Slicing Through the Federal Spaghetti Code

I write computer programs for a living. One of the worst things you can do when programming is to produce something called “spaghetti code.” Spaghetti code is logic so tortured and convoluted that it becomes unstable and unpredictable. Not only can’t you figure out why it’s doing what it’s doing, but any changes become fraught with unintended consequences.

My wife and I spent the Labor Day weekend up in the mountains to escape the heat, and reading an article in Summit (Colorado) Daily reminded me of government-generated spaghetti code:

The IRS rule that put [resident Mark] Stoveken in this situation is complicated. In 2015, Stoveken became disabled, and he could no longer continue working. He filed a Social Security disability claim. The process is lengthy and can take months or even years to get approval.

In 2017, Stoveken and his wife purchased health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Since they were living on a limited income and drawing out of savings at the time, Stoveken received income-based tax credits that are used to subsidize the cost of insurance.

In October 2018, Stoveken was notified that his claim for Social Security disability payments had been approved, and he received a lump-sum payment meant to account for the time it took to process the claim. The lump-sum payment meant he was no longer eligible for the tax credits he received under the Affordable Care Act, and he had to pay back more than $27,000.

Consider the tangle of rules, regulations, laws, programs, exemptions, and procedures—all of them created by the federal government—that resulted in this mess for this taxpayer and citizen.

Without even trying, I count at least 10—1) Social Security, 2) Social Security disability, 3) the bureaucratic process for adjudicating those claims, 4) Obamacare, 5) Obamacare subsidies, 6) tax credits, 7) subsidies that become loans, 8) that those loans become due at once, 9) lump-sum payments, and 10) that those payments compensate for the length of the bureaucratic process.

All of these rules, regulations, laws, programs, exemptions, and procedures—all of them—were created with the benign, compassionate intent of helping people.

Understand that each of them listed here conceals a multitude of others.

To take only one, the paperwork, documentation, and effort involved in applying for a disability claim, and then pursuing it, responding to inquiries, and disputing denials alone is many times more complicated that the simple statement, “He filed a Social Security disability claim.”

Given the potential for fraud, and the understandable human impulse to be kind and generous with taxpayer money, we should expect a rigorous process. But rigor is not inherently incompatible with efficiency. And note that at least one of these procedures, No. 10, is consciously designed to mitigate the ill-effect of another one, No. 3, a tacit admission that the government can’t do this right, and that its solution here is simply to write a bigger check to compensate the sufferer.

Understand, too, that all of these rules, regulations, laws, programs, exemptions, and procedures—all of them—were created with the benign, compassionate intent of helping people.

Then, if you can—if you dare—keep this in mind the next time someone proposes yet another government program to help people.

Now, we can return to our story and Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.)—the politician responsible as Stoveken’s representative for looking into this poor fellow’s case. What we see is that he is not at all concerned with the spaghetti code that produced this catastrophe or many others like it. He concerns himself only with rectifying this particular, special case. His proposed solution? Don’t count the lump-sum payment only in the year it was awarded, for tax purposes.

Neguse may indeed succeed in helping his constituent. But that’s as far as it will go with him.

There is no question in his mind, or in what passes for the mind of the Swamp, that Obamacare is right, that the subsidies are right, that it is right magically to transmogrify them into callable loans the moment someone earns enough so that they no longer qualify for them. There is no question that the disability process is right, or that the diligence due requires compensation.

There is no question in their minds that a government that can’t even design a gas can is capable of designing complex interlocking social insurance, health care, and tax policies, if only we iron out the last few details.

Governments have been churning out compassionate spaghetti code forever. While the Johnson Administration’s massive growth in government made it intolerably intrusive, it took the Obama Administration to make it overtly malicious.

The next step—socialized medicine combined with assisted suicide—will make government compassion deadly.

About Joshua Sharf

Joshua Sharf has headed the Independence Institute’s PERA Project for three years. In that time he has authored a number of Backgrounders and Issue papers on Colorado’s Public Pensions, contributed to the Institute’s weekly newspaper column, and spoken to political and civic groups across the state on the subject. He routinely testifies before the state legislature on proposed pension reform bills. He is Vice Chairman of the Denver Republican Party and has also done original reporting on PERA for and I2I’s Complete Colorado news site and is a regular guest on local talk radio, discussing this and other state and national political issues. He has an MBA and an MS in Finance from the University of Denver’s Daniels School of Business, and has also worked as a sell-side equities research analyst.

Photo: Fanatic Studio/Getty Images

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