"Stupidity Should Be Painful"

“Stupidity Should Be Painful.”

I saw that slogan years ago — I dunno if it was online, on a T-Shirt, on a bumper, or somewhere else — and it stuck with me. It, like all great aphorisms, summed up an essential truth in a few concise words.

So many people do stupid things precisely because they aren’t painful. Or, in a few rare cases, aren’t painful enough. Ever feel a muscle that’s on the verge of painfully cramping? The temptation to tense it right up to the point of spasm is tremendous. Everyone picks at boo-boos. And that’s just the literal interpretations.

That thought kept coming to me as I read several articles recently in the Boston Globe. None of them quite triggered enough interest in me for a full posting, but after a while I had enough pieces that they qualified for this little themed round-up.

For example, this editorial from last week. “Taxation Without Exasperation.” They think that preparing one’s own tax is too onerous, and since the IRS usually has all the info they need about us anyway, they should simply prepare our returns for us and have the whole thing done without us having to trouble our pretty little heads about the whole thing. It’s one of Barack Obama’s planks in his campaign.

Thanks, but no. Far, far too many people already don’t think too clearly about their taxes, preferring to look ahead to filing for their refund as “the government giving me money” when they should be thinking “the government giving me my own money back after I loaned it to them, interest-free, all last year.” (Yeah, I do it, too. I’m not proud of it, but I won’t deny it.) The Globe is honest enough to include some of the reasons why some people think it’s a bad idea, but pooh-poohs their concerns.

For example, they mention that the IRS has a history of giving taxpayers wrong answers about taxes. They don’t mention, however, that under current tax law, if you are unsure about something and you ask the IRS for help, and they give you a wrong answer, you’re still the one liable for the mistake. Under that precedent, if you have the IRS prepare your “simple return” for you and they screw it up, it’s still your fault.

(The cynic in me kind of likes that. I find it appealing that “you should know better than to trust the IRS” should be a fact of law. It ties in with my theme about “stupidity should be painful.” But I digress.)

Similarly, the Globe has come out courageously in jacking up taxes in Massachusetts. Under the title “Fair Taxes For Tough Times,” they endorse a whole slew of changes in the Bay State’s tax code that will shift another half a billion dollars from the people and businesses and into the coffers of the Commonwealth.

So, let me get this straight; the economy’s heading into a slowdown (I’ll let others debate the technicalities of “recession” and whatnot), so they think that that is a grand time to shift over half a billion dollars from the private sector into the public sector? Massachusetts’ budget is already pretty substantial, at $28 billion a year.

Just for giggles I ran the numbers. (I tend to do that, you may have noticed.) New Hampshire has a population of 1.3 million and an annual budget of around $4.5 billion. (That’s with a 17.5% increase in just the last year — thank you, Democrats.) That means the state spends about $3,500 dollars per resident. (Rounded.) Just to the south, Massachusetts has a population of 6.4 million, so they spend about $4400 per resident. And they certainly get so much for for their additional bucks.

The first element the Globe mentions is a $1.00 tax hike on cigarettes. They don’t say specifically, but I’m guessing that is per pack — that’s usually how they figure it. That will raise the price per carton another $20.00 $10.00. (Thanks, Darby. I knew I shoulda consulted a smoker on that point…)

This one is a fun one to predict. Even with rising gas prices, it’ll soon become more and more tempting for Massachusetts smokers to drive across the state borders to New Hampshire or Vermont or Connecticut or Rhode Island or New York (mainly New Hampshire — our taxes are the lowest, and most of Massachusetts’ population is in the eastern half of that state) and stock up. Consequently, the revenues this tax generates wil take a hit.

Also, cigarette taxes are often the most regressive. Far more poor people smoke than wealthy ones. Even with the “sin tax” rationale, it’s still not a nice thing to do to poor people.

And I say that as a militant anti-smoker who wouldn’t mind seeing the goddamned things outlawed entirely.

Finally, we have a case where something genuinely stupid is proving painful, and the Globe doesn’t see the connection.

Ever since the state decided that every single resident would have health insurance OR ELSE, the actual costs have continually outstripped even the most pessimistic projections of the harshest critics. It’s currently reached the level of about 5.7 metric assloads of cash, and is showing no signs of slowing.

The Globe’s response: “suck it up.”

OK, that’s a little harsh. But as far as I can tell, they’re saying “it ain’t working, but we need to keep trying to make it work!” I’m taking certainly liberties in translating that as “we’re going to need even more money and more intrusive laws,” but that’s a fairly safe interpretation when you’re talking about the Boston Globe and Massachusetts politics.

“Stupidity should be painful.” As good a thing as that would be, it wouldn’t be a panacea. Sometimes it just isn’t painful enough.

Either that, or there are too many masochists running things in places like Massachusetts.

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