Bureaucracy As Active Ingredient

Commenters on yesterday’s post brought up an important point: sometimes bureaucracies aren’t just inefficient information gathering and processing mechanisms. Sometimes they’re the active ingredient in a plan.

Imagine there’s a new $10,000 medication. Insurance companies are legally required to give it to people who really need it and would die without it. But they don’t want somebody who’s only a little bit sick demanding it as a “lifestyle” drug. In principle doctors are supposed to help with this, but doctors have no incentive to ever say no to their patients. If the insurance just sends the doctor a form asking “does this patient really need this medication?”, the doctor will always just check “yes” and send it back. Even if the form says in big red letters PLEASE ONLY SAY YES IF THERE IS AN IMPORTANT MEDICAL NEED, the doctor will still check “yes” more often than a rational central planner allocating scarce resources would like. And insurance companies are sometimes paranoid about refusing to do things doctors say are important, because sometimes the doctor was right and then they can get sued.

But imagine it takes the doctor an hour of painful phone calls to even get the right person from the insurance company on the line. Now there’s a cost involved. If your patient is going to die without the medication, you’ll probably groan and start making the phone calls. But if your patient doesn’t really need it, and you just wanted to approve it in order to be nice, now you might start having a heartfelt talk with your patient about the importance of trying less expensive medications before jumping right to the $10,000 one.

Organizations have a legal incentive not to deny people things, because the people involved can sue them. But they have an economic incentive not to say yes to every request they get. Seeing how much time and exasperation people are willing to put up with in order to get what they want is an elegant way of separating out the needy from the greedy if every other option is closed to you.

This story makes sense and would help explain why bureaucracy gets so bad, but I’m not sure it really fits the evidence. People complain a lot about bureaucracy in places like the Department of Motor Vehicles, but the DMV doesn’t lose anything by giving you a drivers license and isn’t interested in separating out people who really want licenses from people who only want them a little. If the DMV can be as bureaucratic as it is without any conspiratorial explanation, maybe everything is as bureaucratic as it is without any conspiratorial explanation.

But this sort of thing does explain rituals like doctor’s notes for back pain or ADHD diagnoses for stimulants. Maybe it fits better with metaphorical bureaucracy than with literal ones. Or maybe it’s a factor that disincentivizes existing bureaucracies from getting better. I’m not sure and I don’t want to extend the idea further than it will go. It just seems kind of plausible.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

268 Responses to Bureaucracy As Active Ingredient

  1. Wander says:

    Department of Motor Vehicles, which doesn’t lose anything by giving you a drivers license and isn’t interested in separating out people who really want licenses from people who only want them a little

    I don’t know that this is true exactly, I think the DMV loses out when they give a license to a driver who proceeds to plow into someone, and are interested in separating out people who can be trusted with licenses from those who can’t.

    • RavenclawPrefect says:

      This raises the question of why, if they want to filter harder for competent drivers, they don’t just make the test harder. One plausible reason for filtering along willingness to tolerate bureaucracy rather than actual driving skill is that they’re looking for people who will drive frequently; if you need to drive to work every day and thus will stand in line for 3 hours to get your license, you’re going to be honing your driving skills regularly. If you think it’d be fun to take your brother’s truck out sometime 5 years from now when you’ve forgotten which pedals do which (and thus be a far more dangerous driver, even if you had the same skill level at test time) you might not be willing to do that.

      Although I might just be doing some kind of pareidolia here where I try to ascribe rational motives to a crappy thing; the DMV seems like a decent candidate for the sort of inadequate equilibrium that no one with the ability to do so is particularly motivated to fix, and it might just suck for no good reason.

      • JulieK says:

        Maybe they’re filtering for people who follow directions.

        • robirahman says:

          Well clearly that’s what they are doing, but is that what they’re intending to select for?

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Maybe it’s not what they’re intending to select for, but it comes close enough to working anyway that improving the system isn’t worth the effort.

            Because can you imagine the uproar that would result if nationwide, driver’s license certification got difficult enough that, say, 25% of the population was no longer qualified for a license? People who didn’t have a disability that obviously disqualified them already such as blindness?

