I suppose it was inevitable that someone would write this story today: Americans are upset that they have to pay their taxes today when Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner, who is the putative head of the IRS, did not. Or at least he didn't pay them when he was supposed to pay them.
But I don't think there's really a double standard here (at least if you're not an employee of the government). Americans get away with this all the time! In fact, as Chris Beam reports:
an estimated 7 million Americans fail to file their taxes every year, and in 2008 the IRS examined only 158,000 such cases. That comes out to a roughly 2 percent chance of getting caught.
That doesn't mean Geithner's tax hiccup was justified. But I think Geithner is a symptom, not a cause. It's not that he can get away with it while the little people get stuck with the bill; it's that just about anyone who wants to get away with it can get away with it.
Update: I should add that I do think there is a big double standard in how government officials and nominees get treated. One problem is how the government treats Tim Geithner versus, say, an employee of the IRS. (The article quoted above says such employees can be fired just for filing their taxes late.) That seems crazy.
A second problem is how the administration has treated Geithner versus, say, Nancy Killefer. (Remember her?) The sense I got from the that whole episode was that Congress had a finite appetite for scandal, not a consistent theory for how to treat scandal. I think consistency is importnat and, for that reason, thought the whole Geithner episode was embarrassing for Congress.
But there are a number of possible consistent theories from which we can choose. One is to have a zero-tolerance policy across the board. I find this appealing for reasons for vegeance/schadenfrede. But I think it's ulitmately a bad idea -- mostly because the tax code is legitimately complicated and some people (e.g., Killefer) should not be barred from public life because of small errors that seem legitimately unintentional.
I would much rather see a theory that tried to distinguish between cases using consistent standards. (Was it intentional? Was it forgivable?) I just never got the feeling that congress or the administration tried to do this.