Pretend you work at the Internal Revenue Service. Actually, let’s make this exercise even more terrible. Pretend you’re an underpaid, low-level clerk working in the understaffed IRS backwater of Cincinnati. Every day, a big stack of files lands on your desk.
Every day, the stack gets a little bigger than the last. Each file represents a new application for a certain tax status — 501(c)(4), a tax-exempt designation meant for “social welfare” organizations. The catch is that they must limit their political campaign activity. According to IRS rules, 501(c)(4) groups can participate in elections, but electioneering must not be their “primary” mission.
Got all that? Good — now let’s get to work. It’s your job to decide which 501(c)(4) applications represent legitimate social-welfare organizations, and which ones are from groups trying to hide their campaign activities. What’s more, you’ve got to sort the good from the bad very quickly, as you’re being inundated with applications. In 2010, your office received 1,735 applications for 501(c)(4) status. In 2011, the number jumped 30 percent, to 2,265, and in 2012 there was another 50 percent spike, this time to 3,357 applications.
So what do you do? You look for a shortcut. Someone at your office notices that a lot of the applications for 501(c)(4) status are from groups that claim to be part of the burgeoning tea party movement. Aha! When you’re looking for signs of political activity, wouldn’t it make sense to search for criteria related to the largest new political movement of our times? So that’s what you do: Without consulting senior managers, you and your colleagues set up a spreadsheet called “Be on the Lookout,” or BOLO, which spells out specific criteria for flagging potentially politically active groups. The spreadsheet lists keywords like “Tea Party,” “Patriots,” and “9/12 Project.”
We’ll get to whether this was right or wrong in a bit. For now, let’s note that there’s a name for the kind of shortcut that the IRS’ Cincinnati office used to pick out applications for greater scrutiny: “profiling.”
By using superficial characteristics — groups’ names or mission statements — to determine whether they should be subject to deeper investigation, the IRS was acting like the TSA agent who pulls aside the guy in the turban, or the FBI agents that target mosques when investigating terrorism, or New York City cops who stop and frisk young black males in an effort to prevent crime.
That’s exactly what the IRS was doing with tea party groups. Not all tea party groups applying for 501(c)(4) status were engaged in campaign politics. But out of all the many groups that applied for such status, wouldn’t any reasonable person guess that a group called “Tea Party Patriots” is more likely to be engaged in campaign activity than, say, a group focused on rescuing abandoned puppies?
The deep irony of the IRS scandal is that people on the political right are being subjected to exactly the kind of profiling that they’ve long advocated in fighting terrorism and crime — and they don’t seem to appreciate it. I’m on their side: This case perfectly illustrates why profiling is wrong — why it’s inefficient, ineffective and morally dubious. The IRS scandal should thus be a lesson to anyone who’s called for any kind of profiling, whether it’s racial, religious or political.
By profiling tea party groups, not only was the IRS applying its rules unfairly, it was also spending a lot of time investigating good guys, and it was letting a few bad guys through without extra scrutiny. If you wanted to make a case against profiling, you couldn’t pick a better example than what happened here.
I suspect that longtime advocates of profiling won’t agree with me. They’ll argue that racial profiling in crime- or terrorism-prevention is more appropriate than the “political” profiling the IRS conducted. That’s because, they’ll likely say, profiling works in those instances. There are numerous studies that show that’s not true — that we simply don’t know whether racial profiling is an effective way to combat terrorism.
Even if tea party partisans don’t buy that argument, they now at least know what it feels like to be investigated just because of their characteristics, not their actions. They don’t like it, and in this case they should trust their instincts. They’re right. Profiling is wrong.Farhad Manjoo is Slate’s technology reporter and the author of “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.” Twitter: @fmanjoo