, Jun 17, 2013 Audit This!

This article is nothing but another attempt to justify that for which there is no justification. While I will agree that there is some justification to suspect that a group with "tea party" in its name may be more political than charitable, that same argument applies just as much to groups with obvious left-wing political leanings. The IRS targeted the right-wing groups for extra scrutiny at the same time that they were rubber-stamping the applications of the left-wing equivalent groups. They deliberately put a hurdle in front of the right-wing groups at the same time they were giving a pass to the left. This would not be a scandal if they applied the same level of scrutiny to all groups irregardless of which side of the aisle their ideology sits.

Mon, Jun 10, 2013

What the author and some of those trying to minimize the corruption of the IRS conveniently ignore is that the IRS excessivel dragged their feet in their investigations of these conservative groups, effectively denying them their legal status for periods for up to two years while expiditing some obvious liberal orgnizations applications AND not only choose to go after conservative groups, but have also gone after well-known conservative individuals. As such, their arguments and comparisons (such as about ethnic profiling) are totally without merit. Comments such as "IRS employees decided that it would be easier to target Tea Party groups as they were most likely in violation of the tax code" and "targeting young male Muslims is more problematic than targeting local Tea Party organizations" are making an ignorant opnion at best, or dishonest statement at worst. I could go into a long disertation as to why those comments are totally false, but I doubt that the people who need to learn this would actually read it and try to understand it. All conservatives know that if the tables were reversed, the liberals and all the news organizations would be making far more noise for demands that the heads of the IRS as well as anyone in the Administration be canned. Itis obviousthat this is a purely political scandal and that most of those making excuses for the IRS most likely do so for political reasons.

Fri, Jun 7, 2013 David Wainwright New Jersey

Excellent article. There is a great deal of similarity between the IRS scandal and ethnic profiling at airports. In both scenarios, a problem arises, Congress wants immediate solutions, the applicable government department has difficulty dealing with the issue, and so employees take shortcuts. We had 9-11 and other terrorist strikes, Congress demanded better airport security. Its not feasible for the TSA to thoroughly search every passenger, so they started random searches, including 85-year-old grandmothers and 4-year-old girls. Because of intense pressure from Congress on the TSA to prevent airline attacks, some employees began profiling Arab-looking men and others that they believed had a higher propensity to be terrorists. Several years ago concern arose that political groups were abusing the 501c(4) section of the tax code. 501c(4) groups are supposed to be for social welfare, and are exempt from paying taxes and disclosing donors. They are prohibited from engaging in political advocacy. Congress demanded that the IRS investigate these organizations, and the IRS initially investigated 501(c)4s of all types. At some point, IRS employees decided that it would be easier to target Tea Party groups as they were most likely in violation of the tax code. Both ethnic and political profiling are wrong. They violate America's democratic values, and are not effective. Once a terrorist group learns that little kids won't be searched, you'll have a tottler carrying C-4 explosives onto a plane. Once conservative groups learn that organizations with liberal or apolitical names won't be investigated, they'll likewise use different names.

Fri, May 31, 2013

Kelman, like all the rest of the liberals, likes to twist the facts to condem conservatives while at the same time praising liberals and liberal groups engaged in all forms of unethical, if not illegal, activities. Hypocrisy and deception is the norm for these people - as also evidenced by the antics being done by the IRS and is supporters in this obvious scandal that should have many people headed for jail if true justice is ever done.

Fri, May 31, 2013

First, the analogy is bunk. You compare a screening process on fundamentally law-abiding citizens engaging in the lawful and generally helpful debate inside the system about who to send as leaders to our government to screening fundamentally non-law-abiding often non-citizens engaging in unlawful and outside the system senseless violence to sway public opinion and government action. Sort of like saying we should hire church greeters and jail guards the same way; how this contorted argument can be taken seriously is beyond me.

Second, the opening line of the third paragraph (I refuse to restate it.) that is purported as a simple fact has a myriad of blatantly false implications. How the supposition that the group is NOT following the laws became part of the narrative reflects the motivation of the author and not the members of the group. Second, lumping all the Tea Party named groups as one distorts the fact that those groups are not centrally controlled at all. Third the accusation that all those Tea Party groups are focused on "social welfare" is absurd; they are concerned with too big a government with too much money and too much power which is exactly what this article seems to justify. But additionally this argument works for every an all political organizations, not just the Tea Party, so it seems the author is justifying all political groups getting their submissions leveraged to the whims of the ruling elite, but not leveraged to engage in the national debate.
Other reader comments - ditto.
If this is what you give us for journalism your publication should be ashamed.

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