Busted (Tax Dollars at Work)

Other submissions by Wombat:
If you want to read their other submissions, please click the links.
Passages From The Dead (Revisionist Stories about Trojans and Greeks) (Historical Fiction, Writing Mentorship Award 2023)
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This novel about public policy discusses what reforms that would be necessary to make a transition from dysfunctional to optimal in public offices, the basic premise being that it would be desirable to view large government programs as experiments, periodically review them, and propose changes.
First 10 Pages


The body had been left unceremoniously in the bar, in the booth where it had been found – upright, back to the wall, eyes glazed, and looking very ready for more to drink. The whiskey glass, part of the exhibit, remained half full on the table, within easy reach, daring someone to chug it.

The man strutted in front of his captive audience in the mountain lodge’s dining room, “Promoted to chief inspector because I always solve the crime. This is no exception, as you will see momentarily as we solve the murder of Tax Dollars.” He paused while surveying his audience, which included many suspects. Nodding, the chief inspector said, “Just who murdered Tax Dollars? There are many suspects, no?” He continued his monologue, winding his right hand clockwise, the index finger extended, “But this time, it had to be one of you. No one else could get into this snowbound lodge perched next to this high mountain lake during the middle of such a blizzard.”

Betty Bush, no rookie at showcasing the star cluster beneath the Blond Nebula, smiled as she said, “I’m sure you’re always right,” while crossing and recrossing longer legs under a shorter skirt.

A woman dressed as a queen, taking the opposite tack, spoke with a fake southern accent, drawing out her syllables, “WTF? No one here flipping did it. What possible f’ing motive could any of us have had? We hardly frig’n knew him. Maybe that’s what you freak’n get for having a frick’n drink with a ficky fi’k’n ghost!” The queen was flanked on each side by her entourage, who appeared to be identical sisters, all four bobbling in unison at each of the queen’s pronouncements. “I agree,” came next, in a Russian accent. “It wasn’t any of us.” Her associate sat next to her, silently staring off into space, her head apparently in an Oort cloud of her own making.

“Darlng Tortz here. You know clues? Or is it has no clue? You wouldn’t know a clue if it were taped to your nose,” she hissed as she started winking. “We don’t have to do anything – ever,” Tortz advised, as she motioned to herself and her companions. “I’m calling regional office right now.”

Chaft Yew added, “I will do an investigation. Wait until I get back to you with the report. Do nothing until then.”

“Yeah, well, my staff has already done the research,” Zariah Zorrino proclaimed. “My research shows his qualities were really bad. Had to be stopped.”

“Poison, perhaps,” the chief inspector suggested. “In his drink?”

Stacy Stasie opined, “I don’t have to tell you anything. I’ll get back with you when I feel like it; if I feel like it.”

“Who is he?” Phoenicia said, pointing to the easel. “Yeah,” said Cheka Crudela, “He smells bad. Smoking that cigar!”

The three proceeded to have a mutual meltdown, ranting about “stupid men.”

“That’s Good Fellow, my sketch artist, finishing his composite draft based on your witness statements,” the inspector was able to eventually explain. “He always travels with me.”

Another suspect, Gregory Sam Saugh, slinking, as if to avoid the light, reported, “Tax Dollars wasn’t a dues-paying union member. Why investigate?” He looked quizzically at Punchinello, as if awaiting instructions.

Punchinello, pointing at the chief inspector, shouted, “Seniority should be the only factor considered. Besides, I want to see that drawing!”

He moved for the easel, his jerky movements looking like a marionette’s. Reaching the sketch, he turned it so all could see. It portrayed all the suspects in the room simultaneously bolting for various exits, engaging in all sorts of ill-mannered behaviors. Flying elbows were not the half of it. Nothing was off-limits – bumping, pushing, shoving, and trampling. They all looked fairly guilty.

I thought I heard parting steps as I emerged from a somnolent haze, sure there had been others present, but finding no one. There was an odd thing in the room – an easel with a drawing with an illegible signature. The drawing appeared to show a scene from a movie: an inspector interrogating a roomful of suspects. What a funny dream, I thought. Who would ever want to abuse Tax Dollars…

Chapter 1

Enemy Aliens

(Wherein Equal Employment Opportunity Concepts Go Crazy)


I frequently cut through the busy waiting room as a shortcut to the high-rise office building elevators. The waiting room was typically packed with Social Security disability claimants, their supporting people, and their representatives. This day was no exception. The building in downtown Blue Ridge featured magnificent views. The fog and clouds usually blocked the mountains, but there were the occasional days when the sky was so clear it looked as if you could reach out and touch them. The waiting room typically had nothing unusual or interesting in it, but that day featured a peculiarity. There were three men huddled together in conversation, looking out of place by several decades. They all had felt hats with ribbons around them. They were gathered together, whispering in English-the choice of a language not being taken for granted in cosmopolitan Blue Ridge. I could overhear some of what was said. “We can’t interfere.” “We just can’t do that.” “We are just here to observe.” “But… serious trouble.” “We… can’t… leave him.” “Barbarians…” I listened in amazement to what could have been a psychotic conversation among claimants building a disability case. “Four to board…” “Now!”

