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Vintage 1960s Era Film Shows IRS Defending Its Use of Computers 146

Posted by samzenpus
from the how-I-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-cd-rom dept.
coondoggie (973519) writes "It's impossible to imagine the Internal Revenue Service or most other number-crunching agencies or companies working without computers. But when the IRS went to computers — the Automatic Data Processing system --there was an uproar. The agency went so far as to produce a short film on the topic called Right On The Button, to convince the public computers were a good thing."
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Vintage 1960s Era Film Shows IRS Defending Its Use of Computers

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  • by BitterOak (537666) on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @10:05PM (#46776025)
    What was the uproar about actually? Were people afraid the computers would make mistakes and overcharge them or what?
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      They were afraid the computers would steal their souls through their tax returns.
    • Re:Uproar? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by SuperKendall (25149) on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @10:56PM (#46776245)

      The uproar was that with computers long term storage the IRS could do things like make you pay taxes on something your parents did 60 years ago, or use the power of tagging to harass specific organizations based on political leanings. What absurd notions those people of ancient times had!

      Chuckle.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Tablizer (95088)

        ...[fear computers would] use the power of tagging to harass specific organizations based on political leanings. What absurd notions those people of ancient times had!

        To confuse computers with Democrats, how silly ;-)

      • use the power of tagging to harass specific organizations based on political leanings.

        That's Twitter's job! Just ask Mozilla.

    • Re:Uproar? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ChrisKnight (16039) <merlin@[ ]stwheel.com ['gho' in gap]> on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @10:56PM (#46776247) Homepage

      The 70's are full of TV shows that had evil computer episodes. The plot would revolve around a billing error, and when the protagonist would bring it up with the store they would be told that computers don't make mistakes. Then they would trigger an error in their favor, and comedy would ensue. Partridge family, Eight is Enough, and I think the Brady Bunch. Those are the easy ones that come to mind.

      • Alex 7000 from the Bionic Woman. Hilarious. And what about Cylons?
      • Re:Uproar? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by DNS-and-BIND (461968) on Thursday April 17, 2014 @01:59AM (#46776877) Homepage
        These attitudes persist today. A man used an ATM outside a bank, and the machine made noise but no money came out. His receipt indicated money had been withdrawn from his account, so he used his mobile phone to call the bank and report the problem. He was told there was nothing they could do, could not send anyone to look, etc. He then hung up and called back, reporting that the ATM had spit out too much money. A bank executive and repairman were on the scene in less than five minutes.
        • Re:Uproar? (Score:5, Funny)

          by LordLimecat (1103839) on Thursday April 17, 2014 @03:26AM (#46777109)

          A bank executive... was on the scene in five minutes.

          Sounds legit. I know if I were a bank executive, Id be hanging out near my ATMs just in case "the people" needed me, like some sort of financial batman.

        • Re:Uproar? (Score:4, Informative)

          by oobayly (1056050) on Thursday April 17, 2014 @04:00AM (#46777201)

          Reminds me of another joke:
          A man wakes up to the noise of a burglar in his garden shed, so he calls the police who tell him there's nobody available to respond. He hangs up, waits a minute and then calls the police and tells them "don't worry about the burglar, I've shot him". Very soon, the multiple police cars turn up and are able to catch the burglar in the act. A policeman accusingly says to the man "you said you shot him", he replies "you said nobody was available".

        • These attitudes persist today. A man used an ATM outside a bank, and the machine made noise but no money came out. His receipt indicated money had been withdrawn from his account, so he used his mobile phone to call the bank and report the problem. He was told there was nothing they could do, could not send anyone to look, etc. He then hung up and called back, reporting that the ATM had spit out too much money. A bank executive and repairman were on the scene in less than five minutes.

          I actually had this happen to me at a Home Depot. The self-checkout machine had been loaded with a cassette of $10 bills where the cassette of $1 bills should have been. I got $30 change from my $20, instead of $3. Being a (usually) honest kind of guy, I walked over to the clerk monitoring the self checkout lane and smiled, handed her the money and the receipt and said "No.", and pointed to the machine I had used She and the floor manager had that machine open in less than a minute. I got to see enough

          • by Russ1642 (1087959)

            How many people do you think use cash at the self checkout? I didn't know you even could. The places I've seen you'd have to do the cash transaction with the person monitoring the machines.

