The Pale King

Especially since my attention unnecessarily spiralled into the vortex of the latter stages of 2011 OVDI, I have been wanting to read The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. Even without the IRS theme, I would have gravitated in that direction because (1) the book is a sizeable unfinished novel (2) the author committed suicide.


Only after finishing the reading did I take a quick poke at what reality has been folded into the fiction. Well, someone who spent four or five years with the IRS around the 1980s period of the story says the author is “spot on about the spirit of the place.”

This brief pointer to a singular piece of writing will close with two small extracts from the 548 pages to perhaps whet the appetites of other Brockers:

As we understood it, the Spackman paper’s root observation was that increasing the efficiency with which the Service enforced the extant tax code could probably increase net revenues to the US Treasury without any corresponding change in the code or a raising in marginal rates.   [109-110]

No, the author never gets onto FBAR and OVDI and Form 8938, but they all fit the story.

Second and last, a funnier bit, a dramatization through dialogue from near the end, about how another tax guru achieved similar effect:

‘No one could believe it hadn’t been thought of before.’
‘The first tax year it’s actually implemented is ’78, as Section 151(e) of the Code. So ’79 is the first year the new instructions are on 1040s. Six-point-nine million dependents disappear.’
‘From the nation’s 1040s.’
‘Vanish, poof.’
‘As compared to the ’77 returns.’
‘There are no sanctions. Everybody decides simply to pretend the fake dependents never happened.’
‘Netting $1.2 billion the first year.’
‘It’s a textbook éclat.’   [531]

The brilliant change referred to is requiring that SSN be listed along with name of dependent. This detail meshes with an overarching theme of the introduction of computerized data processing into IRS procedures.

P.S. You would never know it from the foregoing, but there are also characters in this fiction. The IRS setting rules, though, and the plot much resembles what Brockers are living through!

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