by William Foster

Picture Massachusetts in April. There is a certain serenity and long-lifeness in the air, as if it were a habitable place and not merely to be hurried through. Children fly kites and play ball. The inquisitive chickadee, the blackbirds, and the song sparrow tell of expanding buds. One hears the pine warbler and the hum of a few insects, — small gnats, etc. — and sees considerable growth and greenness.

In the town of Andover, in the bowels of a stark IRS building, racks of blinking servers hum gently as they ingest packets of e-file data via ZMODEM protocol. To the north, a barking coxswain guides the hardy young men of the Phillips Academy crew team swiftly over the broad bosom of the Merrimack, while shad and alewives flit beneath them in the brisk, blue current. Along the riverbanks, one observes the large and conspicuous flowers of the hibiscus, covering the dwarf willows and mingling with the leaves of the grape. The noon of the year is approaching. Nature seems meditating a siesta.

Well. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but those sweet and familiar days are gone forever. The IRS has forsaken its e-file roots, roots that were forged in 1985 — the golden age of computing, some might say — in favor of what they call the Modernized e-File (MeF). Your tax data is no longer encoded in a proprietary format, and no longer travels from New York to Andover in an antique mode of transport, appearing stately and venerable to the eyes of every router. Instead, your data is structured according to a modern standard, XML, and communicated to a central IRS processing center using SOAP. There is a whiff of familiarity to the MeF, in that it, like the old system, utilizes SSL with 128-bit encryption, like a partner in a tepid relationship wearing the same sweet perfume as a passionate love lost years ago.

2004 was the beginning of the end, when the IRS quietly rolled out the MeF to handle certain business returns including the 1120 and 1120-S series. But, it was 2010 that struck the hardest blow, when a newly expanded MeF accepted its first 1040 returns. Only a few e-file providers, TurboTax among them, adopted MeF in that first year, but, in accordance with an IRS mandate, the rest have since migrated from old to new. This most recent tax season was the first in which every provider transmitted electronic returns via the MeF.

When I filed my extended return last night, and I clicked “e-file,” I imagined for a moment my AGI as a ZMODEM packet coursing resolutely through the hazy New England summer, even though I knew it wasn’t and never again would be. Sure, the turnaround time for e-file processing has been reduced from days to hours or minutes, and the infrastructure now rests on modern and efficient open standards, but at what cost?

William Foster lives in Portland, Oregon. This post borrows liberally from Thoreau.