            • by Richy_T (111409)

              See it all the time.

            • I personally don't because I don't use cash unless I have to. And then only coins.

              I do see people use cash at the self checkout, and if a client has paid me in cash I tend to spend it by buying at the grocery store.

              • by geekoid (135745)

                "I personally don't because I don't use cash unless I have to. And then only coins."
                I love statements like that. My mind suddenly comes up with some narrative about some crazy crank going on about germ and tracking in cash.

                I know that it isn't true, but still I have fun picturing 'you' shoving dimes into a self check out, hair all mussy and the collar to your sweater turned up. wearing sandals with mis-matched socks.
                On the plus side of this narrative, you shuffle out of this store, get into your Delorean an

            • by Rinikusu (28164)

              I don't use cash, but I frequently get cash back.. It wouldn't have been much difference in this case (they only allow like 10 or 20 dollar increments), but I agree.. I rarely use cash (although I see people doing it).

    • Re:Uproar? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by im_thatoneguy (819432) on Thursday April 17, 2014 @12:04AM (#46776539)

      Probably the same thing that spurs paranoia about automated taxes today. The government knows enough about us that they could easily auto-file/fill our forms every year but people are afraid of admitting how much is known about us.

      http://www.slate.com/blogs/mon... [slate.com]

      • Re:Uproar? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by CodeBuster (516420) on Thursday April 17, 2014 @03:32AM (#46777119)

        The IRS doesn't want to pre-populate your tax forms, aside from lobbying by self interested tax preparation firms like Intuit or H&R Block, because (1) it might be construed as an "official" invoice of what was owed and therefore "complete and correct" and (2) it might serve to tip off potential tax cheats as to what the IRS does and does not know about their income. The IRS enjoys certain advantages from forcing citizens to fill out the forms themselves, under penalty of law for failure to report, and remaining cagey about what they do and don't know to discourage cheating. It's similar in concept to the panopticon [wikipedia.org]. You know that they could be watching anyone and anything at anytime even if they cannot as a practical matter watch everyone and everything all of the time. Because taxpayers are kept in the dark with regard to what the IRS knows about their income, they behave as if the IRS knows everything and that everyone and everything is being watched all of the time. This panopticon effect magnifies the effectiveness of limited IRS auditing and investigative resources because many people behave themselves, even though they aren't being given special attention, merely because they fear what will happen if the IRS does catch them in a deliberate lie.

        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          The old appeal to authority works every time. If your doctor is fifteen minutes late for your appointment, suck it up, buttercup. But if you're fifteen minutes late, they just might charge you for the visit and tell you to go home because the doc is seeing another patient right now. Or just banging an assistant. And if you overpay, the IRS might well keep it, but if you underpay your ass is theirs.

          Or, you know, if they decide at any time that you might have underpaid once.

          • by mmell (832646) <mmell@hotmail.com> on Thursday April 17, 2014 @11:05AM (#46779333)
            They caught me in 1983 for failing to file taxes in 1979. Long story short - I told the IRS auditor that I hadn't filed because my income was less than five thousand dollars and I believed with such a small income that year I didn't have to. Dopey me!

            Turns out I was due a two hundred dollar refund that year. The IRS had a check in my hand within a month for over three hundred dollars - even though the error was entirely mine, my money earned interest while in the government's coffers. Upon detecting my error, the IRS promptly corrected the situation in accordance with their rules.

            A tiny, anecdotal example: but I have to say that the IRS is, on the whole, honest. What they do may (IMHO) be offensive, but the agency itself is merely an aspect of the current US Government. It is not inherently good or evil by itself. Closing caveat - this is a personal anecdote, your mileage may vary, past performance should not be taken as an indicator for future performance, etc.

            • by Richy_T (111409)

              I have a refund check for 28c at home. I didn't have the heart to cash it.

