They’re All the DMV

After any organization reaches a certain size, it becomes a bureaucracy. That is true in representative democracies, authoritarian states, absolute monarchies, companies, churches, clubs, benevolent societies&mdaash;the lot. That “certain size” isn’t particularly big. That was true in Hammurabi’s time and it’s true today. The very small companies for which I’ve worked have not been bureaucracies but once a company reaches 50-100 employees it inevitably becomes a bureaucracy. Maybe there is some other way of organizing human enterprises but to the best of my knowledge it hasn’t been invented yet.

It takes Anne Lowrey quite a bit of verbiage to blame the complexity of dealing with federal or state agencies in her article at The Atlantic on racism but she gets there eventually. She calls the time, attention, and, frankly know-how that it takes to navigate bureaucies “the time tax”:

The time tax is also racist, a straightforward instantiation of bias against Black and Latino families. Racism was a primary reason that the United States did not create universal benefit systems, as many European countries did a century ago. Today, programs used disproportionately by Black Americans have more complicated enrollment criteria and more time-consuming application processes than programs used disproportionately by white Americans. An application for cash assistance might involve an in-person interview, a drug test, and ongoing compliance with a work mandate; one third of recipients are Black, and another third Hispanic. Setting up a 529 requires no application and has no annual litmus-testing; the program’s participants are overwhelmingly white. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 targeted “tests and devices,” such as a literacy tests, that discouraged voting among minority groups. Yet such “tests and devices” live on in the safety net.

In this way, the time tax undercuts public confidence in government, turning people away from civic life. People think that government cannot work, because government does not work. So what reasonable person would trust government to work? Uncle Sam “is making people’s lives difficult,” Jamila Michener, a professor of government at Cornell, told me.

I suspect that’s the very optimistic in its own way view of government held by many progressives. I wonder how they explain the complexities of such agencies in extremely homogeneous countries? Clearly, she has never been to a post office in Denmark.

Contrariwise I attribute “the time tax” to bureaucracies. The principles under which bureaucracies operate have been well-known for a century. They’re more like single-celled organisms than they are like either mustachio-twirling villains in Victorian melodramas or philosopher-kings. They only live to eat, reproduce, and keep on living. Their putative missions were largely forgotten long ago.

Don’t bother looking for the perfect, efficient benevolent government agency. They’re all the DMV.

Please don’t interpret my remarks as a condemnation of government. I believe that government is necessary. We need governments to secure personal rights, make markets possible, and to promote the common good. I just don’t expect much of it. I certainly don’t expect it to function flawlessly.

10 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    What’s she talking about? I have applications for both of my kids’ 529 college savings plans. Not any different than I think is required in setting up any savings account. The applications are three to four pages long, and require a deposit, social-security numbers, and basic contact information necessary for setting up a fiduciary relationship.

    Let’s see here, degree in English and American Literature at Harvard, which led to a career in writing about economic policy at Slate then the NY Times. Yet somehow does not understand the requirements for receiving benefits might be stricter than giving (saving) money.

    Note that she points to the allegedly non-existent application process; it’s the spending part where the bureaucracy kicks in. Not easy to navigate and document the items that the 529 plan can be used for. Most probably pay an accountant.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    The DMV is easy to deal with if your expectations are realistic.
    Take the whole day off, start early and fill your pockets with snacks. Wear a depends and restrict fluid intake. As soon as you take your place in line, get to know your neighbor, strike up a conversation, if he or she happens to be insane, let them go ahead of you and meet the new neighbors.
    By mid-afternoon you’ll be at the front of the line and ready to head home to retrieve the correct paperwork. It doesn’t have to be hard.

  • Drew Link

    There is a reason we invest in small companies. We are active investors. Change agents. That becomes more and more difficult as the size of the organization increases.

    Speaking of the DMV. In SC there is a personal property tax paid when you register your car each year. You go to the county government center, wait for people seeking various services to clear, then pay the treasurer and get a receipt and a stick….. Uh, no, you don’t get a sticker. You take your receipt and go to the DMV, wait in line, and they give you a sticker there.

    Makes sense.

    Only the crazies believe in no government. But given its horrid performance record it should be minimized, especially in that it is a monopoly and has the power to levy penalties. Government advocates always seem to miss the fact that private businesses have a profit motive, and if the customer is not happy some guy down the street will be happy to offer services cheaper and more efficiently.

    I give you Example Numero Uno, currently in the news. Government Mommy Dearest has a message for you. You vill vear a mask. You vill be vaccinated. Unt you vill like it!!

  • Drew Link
  • In defense of the CDC I am reminded of Keynes’s remark: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

    I have no knowledge of the inner workings of the CDC but I suspect they would say that they are issuing their decisions in prudent recognition of the changing situation.

    My own concern is somewhat different: I’m worried that as a country we are quietly pursuing the same policy as Australia is openly: Zero COVID. IMO that is impossible.

  • steve Link

    Average wait time at our DMV is 20 minutes. Folks at the Post Office are very nice and friendly. Sometimes they only have one counter person so it can take 15 minutes to get through a line.

    Since the CDC did not say I have to wear a mask I guess I wont, except at work. No one has said we have to get vaccinated either.


  • PD Shaw Link

    I went to the grocery store a couple of hours ago and EVERYONE was wearing a mask. I had ignored a sign in the entry way that included free cheap paper masks and indicted that all store employees and vendors are required to wear masks and customers are strongly encouraged to do so as well.

    Schnucks is a St. Louis based grocery chain, so it looks like they are following the City and Council mandates where applicable, but being more aggressive at all its stores outside of St. Louis. Oddly, St. Louis County repealed the mask mandate earlier today.

    I checked inside the store once more to see that everyone was wearing a mask, and left to go to a different store where mask usage was probably around ten percent. I found the idea of putting a mask on again really weird; I wasn’t ready for it.

  • For those of you not familiar with St. Louis, St. Louis is not in St. Louis County. Like Baltimore, it’s effectively a county of its own—not in a county.

  • steve Link

    Going to DMV today to get my Real ID. Need to take about 6 different forms of ID. Freaking communist country having to drag around my papers.

  • Count your blessings. It’s harder than that in Illinois.

    I recognize you’re being sardonic but our ID issues are just beginning. I think that a “vaccine passport” is likely (as well as being imprudent).

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