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Tax day: 1040 reasons you should know Nina Olson

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"She has very much shaped the office," says Christopher Bergin, publisher of Tax Analysts, a leading tracker of the tax code. "She's tenacious. She's brilliant. She's a hard driver."

Olson describes herself as an accidental occupant of the office. She never set out with a goal of holding a prominent government position, but her background girded her with some crucial job traits: knowing the tax problems Americans face and being unafraid to battle entrenched powers.

Even though her authority on setting tax policy is limited – the job of enacting long-term fixes rests with Congress – she can use her office as an amplifier for the concerns of average citizens. At a time when at least some members of both parties are talking about the need for sweeping tax reform, some of her ideas could capture more attention.

She has been a consistent crusader in particular for simplifying the federal tax code – a tangled tome that today contains nearly five times the number of words in the Bible.

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Part of Olson's philosophy in running the advocate office is rooted in a dirty kitchen. While still in college, she took a break from course work to launch a vegetarian restaurant with friends. They scraped together used equipment to outfit the kitchen. Other than knowing how to cook, "we had no idea what we were doing," she says.

When a public health inspector showed up one day, "he could have shut us down on the spot." Instead, Olson says, he listed the five most urgent problems and said those had to be fixed when he came back the next week. He followed the same pattern for four more weeks. Each time the youthful proprietors got five more things to fix and seven days to do it.

"That was an incredible lesson," Olson says. The restaurant was able to stay in business, all because an official was willing to work with people to bring them into compliance.

The parallel to her current job: As the NTA, she wants to help well-meaning taxpayers get treated fairly and to prod the IRS to be humane in its dealings with people.

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