              • by thegarbz (1787294)

                I got one of those from my local ISP. They overcharged me 20c when I left them for a better deal elsewhere. I'm malevolently not cashing it. They send me a monthly reminder that my account is in the positive asking me for my details to refund. They way I figure it would have cost them over $10 already in mailing me the reminder letters.

            • Over the years I have made mistakes on my taxes (before the last 5 years where the process of assessing data has become a WWW process) I have never once had the IRS 'screw' me on a mistake. If they said I owed them money... a careful review of the facts showed I was in err. And in other cases I was wrong in in their favor and they corrected the err, and even telling me what err I made.

              On the other hand....

              When I owed them money and could not pay, they were more vicious than the worst debt collector I can

        • by TheSunborn (68004)

          Really? Is it true that the tax from is not pre-filled in USA?

          So are values such an interest paid to the bank, and income from stocks not pre-filled?

          • by tsqr (808554)

            So are values such an interest paid to the bank, and income from stocks not pre-filled?

            Nope. You get the blank forms from the government, W-2 (employer statements containing income and withholding numbers), and statements from banks and investment firms. Employers and banks and such are required by law to deliver the tax statements by the end of January each year, but it's not uncommon for financial institutions to be significantly late (this is a popular reason for the filing of extensions). Lots of opportunities for transpositions and transcription errors as you manually copy numbers fro

          • Nope. However, the IRS is perfectly capable of correcting you if you enter the wrong numbers. I entered the wrong numbers once for interest and dividends (got them confused), and the IRS caught it. Then, when I explained my mistake, they sent me another polite letter informing me that they'd determined I was correct and owed no more than I'd paid, and how to appeal the decision if I wanted to.

        • by Richy_T (111409)

          In the UK, this happens and is called Pay-As-You-Earn. You usually don't receive a refund or pay extra if you're out, your taxes are just adjusted for the following year.

    • Were people afraid the computers would make mistakes and overcharge them or what?

      They were afraid that the computer will send them a bill asking them to either pay $0.00 or to go directly to jail.

      • by volpe (58112)

        This was the plot of an episode of The Partridge Family (except for the jail part). Shirley eventually solved the problem by mailing the collector a check for $0.00.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      'Big Brother' It was mostly whipped up by the media.
      Along with that, ignorant religious people made mark of the beast comparisons.

  • by MikeBabcock (65886) <mtb-slashdot@mikebabcock.ca> on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @10:10PM (#46776055) Homepage Journal

    What else would the public be familiar with computers doing in the late 50's that would help them have context for this decision?

    It seems to me that the computer was still an unknown entity to most people at the time.

  • Original Source (Score:5, Informative)

    by nmb3000 (741169) <nmb3000@that-google-mail-site.com> on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @10:16PM (#46776083) Homepage Journal

    For those not interested in helping useless middle-man ad farms, here's the original source on the National Archives website (including the YouTube video):

    How Computers Changed the Tax Game [archives.gov]

  • People hate to see the government spending money on new technology which is why so many places have software and hardware that would have been retired in a commercial environment a decade earlier.
  • by chriswaco (37809) on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @10:41PM (#46776163)

    People were afraid of being treated like numbers rather than human beings. It was a very different era.

  • by jfdavis668 (1414919) on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @11:05PM (#46776295)
    They will go away in a few years.
    • by Tablizer (95088)

      That might be the case if all these security annoyances keep growing: it will be cheaper to do shit by hand than to clean up automation-assisted messes.

  • I'll say I've found the IRS way easier to deal with then some of the other Creditors I've had. If my wages had kept pace with inflation and I got socialized medicine for my taxes instead of broken down buildings built by corrupt contractors in Iraq I wouldn't even have anything to complain about...
    • by gordo3000 (785698)

      unfortunately, I doubt you pay enough to validate socialized medicine. Go take a look at jus the income tax rates in countries with socialized medicine. In the UK, taxes (plus the equivalent of SS and medicare) start at 28% for the first 50k USD of income (or there a bouts) and then jumps to 48% from there on out. I've lived there, add in 22% VAT and that is how you pay for it.