            Whereas if you just have a system where the bozos who can’t follow basic directions or lack the patience to sit on a bench for an hour without making a scene and then deal civilly with a clerk effectively exclude themselves from the process, it doesn’t work perfectly to exclude bad drivers. But it DOES work to exclude the ones you can look at and say “yeah, there is NO WAY this person should be operating a car.” Mostly.

      • Zeno of Citium says:

        This depends on where you live. Some states are far better than others when it comes to the DMV, and some DMVs are far more crowded than others. I was able to get in and out in Massachusetts in 45 minutes, which includeda picture, filing forms, paying, and waiting (not in a line, but in a decent chair with an electronic board that showed what ticket number they were on). Apparently you can renew online as well. So as much as the DMV is the classic example of a terrible bureaucracy, it has been improved in some place, which is a reason for hope.

    • ReaperReader says:

      So do drivers licening offices in other countries and yet the USA’s DMV seems to have a much worse reputation than anything I’ve heard of in the UK or NZ.

      • Said Achmiz says:

        As I note in my other comment, I suspect this reputation is exaggerated, to say the least.

      • po8crg says:

        The UK’s DMV equivalent is split into two bits: DVLA (everything except actually taking a driving test) and DVSA (driving tests).

        DVLA (in the UK) doesn’t have local offices that require your physical presence. Ever. For anything. Everything is done online or by post, and has been since 1965.

        For instance, to renew my licence, I get a photo taken, get someone to certify that it’s a good likeness – in the US that would be a notary; in the UK, we don’t really have notaries, so it’s anyone in a licenced profession (most commonly, a teacher or a doctor. Basically anyone who could be struck off for abusing it) – and put the photo, the certification, an application form, my old licence, and a cheque for the fee in the post and send it to DVLA. I get a licence back a couple of weeks later – or I can do it all online but only if I have a passport they can copy the photo from.

        DVSA (the other half) does have driving test centres, but the only time you ever have to go to one is to take a test, for which you have to book an appointment (online). Tests are conducted in fixed time-slots, so you get a 30 minute slot and they start on-time.

        (DVSA is also responsible for the annual vehicle safety tests that all UK vehicles have to undergo; these are actually conducted by private-sector shops, but those shops are licensed by DVSA).

        I get the impression that the principal problem with the US DMV is that you have to turn up and wait for your number to get called. By dealing with most things on paper, DVLA can have a week-long backlog and no-one cares because the only thing waiting is a pile of paperwork.

        • AlphaGamma says:

          While we do have notaries, they are quite rare and mostly needed for much more ‘important’ official purposes. I have only ever had to use one once, for something to do with an inheritance. Interestingly, they are still licensed by the Archbishop of Canterbury!

          (DVSA is also responsible for the annual vehicle safety tests that all UK vehicles have to undergo; these are actually conducted by private-sector shops, but those shops are licensed by DVSA).

          You can also go to a government-run shop to have your car inspected- often this will be combined with where the local council maintains its fleet of vehicles. The advantage of doing this is that they won’t repair your car, so have no incentive to fail it in order to get the repair business. The disadvantage is that they won’t repair your car, so if it fails you have to take it somewhere else for repairs.

        • fazalmajid says:

          My wife is British and had to find a British licensed professional for her passport renewal in the US. Apart from the baroquely borgesian nature of the list, the process can’t possibly meet any rational standards of security.

          • Watchman says:

            I’ve got a PhD. Therefore I can act as a notary in the UK for most government purposes such as passports. I could if I wish just sign off whatever was presented to me for a fee other than a couple of little issues. One is that it would be a criminal offence and a surprisingly easy one to prove. The other is that it would be easy to pick up on databases since there are so many people who can sign the things that a pattern of repeated appearances would stand out. So I just sign things for my neighbours and friends’ little sisters (no idea why not their brothers…).

            But because I only sign things for people I know this system is far more secure than getting a notary who has never met someone to notarise documents confirming their identity. And anyway surely the onus should be on making it easy for people to get a passport or driving license, not stopping them in the name of security?

          • AlphaGamma says:

            For those unaware, here is the list in its current form.

