Those familiar with this blog know that I’m not a fan of government. I worked for a municipality on Long Island for twenty-one years. The politicians and department heads I worked for, and the co-workers I worked with, were largely a disgrace. The biggest concern for the politicians was staying in power. For department heads? The biggest concern was raising campaign donations for the politicians. And for the worker bees? The biggest concern was making sure they got paid more for doing less.
A few of my co-workers were discerning enough to realize that our municipality was a model of ineptitude. We used to amuse ourselves by saying that we were trapped in a government version of the Planet of the Apes.
Everything was upside down and backwards. Sloth was valued more than work. Advancement, even for minor, piddly positions, was predicated not on ability but on kissing Republican ass. And the taxpayers weren’t our esteemed customers; they were our whipping boys. It was truly a madhouse.
But just because my little corner of government was a joke doesn’t mean that all government is a joke. In fact, there are a number of bloggers who I respect immensely who have a more favorable view of government. Matt over at Optimize Your Life, Vicki over at Make Smarter Decisions, and Penny over at She Picks Up Pennies all have an inside view of government, and all find government to be a force for good. In their various corners of government, government objectives are noble, government administrators are largely effective, and government worker bees are largely selfless employees dedicated to improving the lot of the public.
And upon a little reflection, I got to admit that Matt, Vicki, and Penny have a point. Government ain’t all bad. Government employees, after all, liberated Europe from Nazi Germany and Asia from Imperial Japan. Government employees also put a man on the moon and safely returned him to earth. And government employees also ran up the stairs of the burning World Trade Center to rescue innocents.
Okay, groovy freedomist, for this post I’m going to take an entirely different tack. Yes, I’m taking the government’s side for a change. But here’s my problem. Some of the most critical aspects of our society—education, healthcare, banking, housing, employment, retirement, etc.—have a huge government footprint. And these critical aspects seem to be getting worse, not better. How is this possible? After all, if government intentions are basically good, and government employees are basically hard-working and decent, shouldn’t these things be getting better?
I’m afraid the answer to this question isn’t very flattering. The problem with government is not the people in government, it’s the people outside of government. That’s right. The problem with government is us. If we weren’t so sucky, the government would be far more effective and far less corrupt.
Don’t believe me? Well, buckle up. Here are five ways that our suckiness is making it damn near impossible for the government to do its job well.
Five Ways That Our Suckiness Is Neutering the Government
One: Our kids are lousy students.
Every year, higher education must devote billions of dollars in resources to elevate the math and reading skills of incoming freshmen. Why? Is it because our K-12 public schools are teeming with incompetent and uncaring teachers? Or is it because our K-12 public schools are teeming with lousy students?
Here’s a dirty little secret that no politician will dare voice: children who fail in our public schools do so, not because our public schools suck, but because they suck (in an academic sense). It’s not because our public schools lack resources. (Because of the internet and google, it costs practically nothing to transmit knowledge. And the average per pupil cost in America is now over $10K.) It’s not because our public school administrators fail to grasp the importance of math and reading. (Every public school in the land provides instruction in math and reading.) And it’s not because our public school teachers are miserable wretches who are utterly indifferent to the success of their students (I never met a public school teacher who wouldn’t go out of his or her way to help a student succeed.) No, it’s because too many Brandons, Caitlins, Dacrons, Tamiquas, Pedros, and Isabellas refuse to apply themselves in school. It’s as simple as that.
And why do so many of our students refuse to apply themselves? Because a lot of our students have lousy parents. Case in point. An elementary school teacher was recently smashed in the face with a brick by the mother of one of her students. The reason for the attack? The teacher confiscated the cellphone of the alleged attacker’s daughter. Yes, for obviously evil pedagogical reasons, the school doesn’t want the classroom to be marred by student cellphone usage. A brick to the face was the only proper response to this infamy.
Two: We have a knack for self-sabotage.
A short while ago, I came across a documentary about poverty in America called The Price of the American Dream. One of the subjects in the documentary is a young woman named Germania. In the clip below, you get a good sense of her predicament.
Now don’t get me wrong. I feel nothing but sympathy for Germania. Her life and prospects appear to be rather dismal. But who exactly is responsible for her plight? Who convinced her that it was advisable to reach adulthood with no skills, no husband, three kids, and a tobacco addiction?
Sadly, Germania is hardly an outlier. Whether you turn to the opioid crisis, the incarceration crisis, the type 2 diabetes crisis, or the retirement crisis, evidence abounds that far too many Americans have engaged in years upon years of self-destructive behavior.
Here’a another dirty little secret for you: the government can’t fix chronic stupidity. It can do wonders with short-lived or one-off stupidity. You confine your stupidity to your junior-high years, and make sure your acts of stupidity fall well below the threshold of felonies, and the government will be your best bud.
Finish high school, don’t have kids before you’re married, and work full-time—do these three things and it’s extremely unlikely you’ll know poverty. Never buy a new car, always buy or rent less house than you can “afford,” and make dining out a rarity—do these three additional things and it’s extremely unlikely you’ll be living paycheck to paycheck.
Habits are destiny. You can’t smoke for 40 years and then get pissed off at your doctor because he can’t cure your cancer. Likewise, you can’t engage in economic tomfoolery for 40 years and then get pissed off at the government because it can’t save you from dying broke and miserable.
Three: We refuse to exploit much of the opportunity and good fortune that abounds in this country.
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who focus on their grievances, and those who focus on their opportunities.
Sadly, far too many of us have devolved into grievance mongers. “The system is rigged.” “The little guy doesn’t have a chance.” “Society only works for the rich.”