      • since when has taxes ever had any relation to how much the government spends? (at least for the US)

        never in my memory, they have been talking about the budget deficit since at least the 80's

      • I do. The thing that you're ignoring is this: the combination of my insurance premiums through work; my employer's premiums to the same insurers; medicare; medicaid; VA and a few others dwarfs - on a per-capita basis - what anyone else in the world pays for coverage. And that coverage, in case you haven't noticed, is ridiculously complex with tremendous gaps and inefficiencies that make the whole experience much, much worse than any dealings with the IRS - and I've had a few. In each case I found the IRS to
      • So yeah, I kinda do. Especially if you take my health insurance premiums into account.

        But as the saying goes, never let a facts get in the way of a good right wing fallacy :P
  • Ah the good ole days before the IRS collected and data mined all our credit card transactions.

  • I'd like to see a vid made using the same legacy style and feel to explain the Heartbleed bug.

    "No, Heartbleed-related viruses will not attack your physical heart nor your body. However, your devices may not fare so well if you don't take the following precautions..."

  • by slashmydots (2189826) on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @11:58PM (#46776515)
    If you're about to say they were correct, hold on a minute. Without the aide of computers, the tax laws wouldn't be this complicated. No human could ever interpret and correctly follow tax law as it sits right now. So all these computers caused it to grow completely insane and waste small business owner's time.
    • That's a load of crap. Give one example of computers interpreting tax law. Fact is the tax code is pretty simple for the vast majority of individuals and small businesses. It does become complicated for big business, largely as a result of all the arcane loopholes and exemptions those businesses themselves had written into the tax code. Most tax "reformers" want to simplify the tax code by simply doing away with taxes on big businesses and as a result there would be no need for all the associated complicati

      • by Artifakt (700173) on Thursday April 17, 2014 @07:06AM (#46777719)

        I do taxes professionally for part of my income, and it's a mix of personal or estate returns and corps, up to a couple of companies with 500+ full time employees.
        The tax code is pretty simple for many people, but I certainly would not say the vast majority of either individuals or small businesses. I can make quick, easy money by examining a few typical returns done on a free website or $ 39 software. About 6 out of 10 will have done something wrong or missed something entirely. That's higher than the industry average reported (which is about 33%), but I'm presorting by cases where the person has either a schedule D, E, or F, or got a K1. I could probably find significant mistakes on 45% or so of the self filed Schedule A's or EITC forms out there, but those are usually dealt with by people who have only been with the firm I work for for a few years before I ever see them.
        Three mistakes I see that can have extreme consequences are:
        1. people filing schedule E for rental property and thinking amortizing the property is optional (yes, it is technically optional as the tax code is phrased, but if you don't do it, the law wiill treat it as if you did, and 'recover' some of the money you never got in the first place. when you sell the property - it's 'optional' in the same sense as a parachute is optional in skydiving). I also see the vast majority of people who have other things than rent to report on an E (authorial royalties, natural gas wells, and such), have absolutely no idea what to do.
        2. people filing a schedule D for sale of stock. The minor mistake about 50% of the self filers make is to spend up to 30 hours or so filling in tons of individual lines for each transaction - almost nobody who isn't a pro knows how to report groups of transactions the way the IRS wants, and the personal software will gladly let you type in every single entry from a typical 15 page brokerage statement manually if you want. By they way, I have heard from IRS agents that going to all this extra trouble increases your chance of an audit - they figure that anybody giving them all those details just might be trying to hide something among them. The major mistake is not knowing the difference between long term and short term and/or covered and non-covered transactions, and all those things that are not sales of stocks but involve capital gains and so get reported with stocks. And I have never, ever, not once in my career, seen a case where someone got a K-1 that led to an entry on schedule D, and they got it right filing with Turbo-tax or similar.
        3. Schedule C for self employed income. I see people getting a 1099-Misc with some other box than 7 filled in and thinking they have to do a C, all the time. I also see young people who get paid with a 1099 that does require Schedule C for the first time and think it's basically just like a W2 and report it that way. In both cases, this puts the person in a mess immediately, because if self employment taxes get done wrongly that means the IRS and the Social Security administration both have issues with the filer, and any corrections have to propagate to both agencies before it is really fixed. I've seen way too many cases where someone spends months or even years paying off their self employment taxes, gets straight with the IRS, and then 5 years later the person gets injured, needs to collect disability and, finds out they never got credit with the Social Security Administration for working some years, and so are considered not elligibile. But the biggest mistake I see on Sched C is people claiming meals when they don't travel outside their local area or entertain clients - that happens way more often with young people new to the construction industry, than most people think, and the IRS treats every case like the taxpayer is a con artist and couldn't possibly be really that stupid. (And there's no polite way to put it, but a lot of these people are). The IRS also tends to treat this error as though the taxpayer thinks the IRS agent