            Apparently, doctors asked to be removed from the list because they were annoyed at the number of people asking for appointments in order to have a passport application countersigned.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            “president/secretary of a recognised organisation”

            does “recognised organisation” have some meaning in British that “recognized organization” in American does not? Like, some paperwork that has to be filed that makes a group of people officially “recognised”, rather than just an amateur football club?

            Or is it that the passport official has to know about the group?

          • AlphaGamma says:

            does “recognised organisation” have some meaning in British that “recognized organization” in American does not? Like, some paperwork that has to be filed that makes a group of people officially “recognised”, rather than just an amateur football club?

            While I don’t know what is meant by this, a lot of amateur sports clubs are registered as companies with Companies House (a government body). This means that they have directors, whose details (name, date of birth, nationality, occupation and correspondence address) are a matter of public record. People convicted of crimes involving dishonesty, or involved in other misconduct, can be disqualified from serving as the director of a company.

            (It is possible under certain circumstances for directors to be legal rather than natural persons- so one company can be a director of another!)

          • Watchman says:


            I’d say recognised here means verifiable. Basically the point is to have someone with some sort of status say the person applying is who they say they are. It’s not anything other than an identity check really. Any security checks are done by the bureaucrats rather than farming them out to non-government agencies.

        • Watchman says:

          One other thing. Whilst you need to update it if you move house, develop a medical condition or get extra categories of vehicles you can drive, a UK driver’s license does not expire until you are about 70, so does not need renewing. This probably helps with giving an efficient service…

          Why does the US feel the need to renew licences anyway? The UK reserves the right to revoke them, so the pointless bureaucracy here seems to be the renewal. There’s probably a reason, probably good at the time, perhaps good even now, but I can’t see it myself.

          • mercutio says:

            It is still common, and used to be dramatically more common, for US citizens to move across state lines.

            Drivers’ licenses are issued by states, and the licensing procedure is connected to all sorts of things the state cares about: there are state-by-state variations in rules-of-the-road, jury duty is determined by voter registration which happens in practice mostly when you renew your drivers’ license.

            If you don’t cross state lines, drivers’ license renewals are done by mail 50% of the time, so it’s really a once-a-decade experience. Finally, I have never spent more than 45 minutes on getting my drivers’ license renewed, so the nightmarish scenario of popular imagination bears no relationship to my actual lived experience.

          • dark orchid says:

            Incorrect I think?


            “You must renew a photocard licence every 10 years – you’ll receive a reminder before your current licence ends.”

          • AlphaGamma says:

            @dark orchid- you have to renew the photocard, but the entitlement to drive does not expire until the age of 70. If you fail to update the photo, while you are committing an offence, that offence is not driving without a licence (it’s something else which is AFAIK less serious).

            And if you still have an old (pre-1998) paper licence due to not having moved house etc. since then, you can keep it until you turn 70.

        • Gobbobobble says:

          and put the photo, the certification, an application form, my old licence, and a cheque for the fee in the post and send it to DVLA. I get a licence back a couple of weeks later – or I can do it all online but only if I have a passport they can copy the photo from.

          What do you do without a license for those couple weeks? Pray really hard that you don’t get pulled over?

          • rlms says:

            You renew it before it expires; I think they request the old one after the new one arrives.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            You don’t have to carry your licence with you when driving in the UK- if you’re pulled over and don’t have it, you have to bring it to a police station within the next week.

      • Deiseach says:

        I think it’s probably a result of several things coming together:

