The Power Of Suggestion

After the last Bull Raker post, a loyal reader wondered:

Can we assume that in your next blog that you will address the injustice the IRS did to Marina Peterson by auditing three years of her tax returns following the 2009 July 4th parade?

No. Given the overwhelming number of problems in the world, I’m not sure how “we” can confidently assume which topic will follow the preceding one. And, in practice, the Bull Raker Blog doesn’t take requests (well, actually, I don’t recall ever getting a request before), but since I was asked so nicely I will oblige. Fortunately, if I happen to make an “ass out of you and me”, then I can’t be entirely to blame this time.

The question above is a great example of the power of suggestion. In fact, it contains multiple suggestions, only one of which — the desire for an article on the IRS targeting of certain tax-exempt groups — may be obvious to the casual reader. A couple of underlying suggestions must also be addressed (and debunked) in order to fully grasp and effectively tackle the issue.

Underlying suggestion #1: The IRS only looked at right-wing or tea party organizations.

This was not the case, as newly surfaced documents show. The terms “progressive,” “Israel” and “Occupy” all appeared on so-called “be-on-the-lookout” lists used by IRS employees reviewing applications for tax-exempt status.

Underlying suggestion #2: The IRS had no reason to suspect any of these organizations of wrongdoing.

The IRS scandal made headlines for days. Far less attention, however, was given to the roots of the crisis. After the 2010 Citizens United decision, when the court ruled social welfare organizations could raise unlimited corporate money without disclosing donor information, there was a spike in tax-exempt status applications under tax code Section 501(c)(4). Several of these groups, like MoveOn and Crossroads GPS, have claimed to be social welfare organizations while spending 50% or more of their funding on political operations — which is against the law.

Were Marina and the East Bay Patriots unfairly targeted? Maybe, and they probably weren’t the only ones. The IRS was clearly wrong to focus on some groups based on perceived political affiliations. But an improper attempt to address the vast amounts of dark money being spent, tax-free, to illegally influence elections should not prevent a proper investigation into such criminal activity, especially since it could have an enormous impact on the future of our democracy.

You asked for it

Ever wonder why it’s so difficult to untangle ourselves from the various messes we’re in? Could it be, at least in part, that we constantly seek answers to questions that are simply not good enough (NGE)? I think so, which is why my next post, regardless of any reader requests to the contrary, will be about a type of NGE thinking that pervades society. I’ve dubbed it the paper bag philosophy, as in can’t-think-my-way-out-of-a-paper-bag philosophy. It’s not as harsh as it sounds, but it applies to just about everyone. Fortunately, I can offer a practical way out of the paper bags we’re trapped in… And I’m a firm believer in the power of suggestion.


10 Responses to “The Power Of Suggestion”

  1. Susan Maloney Says:

    Thank you Kevin for clarifying the fact that the IRS investigated progressive groups equally. This is how the divisions in our country continue….obviously, the conservative social media ran with this initial provacation as fact, when it was not true. Unfortunately, it is hard to unring the bell and the falacy continues.

  2. bristolbullraker Says:

    Thanks, Susan! Speaking of the power of suggestion, we saw Promised Land the other day. It was an excellent movie!

  3. Michael Byrnes Says:

    Kevin, for someone who maintains “I’m sorry. I can’t help it. When I see an injustice, I just have to speak up” you did a good job of dodging the main point of my suggestion. It seems like your reply to my suggestion is a good example of the “paper bag philosophy”.
    I would think that when a woman who is drawing social security and is well within the economic and social confines of the esteemed 99% has three of her tax returns audited it would might involve significantly more important injustice than who can play in the Little League (we could debate the advantages and disadvantages of single sex groupings in childhood activities ). While both may be injustices to fail to see the difference between the two would require a very thick paper bag.
    It may be a coincidence that the IRS audited a woman and her husband for three successive tax returns. This is a couple who file a very simple tax return that most accountants agree would be the last people to be audited by the IRS. That this happened after publicity of the woman’s involvement in Tea Party activities could still be a coincidence, but that stretches the credibility of even those who engage in paper bag thinking.
    Your “debunking” reply is curious to say the least. I am glad that I waited for a month to reply. This makes even more clear the issues that you so diligently tried to debunk.
    While the terms “progressive”, “Israel”, “Occupy”, “patriot”, “constitution”, and “conservative” may have all been on the BOLO list no “progressive” groups have come forward to complain of unfair or unusual treatment at the hands of the IRS. The McClatchy news service (definitively not FOX News) report more than a month ago noted that, “virtually no organizations perceived to be liberal or nonpartisan have come forward to say they were unfairly targeted” since the scandal came to light on May 10. The fact that there was a dedicated “Tea Party Coordinator” at the IRS, a position that had no analogue on the left is revealing to even those with a closed mind.
    Bring forward a half a dozen progressive applicants that were equally harassed by the IRS and we will lay that ‘fallacy to rest. In the absence of such “equal” harassment what we have is one of the most serious injustices and pernicious threats to the viability of our republic that have been fostered by the government in recent memory. Failure to recognize such a threat for what it is, is to put it kindly – amazing.

