Nina Olson is the National Taxpayer Advocate - the voice of the public at the IRS. She's trying to help you navigate the tax code you love to loathe.
It was supposed to be her benevolent deed for the day - helping a family member with a tax return. But soon Nina Olson was lost in the labyrinth that is the United States tax code.
The problem at hand was an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA) - how to know which contributions to it would be tax- deductible for a person who had some job income while also receiving Social Security benefits.
Yes, there's a special IRS worksheet for that. Three of them, actually, in Appendix B of Internal Revenue Service Publication 590.
"The calculations were so unbelievable," says Ms. Olson. "It was something like enter Line 2 on Line 12; divide by 83; multiply times four, and then times 0.125 or something."
Olson stoically did the best she could. But it wasn't good enough. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ended up notifying her family member of a mistake on the calculations.
It's the kind of bad tax day that could happen to anyone. As it turns out, though, Olson isn't just any average American. She's one of the most knowledgeable people on earth about the IRS and US tax law.
By the time she wrangled with these worksheets in exasperation, she had already made a whole career in the tax field: earning a living preparing returns, becoming a tax lawyer, founding a nonprofit to help people with tax problems, and then assuming the role of National Taxpayer Advocate - a kind of "voice of the people" within the IRS. If Olson finds the tax code bewildering, it's little wonder millions of Americans do, too.
Taxpayers, meet your champion at the agency you love to loathe. Citizens tired of form-filling burdens, meet someone who agrees with you and who has a megaphone in Washington - a big one.
She's not just another ombudsperson at some random federal agency. The IRS, as Americans are reminded every April 15, is the government's revenue-collection arm. And with nearly 100,000 people working at the agency - scouring returns, conducting audits, filing lawsuits against delinquent payers - that arm is a long one.
To enter Olson's world is to gain a rare view of the workings of a federal revenue machine that takes in about one-fifth of America's annual income, currently in excess of $2.3 trillion. It offers a window into the flaws of the tax code and the trials individuals face with the IRS.
In some respects, the woman who sits at the center of this vilified but vital institution isn't any different from you or me. She's a single mother, a pet lover (one dog and two cats), a knitter, a fine-arts major who dabbles in textile design on weekends. And, yes, she does her own tax returns.
Yet there are differences, too. She sits down the hall from the all-powerful commissioner of the IRS, oversees 2,000 people, travels the country giving speeches about a tax code as impenetrable as a Kevlar vest, testifies regularly before Congress, and, most important, gets paid to question - even defy - her employer on your behalf.
Olson wields significant clout, influencing policy on Capitol Hill and within the IRS, where her army of caseworkers can win relief for as many as 200,000 individuals per year. Many experts say she's been not merely an effective National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA), but also has largely defined the job during its formative period.
"She has very much shaped the office," says Christopher Bergin, publisher of Tax Analysts, a leading tracker of the tax code. "She's tenacious. She's brilliant. She's a hard driver."
Olson describes herself as an accidental occupant of the office. She never set out with a goal of holding a prominent government position, but her background girded her with some crucial job traits: knowing the tax problems Americans face and being unafraid to battle entrenched powers. …