        • so...to paraphrase, what you are saying is that tax law is excessively more complex than it needs to be and should be simplified greatly.

          i mean no offense to you, but taxes should be simple enough so that people like you aren't needed for the majority of people to complete their taxes. and for that matter tax software shouldn't be needed either.

          • by mmell (832646)
            Sure, simplify it - just send a really ugly dude with a cart around to collect the taxes from the serfs, preferably one a year or more. Any who can't pay (or who try to hide their crops and livestock) should be taken to the dungeon, their homes burned and their families turned out in the street. While we're at it, maybe we can get a crusade going in the holy land?

            Oh, wait . . .

    • by geekoid (135745)

      hahahahahahaha.. you should look at some of the tax laws prior to 1960.

      "No human could ever interpret and correctly follow tax law as it sits right now."
      humans do that now so they can write code to make filing easier.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 17, 2014 @01:19AM (#46776725)

    This was the era of excitement about supersonic flight, men flying into space on rockets, and so on. The fear was NOT about circuit boards and software (or vacuum tubes and relays and patch panels), but rather about POWER and CONTROL. People were worried about giving more power to the one part of the US government that, by DESIGN, considers itself above the Constitution and insists the people have no rights.

    People were concerned that this would further de-humanize things and further encourage the government to think of the citizens as numbered parts in a machine rather than free people in charge of their government. If you are a free person, the government answers to you, but if the government assigns you a part number, you are just a gear in the machine.... the government that stamped a number on you is clearly your master. When Social Security was created, one of the things critics warned about wasd that the "account number" assigned to each person would, over time, become a citizen ID number that would be used to track people and control and regulate them. The critics were called loony, and the people pushing Social Security made it illegal for the numbers to be used for anything but Social Security (a typical fake big-government advocates like to use to pass bad policy). Years later, government removed the prohibition, justifying the action by pointing out the savings in money and bureaucracy if all of government could use the same unique number for citizen ID. Now, after decades, no American citizen can vote, bank, get a job, etc without having a "Social Security Number" (citizen ID number? part number?) and a person's entire life can be turned upside-down if somebody else starts using that number. The critics who predicted bad side effects of such a system and its assigned citizen numbers, as loud as they were, actually under-predicted what would happen.

    This was also a further exposure of the basic lies that were used to create the IRS and the tax system in the first place. When the income tax was first instituted (as a temporary tax to fund a war) the politicians in Washington DC insisted that the tax would only apply to the rich and it would only take 1% of their income. By computerizing the IRS, the government was essentially admitting the lies and preparing to analyze, monitor, and tax the formerly-free people of the United States like never before. Back when the income tax began, people who warned that it would gradually evolve into a tax on everybody and it would inevitably rise to something really outrageous like 5% were denounced and ridiculed. As is so often the case, the politicians pushing thier big new policy were the real liars and the people who sounded like chicken little with their warnings about inevitable growth were in fact not only right but they actually underestimated how bad it would be. The income tax eventually went over 90% for the rich (who bought lobbyists and politicians and got lots of "loopholes" and never actually PAID those rates) and plenty of middle-class pay over 15% (THEY cannot afford to buy politicians to get their own "loopholes").

    There's a pattern here for those who care to notice it. The people who keep warning about growing government control over individuals are more-often right than the meat puppets of the growing BigBusiness-BigGovernment enterprise who generally lie to get their way. In 1961, WWII (with Hitler's Germany and Imperial Japan) was fresh in the public memory and Nikita Khrushchev was threatening the west with his Soviet military, so Americans were much more worried about the down-side of big government's potential to number people, treat them as things, and then use them.

