Representing a Core Concept at and Across the IRS



In “robot world” everything is taken so literally. There can be no art in robot world because robots cannot intend to add any new meaning to the structures in their silicon and wire heads. Metaphor and idiom – placed there by their human creators, is not interpretable, they have no capacity to recognize when their world view has been defined using fuzzy concepts. They have no capacity to mediate or recognize metaphors within themselves and so have no imaginative ability to predict that what is really being said is outside the little box of content they do understand.

In contrast, a defining characteristic of human communication is the ability to recognize and create metaphorical statements. Human capacity to interpret and expand on metaphors, and to invent them on-the-fly, is a defining characteristic of the human animal.

 Because of this human ability, and because of the pressing need to build software systems quickly, and because of the limited capacity of modern computer systems, human software developers imbed metaphor into their systems in the form of the names they give to various data structure elements. (surprised? thought not…) This happens because complicated concepts sometimes don’t have names, as this case study from the IRS proves.

Anthropology 101

Before we get into the details of the IRS, I thought a quick summary of a seminal paper on human “codification” might be helpful. Written at the midpoint of the last century (1950), and published in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Dorothy Lee, a former student of Malinowski, in her paper called “Lineal and Nonlineal Codifications of Reality” describes briefly how different cultures choose different aspects of a thing to create its name.

That a word is not the reality, not the thing it represents, has long been a commonplace to all of us. The thing which I hold in my hand as I write, is not a pencil; I call it a pencil. And it remains the same whether I call it pencil, molyvi, Bleistift, or siwiqoq. These words are different sound-complexes applied to the same reality; but is the difference merely one of sound-complex? Do they refer to the same perceived reaility? Pencil originally meant little tail; it delimited and named the reality according to form. Molyvi means lead and refers to the writing element. Bleistift refers both to the form and to the writing-element. Siwiqoq means painting-stick and refers to observed function and form. Each culture has phrased the reality differently. To say that pencil, for example, applies primarily to form is no idle etymologic statement. When we use this word metaphorically, we refer neither to writing element nor to function, but to form alone; we speak of a pencil of light, or a styptic pencil.

Her main thesis, however, is how the words chosen to create the name have effects on the perception of reality. She goes on to a second example from kinship studies (the study of the terminology used for familial relations between members of different societies). With this second example she shows how different cultures will not have defined even the same KINDS of terms for what our culture would consider basic relationships.

…But the student of ethnography often has to deal with words which punctuate reality into different phrasings from the ones with which he is familiar. Let us take, for instance, the words for “brother” and “sister”. We go to the islands of the Otong Java to study the kinship system. We ask our informant what he calls his sister and he says “ave”; he calls his brother “kainga”. So we equate “ave” with “sister” and “kainga” with “brother”. By way of checking our information we ask the sister what she calls her brother; it turns out that for her, ave is “brother,” not “sister” as we were led to expect; and that it is her sister whom she calls kainga. The same reality, the same actual kinship is present there as with us; but we have chosen a different aspect for naming. We are prepared to account for this; we say that both cultures name according to what we would call a certain type of blood relationship; but whereas we make reference to absolute sex, they refer to relative sex. Further inquiry, however, discloses that in this, also, we are wrong. Because in our own culture we name relatives according to formal definition and biologic relationship, we have thought that this formulation represents reality; and we have tried to understand the Ontong Javanese relationship terms according to these distinctions which, we believe, are given in nature. But the Ontong Javanese classifies relatives according to a different aspect of reality, differently punctuated. And because of this, he applies kainga as well to a wife’s sister and a husband’s brother; to a man’s brother’s wife and a woman’s sister’s husband, as well as to a number of other individuals. Neither sex nor blood relationship, then, can be basic to this term. The Ontong Javanese name according to their everyday behavior and experience, not according to formal definition. A man shares the ordinary details of his living with his brothers and their wives for a large part of the year; he sleeps in the same large room, he eats with them, he jokes and works around the house with them; the rest of the year he spends with his wife’s sisters and their husbands, in the same easy companionship. All these individuals are kainga to one another. The one, on the other hand, names a behavior of great strain and propriety; it is based originally upon the relative sex of siblings, yes, but it does not signify biologic fact. It names a social relationship, a behavior, an emotional tone. Ave can never spend their adult life together, except on rare and temporary occasions. They can never be under the same roof alone together, cannot chat at ease together, cannot refer even distantly to sex in the presence of each other, not even to one’s sweetheart or spouse; more than that, everyone else must be circumspect when the ave of someone of the group is present. The ave relationship also carries special obligations toward a female ave and her children. Kainga means a relationship of ease, full of shared living, of informality, gaiety; ave names one of formality, prohibition, strain. These two cultures, theirs and our own, have phrased and formulated social reality in completely different ways, and have given their formulation different names. The word is merely the name of this specific cultural phrasing. From this one instance we might formulate the hypothesis—a very tentative one—that among the Ontong Javanese names describe emotive experiences, not observed forms or functions. But we cannot accept this as fact, unless further investigation shows it to be implicit in the rest of their patterned behavior, in their vocabulary and the morphology of their language, in their ritual and their other organized activity.