The next thing I knew, I was standing on some kind of platform on what appeared to be a ship’s deck. The one who seemed to be the leader turned. Smiling, he extended a hand and said, “Welcome aboard.”

“We can’t just pull him away from the planet like that. It will never work,” the second said.

The third one said, “Yes, but who will ever believe him? We could send him right back, and there would be no harm.”

The leader said, “We thought we had tracked the aliens to that very office building. The demands for conformity. The aggressive behavior. The emphasis on the collective. Threatened violence. But there are no aliens there, just jerks acting like despots.”

“The aliens don’t appear to be there,” said the one with a frowny face.

“What should we do?” the leader asked.

“Give him the tour, and then send him to…” Trailing off, the second turned to me and asked, “Where would you like to go?”

Not being sure of anything, I didn’t answer.

He then turned back to the leader, stating, “Send him to the location of his choice. ‘No harm, no foul,’ I believe is the applicable expression from this time.”

“But isn’t that cheating?” asked the leader.

The second turned, raised his eyebrows, and said, “If the goal is winning, then it is logical to cheat.”

“Oh, really? How did you reach this conclusion?” asked the leader.

The second replied, “From watching current sports broadcasts. A game called … football. A team known as the Patriots. The probability of fair play with them is approximately .000...”

“All right then,” the leader cut him off. “The tour, then send him back.”

I soon found myself back in Blue Ridge with a story I was sure no one would believe, and equally confident I would never tell. But I was worried. Who were these aliens, and how would I know them?


How to explain the hate that was directed at me

My real name is not Tax. My parents might have been crazy, but not to that degree. I was born Theodosius Alexander Dollars, my academic parents, apparently, hoping that being named after emperors would inspire me. While I did dream, it was not about political, academic, or economic success. I was confident I would one day play shortstop for the Yankees. Although I might hold several baseball records at the high school I attended during my junior and senior years, no one seems to have kept track. The school’s libertarian philosophy did not embrace baseball to any degree. When high school ended, so did my baseball career, any records disappearing into history and indifference – a disappointment I carry with me to this very day. My younger brother, Michael Orton, who played baseball at a bigger school against better competition, while stealing even more bases than I did, was often listed in the box score as “MO Dollars.” My father, who had coached us both, along with a slew of other ballplayers, eventually making his way to the Babe Ruth League Hall of Fame as a coach because of all the ballgames he had won, was sometimes listed in the paper as “Big Dollars.”

My mathematically gifted, bridge-playing mother made no contributions to science other than bestowing her genes upon my older brother—and had no interest in doing so. I was somehow skipped by the genes and left with the law as a vocation. Meanwhile, I had abbreviated my first and middle names to letters, signing everything, “T. Ax.” My observant high school pals started calling me Tax for short. The name stuck, finding its way into the box scores.

I was not very good at bureaucratic games. I have small-town, Midwestern roots. The people are always friendly, even if the economy is mean. The people are also trusting, without much in the way of guile – disadvantages if you are working with seasoned bureaucrats. The town in which I was born, the site of a legendary Wild West shootout, has the advantage of some notoriety and related tourism. Although it might one day sport a monument to my scientifically inclined older brother, there will be none for me, unless for the record time spent watching cartoons and sports. The 1961 Yankees were the best. We enjoyed science fiction, finding The Twilight Zone to be completely fascinating. My brother and I were bad, we thought, often staying up way past our bedtimes, fooling our parents by secretly reading. My brother usually chose math and science for these late-night mental walkabouts, while I preferred somewhat lighter fare. I obsessed over superheroes, with whom I identified, as I considered myself the fastest kid in the city, having won all the running events in the local Cub Scout Olympics, surprising even my parents. I was fascinated by the Trojan War and saluted the heroes in the daydreams which preoccupied me during school hours. My favorite, Odysseus—clever, brave, favored by the gods—could think his way through most any trouble while expressing himself with the utmost diplomacy.

I had learned how to play chess, intermittently studying the game. My high school was at least loaded with chess competition. I preferred matches to study hall, sitting in the commons area hunched over a chessboard while neglecting homework.

I sometimes wonder at the sequence of events resulting in me ever coming to be employed by the Social Security Administration’s disability program. After graduating from Libertarian High in BB City, I went to Big State, my hometown school, where I earned three degrees, the last of which is in law. I went to law school with a great sense of idealism, hoping to serve the public. One of my professors explained government employment as consisting of great rewards in public service. He told us that we would have a solid middleclass income but would never become rich from a government job. I was pleased when I got with the federal government. The idea of pursuing public service greatly appealed to me.

My first position with the Social Security disability program was as an attorney-advisor in Desert Station. Attorney-advisors primarily ghostwrote decisions for judges working for the Social Security Administration, mainly on disability cases. The attorney-advisors in Desert Station were very dedicated, spending extra time to get the job done. The well-managed office was a fun place to work. I considered myself lucky to have obtained a public service position with such a great agency. I assumed all the agency’s offices would be like Desert Station, an assumption later events would prove completely wrong.