    • by profplump (309017)

      The people who keep warning about growing government control over individuals aren't very well versed in history.

  • by LifesABeach (234436) on Thursday April 17, 2014 @01:43AM (#46776813)
    When one looks at the use of Offshoring, and Entitlements for Hedge Fund Mangers, Oil Companies, and Tax Havens. One is compelled to ask, "when is enough, enough?"
  • "This room filled with mainframes can process as many as ten tax returns for every kilowatt hour. The future is today!"

  • The amazing thing is that the IRS today is no more efficient then it was in the 1950s before any computerization.

    Certainly in 2007 the Australian tax office's internal budget was AU$11.4 billion, or 1.23% of GDP. In 1955 it performed essentially the same task without automation for A£66.7 million which was 1.33% of the 1955 GDP. The difference is not statistically significant. (Normalizing by GDP (essentially the sum of everyone's earnings) accounts for the growing population and inflation.) U

    • by geekoid (135745)

      "The amazing thing is that the IRS today is no more efficient then it was in the 1950s before any computerization."
      false, by every measure.

      I'm not sure what Australia has to do with the IRS.

  • Having been the victim of tax identity theft two years in a row, you'd think those computers could be programmed in a way to detect say, multiple refunds going to the same bank account, or the same IP address submitting thousands of returns and shut these thieves down....or *gasp* even perhaps verify the data which is on a return before sending a refund check... You know, to stop the $5 BILLION in tax refund fraud every year....
  • "Viewers today are more likely captivated by the refrigerator-size computers and 1960s hairdos." No, the very first thing that struck me was the once-familiar announcer's "authoritative" style of delivery. Among other things, the voice often drops by about a musical fifth on the last word of the sentence.

    This is not only standard for announcers (Edward R. Murrow being one example), but you even hear it in movie dialog.

    I keep wanting to know some name for the change. It was not instantaneous, but it seems to

    • by k6mfw (1182893)

      "Viewers today are more likely captivated by the refrigerator-size computers and 1960s hairdos.".

      Regarding hairdos, I love the gal's hairstyle at 6:30, very bouffant and probably needs lots of Aqua-net.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        I know, I saw that hair and I could here the Ozone weep!
        EEEsh. I never understand why people wold spend that much time on hair.

  • I think I could watch a two hour film of just unit record equipment in action and be happy. Damn stuff was mesmerizing, how it handled, read and punched thousands of cards at ridiculous speeds.

    We really did pull off some mechanical genius with this stuff back then. It may be obsolete but it's still cool, and it makes me wonder why we can't seem to design printers that don't start jamming after a few hundred pages anymore.

  • as they go high rpm, scream to a stop, slowly move, then wham ram up to high rpm in opposite direction. Like rest of the equipment in those rooms, all made of heavy duty steel and cable.
  • Tax his land, tax his wage,
    Tax his bed in which he lays.
    Tax his tractor, tax his mule,
    Teach him taxes is the rule.

    Tax his cow, tax his goat,
    Tax his pants, tax his coat.
    Tax his ties, tax his shirts,
    Tax his work, tax his dirt.

    Tax his chew, tax his smoke,
    Teach him taxes are no joke.
    Tax his car, tax his grass,
    Tax the roads he must pass.

    Tax his food, tax his drink,
    Tax him if he tries to think.
    Tax his sodas, tax his beers,
    If he cries, tax his tears.

    Tax his bills, tax his gas,
    Tax his notes, tax his cash.
    Tax him good and let him know
    That after taxes, he has no dough.

    If he hollers, tax him more,
    Tax him until he's good and sore.
    Tax his coffin, tax his grave,
    Tax the sod in which he lays.

    Put these words upon his tomb,
    "Taxes drove me to my doom!"
    And when he's gone, we won't relax,
    We'll still be after the inheritance tax.

    With a computer

  • And having succeeded, they continue to use those same computers to this day.

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