        (1) There are a lot of people who want to renew their license or apply for a new one
        (2) People always leave renewing their license until the last minute
        (3) This means crowds turn up the day before their license expires to renew it, which means delays and waiting – this means that even if you are the responsible person who turns up in good time to renew their license, you’re stuck in line with everyone who waited until the last minute, no matter what day you go in
        (4) People also turn up lacking necessary documents even when the form says in big red letters BRING THIS WITH YOU OR ELSE WE CAN’T PROCESS YOUR APPLICATION
        (5) Cuts in public service (because of election promises of efficiency and trimming the fat and making savings and not spending the taxpayers’ money) mean that there are fewer people to process the paperwork
        (6) Entrenched working practices (why is there only one window/line open during lunch time, when everyone is queuing up because that’s the only half-hour they have free from their job to go in and renew their license? well, public/civil servants like to eat too, and it’s the same time for lunch for them as for you)
        (7) General inefficiency and gumming up the works which creeps in with any large organisation over time
        (8) Because everybody complains about the DMV and hates dealing with it, that attitude affects the people working there; why break your back putting in extra effort when you’ll get no appreciation or gratitude for it? (You have no idea the jaundiced attitude people get when dealing with large volumes of the public over time, because you only see your own particular case where you’re the responsible member of the public with all your ducks in a row, and don’t have to deal with fifty guys in a row all not filling in the form correctly and all demanding you give them what they want even when you don’t have the power to go against the regulations and do that, then they swear at/threaten to get you fired and the next guy comes to the window and it’s rinse and repeat).

        • analytic_wheelbarrow says:

          his means that even if you are the responsible person who turns up in good time to renew their license, you’re stuck in line with everyone who waited until the last minute [right before their birthday], no matter what day you go in

          Wait, why does it matter if everyone shows up right before their license expires? Aren’t birthdays pretty uniformly distributed?

          In other words, if everyone picked a random day in the 2 months before their birthday, wouldn’t it be just as crowded?

          • ana53294 says:

            Licenses usually last X years after the date you passed your driving exam. So you will have to renew every X years the same month you had the driving exam on.

            A lot of young people (at least in Spain) get their driving license the summer after their 18th birthday (they would be too busy during their last school year preparing for the University entrance exams; but once those are over, you can spend the two months before uni learning to drive, so you can drive to uni). I imagine that this may mean a glut of people getting their licenses right when people are going on vacation.

            There aren’t many issues with renewing licenses in Spain though, so I guess it may not be that big of a deal.

          • 2181425 says:

            Interestingly, birthdays (at least in the US) aren’t quite uniformly distributed. I don’t think it’s enough to really matter in this context, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

            link text

            FWIW, my experiences with bureaucracy (small town midwest) have generally been positive if I go in prepared with the right pieces of required documentation ahead of time. If you can’t be bothered to look up the requirements for, say, getting a passport ahead of time and show up with the attitude “Birth certificate? Why would I need that? I only have 15 minutes!” the problem is you, not the bureaucracy.

          • Aftagley says:

            It’s the same number of people, true, but people showing up right before the license expires is invariably going to increase the potential for a few periods of crazy-long lines. The normal factor that prevents a long wait from getting out of control is the ability for people to arrive, see that the line is ridiculous and just come back later. When you can’t do this, (IE, your license expires tomorrow) you just add to the chaos.

          • Thegnskald says:

            Aftagley –

            That isn’t the only failure case for that particular pressure valve.

            It also stops working if the lines are -always- long, or even if that is the perception.

          • baconbits9 says:

            It’s the same number of people, true, but people showing up right before the license expires is invariably going to increase the potential for a few periods of crazy-long lines.

            You are assuming that the license expirations are clustered in some significant way. If they aren’t then virtually everyday ends up with similar traffic.

            Besides this though EVERY business deals with this stuff. At bakeries where I have worked the a bad weather day tomorrow could mean anything, it could be that everyone hunkers down and skips going out, it could mean that everyone is rushing to stores today, it could mean that people would be without power or to busy cleaning up to cook for themselves and will be buying food. Yet bakeries don’t get reputations for being difficult to work with, bureaucratic or inefficient.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            You are assuming that the license expirations are clustered in some significant way. If they aren’t then virtually everyday ends up with similar traffic.

            Besides this though EVERY business deals with this stuff. At bakeries where I have worked the a bad weather day tomorrow could mean anything, it could be that everyone hunkers down and skips going out, it could mean that everyone is rushing to stores today, it could mean that people would be without power or to busy cleaning up to cook for themselves and will be buying food. Yet bakeries don’t get reputations for being difficult to work with, bureaucratic or inefficient.