    Your note about the underlying causes of the crisis that led to the political use of IRS to harass and impede law-abiding Americans based on their viewpoint alone seems to conflate two separate issues. I am not sure what “crisis” you are referring to. Also it is not clear that from description that these 501(c)(4) organizations as “spending millions of dollars on political operations — which is against the law.” is accurate. I think that such organization are violating the law if they spend more than 50% of their funding on political operations. The fact that they spent millions is itself not against the law. Are you saying because Citizens United was a bad decision it is ok for the most feared of government organizations, the IRS, to oppress American citizens for their political beliefs? Sounds a lot like some of the totalitarian countries I have spent time in.
    Kevin – I was beginning to believe that there might be salvation for you with your comment that “The IRS was clearly wrong to focus on some groups based on perceived political affiliations.”, but then your next sentence which talks about “a proper investigation into such criminal activity, especially since it could have an enormous impact on the future of our democracy.”, makes me wonder. What criminal activity are you talking about? Just need a clarification here.
    Well this whole issue is of great importance to the future of our republic and we have come a long way from Jay Carney’s reply to journalists on May 20 that “there were line employees at the IRS who improperly targeted conservative groups.” Washington representative Jim McDermott explained: “This small group of people in the Cincinnati office screwed up.” It is obvious that the IRS issue is much, much more involved. We have learned a lot since then and since your comment on June 30th. One day all the facts will come out of the paper bag.

    Thanks for the dialogue, Mike

    • Susan Maloney Says:

      Yes…perhaps a social injustice. Sabrina Martin would trade places any day with Ms. Peterson for the social injustice in the death of her son Trayvon and the acquittal of his killer.  This political hype regarding the IRS pales in comparison.  A mere inconvenience cannot compare to death.  So, pick your social injustice.   Susan


    • bristolbullraker Says:


      Thanks for the correction about what makes the actions of 501©4’s illegal. I corrected the post to reflect the 50% threshold. Good catch and sorry for the confusion.

      “Are you saying because Citizens United was a bad decision it is ok for the most feared of government organizations, the IRS, to oppress American citizens for their political beliefs?”

      For someone who read my post carefully enough to find the above error, I’m surprised you missed the point I was making. I think we can agree that the IRS, perhaps pressured by the Obama admin, was prepared to go after groups for their “perceived political affiliations”. I contend that had the IRS found any left-wing non-profits, which were perceived as enough of a threat (since, as is the case with right-wing groups, not all left-wing groups have the same political affiliations), the IRS would have wrongfully scrutinized those groups too. The fact that they didn’t target liberal groups for extra scrutiny doesn’t suddenly legitimize those groups’ beliefs or activities, any more than the targeting of some conservative groups automatically delegitimizes what they do. Any group (or individual) should rise or fall based on merit. So let’s have an honest look at what 501©4’s are up to, using a more accurate sampling. What’s wrong with that? Nothing from my perspective; I’ve been writing about the shady practices of 501©4’s for a long time. From the perspectives of Republican and Democratic leaders, however, who seem more concerned about partisanship than actually addressing a problem (i.e. too much money in politics) from which they both benefit directly, evidently a whole lot!

