Friday, June 7, 2013

Context Matters

Trey Smith

Conservatives have never been enthralled with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). They don't like the IRS because this agency collects taxes from rich people and big corporations, their primary donors. So, anytime they can find a reason to attack the IRS, they will do so with great vigor. Their underlying aim is to shrink this agency which concurrently will shrink government overall.

This goes a long way toward explaining why the IRS is under the gun right now. First, there was the brouhaha over the IRS handling of conservative political organizations like various Tea Parties. Now comes revelations that the IRS has spent too much on training and conferences in the past several years. One particularly egregious example is over $50,000 for a Star Trek spoof video connected to one conference in 2010.

While I agree that this appears to be a poor outlay of federal funds, what I find just as disturbing is the lack of context in media reports. When looking at figures for conferences and training of one federal agency, it begs the question: How does this compare with other federal agencies or corporations of a similar size?

Saying that the IRS spent a total of $50 million over a period of years for conferences and trainings is hard to get a handle on in isolation. Is this more or less than one might expect? We don't know the answer to this question because I have yet to see anyone put that amount in context. When you have an agency with thousands of employees and you feel it is important that they receive adequate training, it is going to cost in the millions of dollars. There is no way around this.

So, rather than focus on numbers in isolation -- numbers meant to elicit a particular emotive response from the masses -- it would be more helpful to delve deeper into the numbers. But conservatives aren't interested in delving deeper into the numbers because, in comparison to the training and conference budgets of say the FBI, CIA or the Department of Defense (federal agencies they are madly in love with), $50 million may not be so astounding. In fact, it may or may not be that large of a figure at all.

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