Despite the excellent fit with Desert Station, I decided to transfer to a different office, Blue Ridge, mostly out of a sense of adventure. Ensuing events would indicate times had changed, and not everything my professor had said about public service remained true. The Social Security attorney-advisor position would offer little in the way of intrinsic satisfaction. Management had even less in the way of loyalty. The part about wealth remained true. The agency did not like to admit ghostwriting occurred, or talk about it – not even internally. In many instances, the actual performance went well beyond ghostwriting.

Ghosts, who are you? Obscure captains of the furrowed brow; tillers of legal fields; bards of the appellate process; commandants of perpetual backlogs; officers of unsolvable ciphers. Born of ambition, would you stay if not for your pursuing demons: Hunger, Necessity, Treacherous Time. Do you await renewal, abundant sun following million-dollar rain? I have seen your summits, your peaks, your falls from heights. I have heard despair while listening to your cries. Who speaks for you, ghosts? May I try?

There were huge files involving large numbers of pages of medical records, many times running into the hundreds and sometimes the thousands—these were referred to as “monsters.” Killing monsters was a time-consuming process and took much in the way of effort. Remanded monsters were especially obnoxious. Most of the cases in our agency involved disability. There were five primary categories of disability outcomes, including fully favorable, later onset date, closed periods, and denials. There were also dismissals, which were the fastest and easiest. We usually did not ghostwrite dismissals. The fully favorable decisions were typically the next simplest, generally quick and easy without much in the way of argument or length. In general, the other decisions were more complicated and took more time to complete.

A large block of cases, around 50 percent, had uncertain outcomes and could be argued from at least two points of view (grant and deny.) Some could be argued from three points of view, including closed periods and later onset dates. Some could even be argued from four points of view. There were hybrids, including later onset date-closed periods and double closed periods. The outcomes in this rather large block of cases were not obvious and were highly subjective. Any of the indicated outcomes could be reasonable. There were times when a judge changed his mind after I had written a decision, and I rewrote the decision from a different viewpoint with a different outcome, even a few occasions with two rewrites and three outcomes. Although this might have been a peculiar exercise, it was doable based on the evidence presented.

The significant differences in decision outcomes among the judges, the lack of consistency within their group, could probably be explained, in part, by this block of cases. Most people are not capable of constructing the supporting arguments or justifications for this block of cases. Those with bar memberships are generally rather good at it. Thus, the agency’s history has mainly been to hire attorneys to ghostwrite decisions. Nonetheless, many Social Security managers want these relatively high-paying positions for their non-attorney cronies, continuing to argue attorneys are not as good at constructing legal arguments as non-attorneys, even though many (perhaps most) of the non-attorneys hired to ghostwrite decisions could not get admitted to law school or pass a bar exam.

The parent organization at the time, Health and Human Services (HHS), wanted attorneys to ghostwrite the decisions. This set up a conflict with the Social Security managers, who were subordinate to HHS at that time. HHS (heroes) protected attorneys (innocents) from Social Security managers (villains.) The Social Security managers were after the attorney-advisor fulltime equivalents within the disability program. The ability to parcel out those relatively high-paying positions to their cronies would increase managers’ power within their empires, possibly leading to promotions, more pay, and better benefits, including retirement. This was not merely an abstract argument. Instead, it involved the basics of greed and power. Their masters, at the time, in HHS prevented this from happening. Social Security managers despised HHS, in return, making for marriage from hell.

In a fair world, the workload would be evenly distributed. However, the Social Security Administration, at the time, claimed all cases were the same. To them, a case was a case, whether dismissal, fully favorable, or denial, and whether thin or monster. This incorrect conceptualization of the work was the cause of much maneuvering within the bureaucracy, and the source of much evil. Many ghostwriters lusted after thin files and fully favorable decisions. While many sins were committed because of this lust, confessions were neither required nor taken.

Ghostwriting attorneys in our office were represented by our union official, Phoenicia Traveler, who went by Phony. There was little room for individuality on the Blue Ridge ghostwriting staff. Phony and company demanded conformity of thought, belief, and feeling. Phony erupted several times each week, her meltdowns reverberating through the week and even the month, making the mere thought of going into work discomforting. There were other meltdown artists. Bobby Batallas was inclined not merely to call those he disliked, “fascist,” but to shout it long and loud enough to make it clear to all, whether interested or not. Bobby was not shy about having public rants, and did not mind getting in someone’s face while having one. Betty Bush, an apparent Phony disciple, still young but somehow with a whispered past, worked as a paralegal ghostwriter with no bar membership. Betty was prone to rants, just not as many, not as loud, and not as long. Although Betty had graduated from law school, she had not been able to pass a bar exam, despite multiple attempts over several years. She had possibly tried in several states, keeping the exact number of failures a secret. Bush needed a lot of help with the work, more than anyone I had ever known, to that point.