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The tax man taketh -- and sometimes giveth

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Ann Hermes/Staff

(Read caption) Employees exit the Internal Revenue Service building at the end of the day in Washington, D.C.

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Franz Kafka described an impregnable bureaucracy in his last novel, “The Castle.” George Orwell’s “1984” took all-powerful government to sinister extremes. Even Steven Spielberg’s rollicking “Raiders of the Lost Ark” ended with a shot of an incomprehensibly vast federal warehouse.

We’ve all stood in front of the mist-shrouded fortress wondering how to get some action from the people inside. Sometimes you’re dealing with a runaround at the zoning department. Or a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles breaking for lunch just as your number comes up. Or an unsupportive tech-support specialist. 

From the outside, any institution can look like Byzantium. But when you are inside, you learn the ropes, understand the policies, close ranks with fellow workers, and even feel justified sometimes in bouncing an especially obstreperous caller from one voice mail to another. This is as true with the local food co-op as it is with the Pentagon. It has even been known to happen in a newsroom.

The presumption on the outside is that a bureaucracy is a sea of uncaring robots making arbitrary decisions, incapable of sympathy. The presumption on the inside is that there are barbarians at the gates, that if people would just follow a few simple rules and fill out Form 573(c): subsection d, everything would be fine.

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