Bullcrap. Society doesn’t just work for the rich. And to prove it, I’m going to start with the government. I was born as middle-class as they come, but here are just some of the things the government has put in place to help me get ahead.
Subsidized K-12 education. When my brother, sister, and I were all in the Plainview school system at the same time, my parents’ property tax bill covered about a tenth of our education’s cost. When I was just in the Plainview school system alone, my parents’ property tax bill covered about a third my education’s cost. That’s a pretty sweet deal, especially when you consider that Plainview’s schools were excellent (i.e., they had competent teachers and smart, well-behaved students).
Subsidized college education. When I began college in 1979, a credit at the State University of New York cost less than $30. I literally could have cash-flowed college by staying home and attending a local college and working a part-time minimum wage job. When I decided to get a graduate degree in the late 90s, I chose a school in the City University of New York system. A credit there cost around $190. A credit at a private graduate school would have cost $600-700.
Subsidized libraries. Besides national parks, public libraries are the best bargain in the land. The amount of taxes needed to support our country’s library system is shockingly small. This means the typical American has access to thousands of books for practically nothing.
Mortgage interest and local property tax deductions. Prior to purchasing my condo in 1997, I was always writing a check to Uncle Sam come April 15th. Once I became a “homeowner,” however, Uncle Sam was writing a check to me every year. Yes, it pays to itemize when you have a mortgage and live in a high-tax state like New York.
Roth IRA. From 2006 to 2016, Mrs. Groovy and I maxed out our respective Roth accounts every year. We now have a sizable chunk of money that is growing tax free and will eventually be withdrawn tax free.
401(K)/403(B). Thanks to these handy tax nuggets, Mrs. Groovy and I were able to reduce our taxable income by $48K for each of the last three years of our gainful employment.
No tax on the profit from selling a primary residence. When Mrs. Groovy and I sold our condo in 2006, we made a little over $250K. The federal and state taxes owed on that sizable capital gain? Zero.
No tax on the profit from selling a stock. Any capital gain from a stock sale that falls between your adjusted gross income (AGI) and $75,900 (the upper limit of the 15% federal tax bracket) isn’t taxed by the feds. Suppose for example that your AGI will be $30K in 2017. This means you can realize a $45,900 capital gain on a stock sale this year and not pay a dime of federal taxes on it.
And remember: the examples above are just some of the ways the government is trying to help the little guy. I don’t have time to address all the ways those in the private sector—from mom-and-pop businesses and local churches to the renowned non-profits and the enlightened corporations—are trying to help the little guy. Nor do I have time to address all the ways the internet has made it easier for the little guy to acquire information, learn a skill, and start a business.
So don’t tell me the system is rigged. Yes, there’s a lot of screwed up things in our society. And, yes, you surely have grievances. But for every example of “systemic” wickedness arrayed against you, there are a thousand examples of “systemic” kindness arrayed for you.
The system is only “rigged” if you sit on your arse and refuse to open your eyes.
Four: We loathe equal protection of the law.
If you went out to dinner with friends, you would never think of only paying 50 or 75 percent of your portion of the bill and sticking your friends with the difference. Such behavior would be highly immoral. But few people have qualms asking the government for tax breaks that only apply to them. Sure, lower taxes for one group of people means higher taxes for another. But it’s cool. The government’s supposed to help people, right?
Now a question. Why is behavior that is immoral when done privately suddenly moral when the government is hired to do it? It isn’t. Legal doesn’t always mean moral. And this is a lesson that far too many Americans have failed to learn.
Here’s the sad, unvarnished truth. We want the government to play favorites. We want the government to grant us special tax exemptions. We want the government to take money from others and put it in our pockets. We want the government to hobble or eliminate our competitors.
And yet we’re shocked and angered when the favor-selling beast—that we helped create!—benefits the rich. We can’t understand how sellers (i.e., politicians) of a highly valued product (i.e., favor-granting legislation) are incentivized to raise their prices (i.e. campaign donations) and focus on the needs of the market’s most prized customers (i.e. the rich). It’s a freakin’ mystery.
Five: We’re oblivious to our country’s fiscal woes.
Check out the clip below from the movie, Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s the scene where Jesus is overwhelmed by lepers.
Given our country’s current fiscal situation ($20 trillion in debt, massively underfunded public pensions, tired and neglected infrastructure, etc.), this scene really hits home—frighteningly so. The government is Jesus and we’re the lepers. And we don’t give a rat’s ass about the government’s capacity to help. We want more, more, more.
And the truly sad part is that most of us really aren’t lepers. We have functioning brains and a functioning bodies; that is, we are perfectly capable of helping ourselves.
I ain’t going to lie, my friend. Our ravenous demands on an already besieged government are nothing short of pathetic.
Imagine for a moment that the FIRE community wasn’t a fringe cult of freakish money nerds. Imagine if the FIRE community represented the overwhelming majority of people in this country—eighty to ninety percent of the citizenry were freakish money nerds.
Would our public schools be pumping out so many students ill-prepared for either college or the labor market?
Would self-destructive behavior be so prevalent?
Would there be a retirement crisis?
Would the government need to do more beyond providing basic services and a rudimentary safety net?
Would our politicians be selling favors to the highest bidders?
For the longest time I thought the answer to better government was getting the right people elected. I was wrong. The right people will never get elected when the citizenry wants the government to be a favor-selling machine that is responsible for solving every problem under the sun. The only cure for a less sucky government is a less sucky citizenry.
Okay, groovy freedomist, that’s all I got. What say you? Have I diagnosed the true cause of government “ineptitude”? Or am I being overly harsh toward my fellow Americans? Let me know what you think when you get a chance. Peace.