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Our efficient government at work…again

March 10, 2015

Mom! Mom-m-m-y!  I know you’re out there, talk to me!

Oh, wait…it might be hard for you to do that, given that you’ve been dead for 40 years or more.

There must be a lot of people paying for funerals who are wondering who was in the casket, given that 6.5 million dead people are reportedly still on the rolls of the Social Security Administration(SSA). And they vote too!

That’s particularly noteworthy, given the current debate over legitimizing somewhere between 5 and 6 million people who entered this country illegally.

A lot has been made of how all these people can “come out of the shadows” get jobs and contribute to society, particularly as voters and taxpayers.

As most people know, many of these folks are already working. It is commonly believed that if they work they pay into the Social Security Trust Fund, but due to their illegal status can never receive benefits like retirement payments or other payments.

Enter the IRS. That agency uses the Social Security number of filers to issue refund checks, and checks for direct-pay tax benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit.

For once, this really might not be the fault of some IRS flunky. If the filer’s number doesn’t send up a red flag, they have no real way to know if the person is living or dead, so they send out the check.

This inability to purge the SSA files isn’t a new problem. Keeping track of people isn’t something the government can do effectively, no matter how much it tries.

Pre-computers, notification of death was done via a paper form, and it’s doubtful that every coroner or funeral home sent one in, not to mention that in the late 19th and early 20th century, people often died at home and were buried on the family property.

The question is, how do we go about purging the rolls of all these people now? It might seem easy to get rid of the records of all the people over say 100 years of age, but after that, you can’t just delete the record.

It’s all a question of scale. Large organisms of any kind simply use more resources less efficiently than smaller ones. The IRS and SSA use up a lot of resources with a corresponding decline in efficiency.

Anyone who has ever been declared dead through a government “oops” knows that it is almost impossible to be resurrected, and it isn’t as hard for that to happen as you might think.

For instance, if you are under government-paid medical care, there is a place on the forms submitted to the government for payment to enter a code that identifies whether you have died during the payment period. All it takes is for one computer operator to check the wrong box and you are history. The government will never question it, and if you have been discharged the provider may not catch the error either. This type of error is almost always caught by the individual,  usually when benefits stop arriving.

So this problem of verification cuts both ways, although obviously the payment of billions of dollars in fraudulently obtained benefits has far more impact on the country.

Could it possibly be that the government is not and never will be “efficient”, simply as a function of its size? Could that possibly be why we give it more and more money, and it still can’t do its job?

Given that the SSA is projected to run out of money soon, one has to wonder how much longer it would last if the government hadn’t paid out so much money to people with no legitimate claim to it. Assuming that each one of these numbers received just $100 in fraudulent payments last year, that’s $650 million dollars. If it was $1000, say in EITC payments, the sum is a staggering $6.5 billion. That would fund SSA for quite a while.

No one presumes that any system can be error-free. But this problem is ongoing, and is now a tool used by criminals to fund everything from diapers for the kids to someone’s meth habit.

Moreover it’s going to be damned expensive to correct, particularly when you get to the numbers for people who could conceivably still be living. Just asking them to submit a birth certificate or a naturalization document won’t work, since those are easily forged. Someone is going to have to physically verify that these people are who they say they are.

All of this simply reinforces the argument that the more control the government asserts, the less good it does. There are just too many departments, with too many humans working in them that can make normal human errors.  Even computerizing everything hasn’t helped, since humans still input the data.

Add to that that the various departments simply can’t communicate effectively, and the stage is set for a total collapse, both monetarily and socially.

From → op-ed

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