Friday, June 20, 2014

Believe It or Not?

Do you believe that someone at the IRS deliberately destroyed Lois Lerner's email?

That's one side.  Here's a slightly more moderate view from Megan McArdle in which she lays out in many points why it probably isn't: An IRS Conspiracy? Not Likely ... Yet
  • I have heard from a number of federal employees who lost data in exactly the way Lois Lerner did.
  • I have also heard from a federal employee who says all of her e-mails have to be archived, on a server. The agency that the latter person works for is, let’s just say, not known as a leading light of federal competence.
These are both consistent with my experience at the Smithsonian.  A few years ago, we were forced to archive email on our desktops, and prune the emails heavily because of limited server space.  Later, they got a big server system that archives it all, whether you want it or not. But that's not the IRS.
  • I am inherently suspicious of any suggestion of a conspiracy, particularly one involving civil-service employees. Not because I think especially highly of civil servants, but because conspiracies are hard to get together, and hard to keep together -- someone is likely to blab. Civil servants have a lot to lose by helping political appointees pursue their partisan agendas and no particular reason to be helpful. If it turns out that the IRS engaged in wrongful conduct, I will be inclined to credit complex sociology-of-organizations explanations (where everyone at the IRS shares an unspoken and perhaps unrecognized belief that people who campaign against taxation are clearly political ideologues, while people who campaign for more environmental spending are just swell, public-spirited folks trying to save the planet). It will take a lot to convince me that career employees at the IRS sat down and deliberately and knowingly engaged in illegal targeting of conservative groups for the purpose of helping Democrats win elections. It will take even more to convince me that they blatantly coordinated with the White House, which would obviously be a ticket to loss of job, pension and benefits, plus maybe a side trip to the pokey.
This is a pretty good description of government, and indeed, most grant funded scientists as I know them, and the most common view by "civil servants" that I'm acquainted with. While they might act in a passive aggressive manner to demands by conservatives, they would rarely knowingly break a (serious) law to further their point of view. The Hatch Act?  Maybe.

However, she did have a ". . . Yet."
  • Groups do manage to get themselves together to do crazy dangerous things, even though this seems, well, crazy and dangerous. The fact that Watergate happened at all is, in retrospect, completely amazing: How did all these guys agree to commit felonies for such a trivial potential payoff? But they did. The tech guys at Bernie Madoff’s firm did decide to help him cover up his Ponzi scheme. Groups of civil servants have gotten together for massive embezzlement schemes. So the fact that a conspiracy is really unlikely doesn’t actually make it impossible.
I expect them to obstruct the investigation to the limit of their ability without making themselves liable for a felony charge. Given that Eric Holder is  Attorney General, that is quite a long ways.

Update: A poem from commenter ken in sc at Althouse:

Lois Lerner took an ax,
gave her hard drive 40 whacks,
when they saw what she had done,
six others too joined in the fun.

1 comment:

  1. The trouble is that for large agencies, there is the "civil service" bunch of bulk employees and there are the political appointee and upper management bunch of "civil servant" employees like the Senior Executive Service. Lerner and her ilk are clearly of the latter category. A whole different set of rules and assumptions apply to them.