Her main thesis, which she carries forward with a much deeper discussion of terms (and the apparent lack thereof for one culture in particular) regarding linearity, and how this seems to have removed (or at least kept from the formation of terms) notions of cause and effect from the conscious repertoire of the Trobriand islanders.

As I hope to show in the remainder of this section, such “different phrasings” of words which “punctuate reality” differently don’t only occur at the level of major cultural groups. As I’ve described elsewhere, contexts which define terms can be much smaller, both in content and participation, than that implied by the term “culture”.

“Lineal and Nonlineal Codifications of Reality”, Dorothy Lee, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. XII no. 2, March-April 1950

 Terminology Selection at the IRS

Consider the true case of the IRS. This large government body has literally hundreds of application systems and databases all in the domain space of federal tax law administration, and revenue collection. Each system supports different subsets of business requirements, leading to different nuances being important and hence different data structures and functionality being implemented.

This complex and ever-changing domain can (and has) lead data modelers and programmers to the problem of not having enough expressive power in the terminological space (syntactic medium) used to define unique names for their data structures to permit capturing precisely what the structures are intended to represent by their names alone.

Hence it should be no surprise to find the use of metaphor within these systems. Sure enough at the IRS, and in fact, I pronounce, within any human-coded database system, we find ample examples of metaphor within these systems.

At the IRS there is a recognition of the annual event of a taxpayer owing certain taxes. In general, information is captured in reference to this annual obligation event and must remain separable/distinguishable from information concerning other types of taxes owed and other tax event times. Individual income taxes are generally labeled by the type of income tax and the calendar year within which the individual’s income was accumulated.

 One metaphor used by the IRS as a whole to help in this identification of this obligation is to use a designator/reference for the most typical type of reporting form used by the taxpayer when filing that particular type of tax. Hence individual income taxes for one taxpayer are said to be “1040” taxes, even if the taxpayer may have used one of the variations of forms to report this type of tax, such as the 1040A or 1040EZ.

 Another common metaphor used by the IRS to distinguish one taxpayer obligation from another is to set the tax obligation into their proper timeframe by recording the month and year of the last month and year that falls within the taxable period for that type of tax. Hence, the annually reported individual income tax for calendar year 2004 will be designated with a tax period of 200412. This notation aside, the fact that is being recorded by this code is actually a complete time range, at least for the person “in the know” (a participant in the context). The actual duration of this time period is dependent on the  type of tax obligation being referenced. Thus, an individual income tax obligation reported on one member of the 1040 form family will characterize the taxes owed and the current state of payments, balance due and/or to be refunded for the full year beginning January 1st 2004 and ending December 31st 2004. At the IRS, this highly detailed conception and definition of the tax obligation is referred to and recorded through the much simplified metaphors of the tax type “1040” and the tax period “200412”.

 However, it is important to note that the interpretation of the meaning of the tax period “200412” symbol is dependent on understanding the implications imposed on the definition by the tax type. Since the “1040” records a tax obligation incurred over the course of a full calendar year, the tax period 200412 associated with it must be interpreted as representing the full twelve month period. A different tax type (such as quarterly estimated earnings reports, or certain corporate taxes), one that captures a “quarterly” period, would cause us to interpret the same tax period value as a metaphor for only the three calendar months prior to the last day of the month and year indicated by the code.

Complexity and Nuance Beget Terminology

These two metaphors (tax type and tax period) are stored widely and commonly within the IRS systems and tax professionals. Within the IRS however, more idiomatic metaphors have also been defined. One organization I worked with had built a system for managing the case work performed by their staff. Basic information in the system included employees, their work assignments, various statuses of work, and basic summary of tax data. Cases worked by this organization originate from across all activities of the IRS, hence the statuses of cases span the gamut, from examination and audits to collections and penalties. Each case considers issues related to one or more tax obligations.

