Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Stupid Tax

You might note that the byline below the blog title is 'Be Less Stupid'. That's not necessarily a slight on you or anyone. Everybody's stupid concerning something or other. Everybody's got an intellectual blind spot. There's nothing wrong with that as long as you do your best to plug the hole. President Obama's a Constitutional scholar, but you wouldn't ask him for bowling advice. 'Be Less Stupid' is little more than a call to fill those blind spots in, to, well, be a little less stupid every day. If you want to look at it as 'be smarter', fine and dandy.

But let's discuss what happens if you fail to be less stupid.

It will cost you a lot of money.

You might have heard the saying that the lottery is a 'tax on people who are bad at math'. Fair enough. Tragic addictions aside, there are absolutely people out there that will look at 10:1 odds and think that if they bet ten times, they're bound to win, and won't even take into account the return on investment even if they do win. There are people that will bet on every number of a roulette wheel and then wonder why they're losing money.

It's something I've always known as the 'stupid-people tax', but for our purposes we'll condense further into 'stupid tax'.

A stupid tax can be defined as any payment of money that can be avoided through not being stupid- the stupider you are, the higher the stupid tax. Lotteries qualify. (I cop to buying the occasional scratch-off, so I'm not immune, but my stupid tax is still fairly low.)

Another famous stupid tax: the Nigerian e-mail scam, also known as the 419 scam, after the part of Nigerian law that deals with it. Scams can hit some perfectly innocent people who do think things through first and simply get tricked. However, the Nigerian scam is so well-known and so utterly ubiquitous- they warn you about it pretty much anywhere that specializes in handling money- that if you get caught out by it, you tend to get absolutely no sympathy. You in fact get pointed and laughed at by anyone who doesn't know you personally or has to try to talk you down afterward. A stupid tax of the highest order.

Not ethical, mind you. Very not ethical. Illegal and low. But a stupid tax nonetheless.

For the three people that don't know what the Nigerian scam is, you get an e-mail from sone dignitary or other- most commonly from Nigeria, hence the name, but it can be from any country- telling you about how they've had to flee the country and had to leave a whole lot of money behind. They can get it back out, but they'll need an investment from you to cut through all the red tape. Once it's out, you'll get a cut of the money.

The letter will be terribly written.

When someone falls for it, they will discover more red tape that requires more money. And more. And more and more and more. Some wind up sending their cars, some travel to Nigeria themselves (at which point it's possible to get beaten or killed). Needless to say, there is no dignitary, and the only tied-up money is yours. Odds are you got taken in by some guy in an Internet cafe.

As long as it's been around, you'd think nobody would fall for it anymore. But the Nigerian scam keeps working. Sometimes it takes a modified form, such as "winning" a foreign lottery you obviously never entered, and could you just pay some processing fees for us?

In fact, according to Snopes, it reaches back all the way to the 1920's in what was then known as the 'Spanish Prisoner' scam, in which you helped fund attempts to break a wealthy Spaniard out of jail, all of which would inevitably fail.

The story evolves, but the scam- and the stupid tax- remain the same.

Who falls for it? Well, for one, a former member of Congress. Ed Mezvinsky of Iowa was using other people's money to do it, which it should be noted does not qualify as a stupid tax. That's not stupid. That's simply tragic. A stupid tax is something you're able to easily avoid, and while Mezvinsky should have known better, anyone could have been taken in by Mezvinsky. Or Enron. Or Bernie Madoff.

A much more ethical stupid tax, and in fact my favorite stupid tax ever, has got to be kgb. Yes, these guys.

Let's say you don't know something. Doesn't matter what. You don't know how to, or are too lazy to, look it up, which, come on, what the hell is Google for. Or Wikipedia. For a 99-cent stupid tax, you, the stupid person, can hire a smarter person to look it up for you.

The best part: through your stupid tax, there exists the chance your query, and its corresponding answer, will be posted by kgb for others to look up, so that they might not have to pay the stupid tax themselves.

Until they do. In droves. So much so that kgb tried to get themselves a Super Bowl ad (but got turned down).

It is the purest possible form of stupid tax: the less you know, the more you pay, and the money goes from the presumably stupid directly to the presumably smart. It's perfect, and better yet, it's completely harmless.

And it can be avoided if you simply be less stupid.

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