PA's Orwellian Tax Hunt: They're Tracking 'YOU'

PA's Orwellian Tax Hunt: They're Tracking 'YOU'

By David Paul Kuhn - May 4, 2010

Pennsylvania has a common problem. Hundreds of millions in unpaid taxes. And it needs that revenue.

The state took the offensive with a $3 million ad campaign. The television ad begins with a satellite view of earth. A serene computerized woman's voice is heard. It sounds like a female version of HAL from the film and novel "2001." The fictional Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic Computer. Yes, that HAL. There is a target in the ad. It's centered on a homing beacon. The computer zooms in on the United States.

Female HAL: Your name is Tom. You live just off of Fifth Street. Nice car, Tom. Nice house.

The satellite zooms. Target trained on southeastern, Pennsylvania. Beeping. Female HAL is locating you.

Female HAL: What's not so nice is, you owe Pennsylvania $4,212 in back taxes. Listen, Tom. We can make this easy.

Zoom. We see a topographic city view. Beeping.

Female HAL: Pay online by June 18 and we'll skip your penalty and take half off your interest.

Zoom. It's a neighborhood block. The target is now on Tom's house. Birdseye view. Beeping.

Female HAL: Because Tom? We DO know who you are.


The target buzzes over the word "YOU."

Creepy. And one does not have to believe black helicopters circle overhead to draw Orwellian conclusions. It's reminiscent of Will Smith and Gene Hackman running from the rogue National Security Agency in "Enemy of the State." The satellite follows them. Big brother knew where they were too.

Pennsylvania's problem is real. The state budget depends on $190 million from its tax amnesty program. It is yet another state starved for cash. Lawmakers are debating massive layoffs for state employees. Pennsylvania is pushing for tax revenue to fill the gap. Thus far, it's working. In the first week, about 13,000 tax-amnesty applications were completed online. After all, female HAL knows where "YOU" are.

The ad is a caricature of itself. It's how Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" would skewer some crazed conception of Orwellian America. But like Pennsylvania's problems, this ad is also all too real.

The ad lends credence to the fringe's most paranoid views, left or right, of government. But the issue is larger than that. It's absurdly tone deaf. Nearly funny. That is, until one considers that a fifth of Americans believe President Obama will use the "economic collapse or terrorist attack as an excuse to take dictatorial powers," according to a March online Harris poll. But the issue is still larger.

Tea Party activists have organized around their belief in extreme government overreach and confiscatory tax policy. And here comes this ad. Big state government framed as Big Brother (or Sister) and she's stalking you by satellite.

It's really, or partly, an American issue. Only about one in five Americans trust the federal government to do what is right, according to the Pew Research Center. That matches the low point, the early 1990s, since World War II. Cue the taxpayer-funded ad touting satellites tracking delinquent taxpayers.

But perhaps this column is much ado about nothing. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell's office thinks so.

"What's demonstrated in the commercial is the technology that is available to anybody," said Barry Ciccocioppo, a spokesman for the governor. "Anybody can go to Google maps and many websites and see where people live."

Anybody indeed. I went on Google maps and followed the geographic landmarks to find the man that female HAL tracks. That brought me to New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. The details are doctored. Name made up. But, notwithstanding animation, the home is real. The street shape. Landmarks around it. The home's precise location. They match up. It's the McGowans, Brenda and Jerry.

I called the McGowans. Brenda McGowan watched the ad online. She felt it "looked very much like" where she lives. "My name is not Tom, and I do pay my bills." But in her view, though doctored, that's her car, her street, where her house sits. She didn't like that. Because, above all, she didn't like the ad.

"I don't have a problem with the state trying to collect back taxes because when you don't pay your taxes you affect the services available to other citizens in the state, like removing snow," Brenda McGowan said. "I have a problem that we live in a state where the Declaration of Independence was signed and this ad looks to me very KGBish. When you put an ad like that out, it's almost like they are saying they are stalking you. People don't appreciate it, especially post-Patriot Act. It feeds people's paranoia that government is anti-you."

I conveyed some of these concerns to the governor's spokesman, Barry Ciccocioppo. "It is intended to be aggressive," he responded, noting the state's serious budget turmoil.

Take his word for it. It's not merely the fictional female HAL who warns: "We DO know who you are."

Ciccocioppo explained, "We have contacted the tax delinquents and we do know who they are. We have addresses."

They have addresses.



David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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