      You’re, of course, welcome to your opinions about what makes one injustice greater than another and that the IRS is “the most feared of government organizations”. Between you and me and Big Brother, I’m much more afraid of the NSA for spying on millions of innocent civilians, including Americans. Or the CIA for routinely dropping bombs from drones and killing scores of innocent civilians in Africa and the Middle East. But what do I know? I guess if the bag fits, wear it, right? 😉

      “Your “debunking” reply is curious to say the least. I am glad that I waited for a month to reply.”

      You didn’t wait a month to reply. You first replied to the previous post two months before this one, asking me to comment on the issue. And, when I did, you write as if I was the one who made a rush to judgment. That’s not only hypocritical, it’s baseless and you’re better than that, Mike. I was very careful not to pass judgment either way on Marina and I stand by my post. I consider Marina a friend and don’t want to see anything bad happen to her. But I’m not privy to her tax records and, unlike you, can’t say for certain that she didn’t do something (wittingly or otherwise) on her tax-exempt status application that warranted closer attention.

      “We could debate the advantages and disadvantages of single sex groupings in childhood activities”

      You’re right. And we might find a lot we agree on, until we get to the part about making single sex groupings mandatory.

  4. Michael Byrnes Says:

    Thanks for your reply. I think we have made some progress and have some areas of agreement.
    I guess I did not catch the point you were trying to make. I do not understand your meaning of the word “threat” in “non-profits, which were perceived as enough of a threat…”. Do you mean threats to the administration?
    I do not think I said or implied that that IRS inattention to liberal/progressive groups “suddenly legitimize those groups’ beliefs or activities”. I was not concerned with legitimacy in any way but only with the use of the IRS as a political weapon. The point I was making is that there was a concerted effort by the IRS to oppress American citizens for their political beliefs. This action by the the political system
    I agree with you that 501(c)(4) organizations should be scrutinized, but by some objective standard of law. It could be argued that there should be no tax preference for such organizations at all. This would also include unions run 501(c)(4)s.
    On the issue of whether the IRS or the NSA is the more dangerous threat to American citizens or to the health of our way of government. I would agree that they both pose threats that are significant. Both have the ability to track the most detailed information on Americans, but what concerns me most is the use this information may be put to. In the IRS affair the government (big brother) has been shown to directly touch American citizens in a most direct and pernicious way. The IRS affair is Orwellian in its character.
    None of us can correct all the injustices in the world and it was not me who was so worried about injustices. You can address all the injustices that you want but I suspect there are more than one can comprehend. Rousseau might be your hero in this respect, but you a far better family man than he ever was. My point was that you mentioned an injustice and I suggested that you take up the cause of one other injustice. For me Marina’s case was an injustice but my concern was much more with the use of the IRS for political purposes. BTW – Marina’s problem with the IRS had nothing to do with any application for tax exempt status. The IRS conducted three successive tax audits which we not related to any tax exempt status. In the first two audits nothing at all was found and in the third a deduction of $800 was questioned. This was settled without and fine or penalty.
    Kevin, I was not criticizing you for rushing to judgment – I can be hypocritical but I am not guilty this time – I was merely noting that by not replying to your June 30 post right away and waiting for a month many more facts came out that changed the complexion of the IRS scandal.
    Yes as you note “We could debate the advantages and disadvantages of single sex groupings in childhood activities” and we might find a lot we agree on, until we get to the part about making single sex groupings mandatory OR prohibiting them.
    Susan – The Trayvon Martin death was a terrible tragedy but I am not sure how it was a “social injustice”. Nor am I sure how the case of Trayvon Martin is at all relative to the discussion about the political use of the IRS that Kevin and I were having. Why not bring up Antonio West? I am sure his mother if she has fully recovered from her wounds would trade places with Sabrina Martin. Maybe Kermitt Gosnell would be a good social injustice case to raise? Or maybe the half dozen youth killed in Chicago, or Detroit or Oakland the weekend before last? The IRS scandal is not hype and is not an issue of social injustice whatever that term means. Does social justice mean we now haw different types of justice and injustice?

    • bristolbullraker Says:

      What I meant to say when using the word “threat” was anyone who isn’t considered an ally of the administration and could be politically damaging to it.

