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I See Dead People

An Associated Press headline this week read: “72,000 stimulus payments went to dead.”  Now, I realize that in some cultures, say, Ancient Egypt, for example, the dead were honored by being buried with gifts of food and treasure for their journey into the afterlife, but rarely does a society go so far as to continue sending checks to the deceased after they are gone.  Not even Uncle Scrooge in his miserly hey-day would demand financial remuneration while in the grave.

A government investigator says 89,000 stimulus payments of $250 each went to people who were either dead or in prison.

The Social Security Administration’s inspector general said in a report Thursday that $18 million went to 72,000 people who were dead. The report estimates that a little more than half the payments were returned.

The report said $4.3 million went to a little more than 17,000 prison inmates.

“Death and taxes”, as the saying goes, are the only inevitable things in life.  I think it time to amend that quaint axiom our old friend Ben Franklin coined more than two centuries ago.  “The only things guaranteed in this life are death, taxes, and systematic waste, fraud, and ineptness whenever the government oversees something involving money” ought to be the new adage.

Of course I don’t think the answer to such gross incompetence is to do away with all government agencies.  And admittedly, roughly $22 million is not going to bankrupt the nation.  But this isn’t one isolated story.  This type of recklessness with other peoples’ money is not the exception.  It is, I believe, the end result of an overly-bureaucratic system.

My point is a simple one, and can be drawn from a common life experience many of us share when we were little kids.

One summer when I was about 7 years old, my mom was looking for any excuse to get me and my friends out of the house and away from our beloved Tecmo Super Bowl on original Ninetendo (which we had been playing for approximately 5 consecutive hours).  She proposed that we erect a lemonade stand down the street at a relatively “high-traffic” intersection in our residential neighborhood.  She said she would help us to get the project started, and that we could keep any money we made.

My mom made the pitchers of lemonade, made the sign, and even helped us get the table and cooler out to the curb.  My friends and I did almost nothing to make the lemonade stand happen.  We had no vested interest in the endeavor, other than the fact that we might be able to make a few bucks to take directly to Dairy Queen for the biggest Mister Misty Float the pimply-faced kid behind the counter could concoct for us.

Within the first 15 minutes of selling our product, one friend had been stung by a bee on the inside of his ear, another friend suddenly remembered he had to be home for some undisclosed reason, and I got thirsty and began chugging lemonade like my ship was going down.

It was a disaster.

We weren’t bad kids.  And we had somemotivation for seeing the lemonade stand through.  But we had nothing important on the line.  If we sold some lemonade, we got to go to Dairy Queen.  If we didn’t sell any lemonade, nothing happened and we went back to the dimly-lit basement we were uneasy about leaving in the first place.  The lemonade stand had been nothing but a time-filler for my mom, and a job with no accountability or possibility of repercussion should we fail for us.

Again, I’m not saying that all government jobs are unnecessary.  And I’m certainly not saying that all government workers are lazy and unmotivated.  Not by a long shot.

But what I am saying is that when $22 million mistakes are made in the private sector, even in a giant corporation like Wal-Mart, heads roll.  Policies and procedures are enforced or changed.  When it comes to health care, for example, the government sees roughly 10% of the money it spends on programs like Medicare go directly to fraud and waste.  Conversely, the private sector sees less than 0.5%.

How is this possible?  Are private companies simply hiring morally superior individuals?  Does anyone really believe that employees of private companies are “better” people than state or federal workers?

The people responsible for allowing taxpayer-funded checks to be sent to dead people and prison inmates will likely keep their jobs and this story will be buried by the mainstream media so quickly that it may be eligible for one of those government stimulus checks.  We’ll have to wait and see.