 The designers of this system, searching for a suitable name to describe the data structure holding this tax obligation information, resorted to the term “return”. A return is, within the broad context of the IRS, the actual instance of the tax form filed by the taxpayer reporting income, payments and credits, exemptions, and balance due or refund owned.

 Within the IRS business function, the tax return is actually one of two ways the IRS has to realize that a taxpayer has incurred a tax obligation. From the perspective (context) of most taxpayers, the tax return is the final step in “settling accounts” with the IRS for a given year. From the IRS perspective however, the return may represent only the initial transaction in a long sequence of events. Once verified and cross checked, in fact, the return and its detail loses much of its utility to a major portion of the remaining IRS process.

 The second way the IRS has to realize that a taxpayer has incurred a tax obligation doesn’t require a return. If the taxpayer doesn’t file one year for some reason, using information provided by employers and other third parties, and in tracking taxpayer’s recent historical filings, the IRS may predict that the taxpayer ought to have filed a return. Even if the taxpayer doesn’t file, if the IRS predicts that the taxpayer should have had a reason to file, they’ll create a record of a tax obligation in their systems. In this case this record could trigger an investigation.

Each organization within the IRS has their own focus and scope of work in administering the tax code. These differences in focus and attention, and the sheer complexity of the tax code, has resulted in pockets of specialization, and has led to the development of separate computer systems in each area. The designers of these systems, working within the context of their respective specialization areas, will most likely have chosen to use the terminology of their local milieu when creating names for the various data structures within their systems. Thus, the symbols they construct to represent the concept of the taxpayer’s tax obligation will be named as the local practitioners most likely use for that concept. The same of course would be true for all of the data structures in their systems. The point being made here, however, is that the one thing that the outside layperson would have expected to be consistently named, the taxpayer’s tax obligation, actually appears under several different names within the IRS’s systems.

What Is Going On Here

 The reasons for this are, in hindsight, fairly obvious to understand. Since the tax code is so complex, the volume of work so high, and the number of processes and special steps it can take to identify errors and fraud and then to carry out remediation, correction and collection of the correct tax, the need to be able to describe the nuances of  status of the concept across the full life cycle has overwhelmed any single term. Much like the old claim that the peoples of the Arctic Circle have twenty or more terms for “snow”, the IRS has had to develop several special terms for the different states and aspects of a tax obligation.

A tax obligation first reported by the taxpayer on a tax return may be copied into systems for validation using data structures given the name “return”. A tax obligation originating from the IRS’s prediction that a tax return ought to have been filed, causes a trigger to start an investigation. Hence, systems that support or track these investigations may have data structures with names like “tax delinquency investigation” or TDI for short. A tax obligation for which a taxpayer has not yet completed payment will have a balance due amount. Some systems may call the data structure tracking this situation a “tax deficiency account” suggesting a similarity to bank or credit “accounts”. Other systems may have defined a structure called a “BALDUE” representing the state of the taxpayer obligation when first created in those systems.

Each of these terms reflect the primary focus or important feature of the tax obligation for the respective organization within the IRS. The fact that no globally-recognized term has surfaced at the IRS to cover all of these variations speaks volumes about the size and complexity of the tax administration job, and of the corresponding complexity and necessary segmentation of the social structures required to efficiently perform the job. If there had been a single term developed and standardized, it would not have made any difference to the terminological outcome simply because each group would still have required some way of describing all of the myriad caveats and special cases which that one thing could endure. Only through the use of metaphor in each area could an efficient language of distinctions be established. Without the variety of terms, communication would always require detailed explanation and disambiguation to achieve.

Lest the reader wonder why such a term as simply “taxpayer obligation”, as used in this text, could not have been chosen to standardize across the IRS community, consider the result of a “tax delinquency investigation”, which was begun through the prediction of the taxpayer’s obligation, but whose results determine that the taxpayer indeed had no obligation. Clearly, the term “taxpayer obligation”, with its positive implication of an actual obligation, should not be used to name the data structure recording the fact that no such obligation exists.


The moral of this story is that sometimes, it just will not be possible to create a single term of reference to be used in all situations. Defining a standard name and then forcing everyone to use it, no matter the context, just will not work to solve the data integration problem. Like the many incarnations of Vishnu, some concepts must appear in different guises and forms, and even with different names, simply to encompass their full breadth.

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  1. […] Representing a Core Concept at and Across the IRS […]

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