      “BTW – Marina’s problem with the IRS had nothing to do with any application for tax exempt status.” If this is indeed the case, then I can see why you view this as such a gross injustice, though I still have doubts that the two issues are completely unrelated. In any event, it will be interesting to see how the story plays out. Keep us posted.

      “we might find a lot we agree on, until we get to the part about making single sex groupings mandatory OR prohibiting them.” Not necessarily. I can see the value of single sex groupings. To use another baseball example, my daughter plays in the local co-ed league and an all-girls league in Pawtucket. Each one has an important purpose and, time-permitting, we hope she will continue to do both.

      I’m with Susan on the Trayvon Martin verdict. Allowing citizens to racially profile, stalk and kill people sure sounds like social injustice to me.

      • Michael Byrnes Says:

        Thanks for your reply. Good discussion.

        On your last point no doubt the whole Zimmerman/Martin affair was a tragedy and probably preventable. You make it sound like Zimmerman shot Martin because he was a racist or that the Hispanic Zimmerman shot Martin because he was black.

        I am not sure that society or government “allows” citizens to racially profile. For society or government to prevent people from racially profiling would be mind control of the 1984 Orwellian variety. There may be times when profiling is wrong, but there also may be times when it is warranted. People profile from the time they get up until they fall asleep. We all profile in one way or another and there are times when profiling is a natural response to actual conditions. I would bet that we have all racially profiled. Jesse Jackson did in his famous remark some years ago when he confessed he felt relieved when a young man walking behind him on a dark street turned out to be white. We have all avoided driving or walking through certain sections or neighborhoods at one time or another. That is profiling and in most cases it is racial profiling.

        Zimmerman was far from a racist. He dated back women, he mentored black youth, and he stood up for a black homeless man in a civil case. He probably had more positive contacts with black than the three of us combined.

        However, Zimmerman also had negative contact with black youth in his neighborhood. There were at least eight burglaries in the 14 months before Zimmerman’s encounter with Martin. Numerous media accounts admit that “most” of these were committed by black males. Just six months before Zimmerman’s encounter with Martin, two men had broken into the home of a neighbor, Olivia Bertalan, while she was alone with her infant son. She had just enough time to call 911 before running upstairs and locking herself in a room. The burglars knew she was home, but proceeded to rob the place anyway, even trying to enter the locked room where she held her crying child. Bertalan had seen the burglars just before they broke into her house — one at the front door and one at the back. They were young black males. They lived in the Retreat by Twin Lakes. In another case, a black teenager strode up to Zimmerman’s house and, in broad daylight, stole a bicycle off the front porch. The bike was never recovered. Weeks before Zimmerman saw Martin, he witnessed another young black male peering into the window of a neighbor’s house. He called the cops, but by the time they arrived, the suspect was gone. A few days later, another house was burglarized. The thieves made off with jewelry and a new laptop. Roofers working across the street had seen two black teenagers near the house at the time of the robbery. When they spotted one of the teens the next day, they called the police. This time, the roofers followed the suspect so he wouldn’t get away. The cops arrived and found the stolen laptop in his backpack. This was the same black teenager Zimmerman had seen looking in a neighbor’s window.

        I cannot help but think that if this happened in our neighborhood we would be rightfully engaging in profiling or moving out if we could.. .
        On the issue of this being social injustice there have been over 8,000 blacks killed on the streets of American since the day that Martin was shot and more than 90% by other blacks. That’s injustice – social or otherwise.

      • bristolbullraker Says:

        Hi Mike,

        While I understand your point about being unable to stop others from racial profiling, that shouldn’t make racial profiling un-punishable in all cases, like when it helps lead to the killing of an unarmed kid. As for Zimmerman, he isn’t a card carrying member of the KKK but I believe he does harbor racist thoughts. I also feel the term “racist” (along with many other “-ists”) loses almost all practical meaning when we apply it only to the most extreme cases, allowing the subtler, more common, forms to continue to go unnoticed. That’s my 2 cents, anyway.

      • Michael Byrnes Says:


        Thanks for your open and civil reply. I guess we disagree abut whether Z was a racist – clearly he profiled individuals of suspicious activity as we would all do. The prosecution and the FBI found no evidence of Z having racist attitudes in fact to the contrary – but i guess one sees the glass half empty and the other half full.

        Best regards, Mike

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