What The Government Makes Easy

When I got out of college, I made the trek west to Silicon Valley. It was January 2001, and to be an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley is pretty sweet. But trouble was brewing, as a few months later I saw my company go through round 1 of layoffs. I made it through unscathed, but the next February, I found myself a part of the 17 people in my 50-person department who got the axe.

I found myself collecting unemployment as I searched for a new job. Which isn’t a very good place, emotionally, for a libertarian. There are some strange things you realize when you’re on unemployment. When you’re a single apartment-dweller, and you’re told you get a free $1500/month, it really barely even cramps your lifestyle. I found myself with a few hours a day spent looking for jobs, a few hours spent riding my motorcycle, and a few hours spending time with my wife (then still my girlfriend). I’m far too restless to be unemployed, but for the lazier folks in our world, it must be a lot of fun…

But I was thinking about one part of it today. Looking back on it, I can’t believe how EASY it was. We’re talking $1500 a month, which is probably equivalent to a $24K/year pre-tax salary. At the time, it seemed like it would likely extend forever. And when I found out I was going to be forced to go to the office and show what I’d been doing all that time, I thought they actually wanted me to justify the weekly mailers in which I claimed I was looking for jobs. So I printed out a bunch of data off monster.com showing exactly which jobs I had applied to. But they required no such thing. Instead of showing them that I was actively trying to find a job, I just had to put my data into the State’s computer job database.

It seemed like the normal rule I’ve attributed to government, that it’s slow, complicated, and hard to deal with, went out the window. It was like they were eager to give me money. Heck, if I wasn’t bored not having a job, I might have tried to take more advantage of the situation! Now, I don’t have any experience with things like welfare, foodstamps, etc, but I would guess that my experience with unemployment would be similar. I’m sure that there’s no difficulty in receiving free money from the government.

But you know what’s hard? Giving them money. Paying taxes is one of the most complicated, horrendous, and painful experiences you can possibly have. It takes a law degree to understand a mere fraction of the tax code, which is so complicated even the IRS can barely figure it out. And if you don’t know how to do it properly, you face big-time fines or even jail time.

What’s the difference? People want free money, they don’t want to give away money. The government wants control, and if you’re on their dole, they control you. If you’re not on their dole, and in fact, you’re their revenue source, they can also control you by taking lobbying dollars to appease your desire not to pay them.

The result is a process that is streamlined to make you dependent on them for your daily income, if you’re on the bottom end of the ladder. And if you’re on the top end of the ladder, for a few campaign contributions you can ensure that your financial burden for government is greatly reduced. If, like most of us, you’re in the middle of the ladder, you get screwed. You’re too rich to get benefits from the government, but poor enough that if you screw up on your ridiculously complex tax return, you can barely afford a lawyer to make sure the IRS doesn’t bend you over.

In all honesty, none of this is surprising. Government is a system whose function is dependent on political incentives. When you look at how the external levers work, it makes it clear why politicians are the way they are. Their desire is to get reelected, which means legislating the wishes of the rich, making the poor dependent on them, all the while convincing the middle class that they’re doing so for “the common good”.

That’s it. That’s the sum of government. Why is it so easy to feed at the trough? Because you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, and politicians are eager to be that hand. It’s a wonderful system if you’re a politician, but it’s a disgusting, inefficient, and counterproductive system when it comes to results and making the world better. Looking back a few years later, I am ashamed that I took part in it at all.

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  • VRB

    I think it depends upon the state. Not all states are as generous and you only get 26 weeks, so you can’t stay on it forever. The amount you get is base on how much you make, a clerk would not get as much as you did on unemployment. That clerk would probalby have had more incentive to find another job than you. Usually if you are eligble for the max you aren’t for food stamps, and if you are male in this state (PA) you would never be eligible for welfare.

  • http://unrepentantindividual.com/ Brad Warbiany


    Yes, I realize that things in CA are quite a bit more generous than other states… Which is one of the reasons I think that California, from the standpoint of government, is a failure.


  • bud

    One nit: The tax code is not all that complicated, excerpt for part 5?, 7?… whatever. That part is about 15% of the total, and it’s where all the bodies are buried. It’s where the “any entity making more than $75M, but less than $100M from transfers covered under section, but not otherwise eligible under section, and consisting of less than 23% ownership as defined in section 4.3.88, but not containing ownership of offshore entities except as defined in section, don’t owe no taxes” provisons.
    The rest of the tax code may be a bit complicated for the “you want fries with that?” crew, but any engineer should have no trouble understanding it.

    If all you have is wages, dividend and interest income, you’ve bought and sold some stock and real estate – the tax code is not all that complicated. If you have a business it’s a bit more. Figuring how far you can push the IRS on expenses has little to do with the code, however, and depreciation is just a lot of bookeeping effort, but again, not terribly obtuse in the code.

    It’s just the *really* rich who need the high-priced lawyers to find (and get put in) those “special” sections.

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