            Bakeries don’t get to refuse to give you a driver’s license that you basically need in order to live a normal lifestyle. And no one actually has to go to a specific bakery or chain of bakeries, if they don’t want to.

            Thus, people very rarely have an incentive to get angry at bakeries.

            If you worked for a private business that had more ability to screw up people’s lives by denying them service, you might see more similarity to the DMV experience. People get a lot madder at their ISP for being obtuse than they do at their bakery.

          • Furslid says:

            It matters because there is a natural clumping in random patterns. I’m thinking of my last two visits to the DMV. One I left for the last minute. The line was long, but I toughed it out because I had to get it done that day. The other I had three weeks left to do it in. The local office is convenient on the way to the main grocery store I use. I popped my head in three times. The first two times I left because it was busy. The third time I was in and out in 20 minutes.

            Leaving it to the last minute makes delaying impossible. It’s even worse because there are very limited hours when the DMV is open outside of normal working hours.

        • jasmith79 says:

          At the risk of being horribly classist, I’m about to be horribly classist.

          There are two potential problems with the BMV: the employees and the customers. If you live in an area where people generally show up prepared, even with a lengthy line it moves pretty quick. I’ve showed up at my local BMV, struggled to find a seat to wait in, and still made it out in < 30 min. But that only works if customers show up prepared, and the employees are normal members of the community (i.e. also fairly conscientious). If either of those two constraints is violated, all bets are off.

          Before I moved to the burbs, I would routinely wait 1.5hrs+ at the local BMV, for all of the reasons you describe. The bureaucracy didn’t change, but the attitude of the employees and customers certainly did. Which makes me wonder if bureaucracy is actually the excuse of the unwilling.

        • Gobbobobble says:

          (4) People also turn up lacking necessary documents even when the form says in big red letters BRING THIS WITH YOU OR ELSE WE CAN’T PROCESS YOUR APPLICATION

          It would help if the incompetent management and uncaring drones could be arsed to provide accurate (& complete) information online or over the phone. If I get to a government office and a big red letters sign is the first I’m hearing that I need [obscure document X I’ll probably need to dig around for in a filing cabinet at my parents’] then I’m gonna wait around for my turn so I can make sure that’s the ONLY thing they neglected to put on their website.

          This has gotten better in recent years but it was a pain in the ass back in college.

      • danculley says:

        I don’t have data points for New Zealand, but we routinely have employees transfer to the DC area from various European countries. Every single one I have ever met has marveled at how efficient it was to obtain their driver’s license in DC Maryland or Virginia. (As well as being shocked at how much better public services are run, even public transport, and then becoming angry about why they’ve been paying such high taxes their whole life. They of course are horrified and bewildered by health insurance.) Having now moved to Belgium and in month three of waiting to get my license, just turning in which required two visits and piles of paperwork, I can confirm this is true.

        • Cliff says:

          Where are you living in Belgium? As you know there are three (or nine) governments there so I am curious for the data point

      • vV_Vv says:

        I’m not American and I never lived in the US, so my impression might be wrong, but from what I’ve heard the driver license is the closest equivalent to a national ID that an American can have (other than a passport, but that’s expensive and even more complicated to get, so people who don’t plan to travel don’t bother getting one). This mean that the DMV must do the work that in other countries is done by multiple government agencies, and it must do it without a central citizen database (because the same Americans who give all their data to Google and Facebook which are known to give backdoor access to the NSA are paranoid about the government having a citizen database).

        • Watchman says:

          Doesn’t hold up, as the same applies to the UK and we don’t have DMV style problems.as noted by po8crag above.

        • baconbits9 says:

          (because the same Americans who give all their data to Google and Facebook which are known to give backdoor access to the NSA are paranoid about the government having a citizen database).

          These types of lines always crack me up! Isn’t it obvious that Google and Facebook are likely to be as bad, if not worse, than the US government? Any day now they will be drafting young men to fight in Vietnam, stripping the property of hundreds of thousands of people of Japanese descent and bombing the middle east regularly for the next 25 years.

        • mercutio says:

          I am as opposed to Google and Facebook’s personal data collection as you’re likely to find, but they are most certainly not “known to give backdoor access to the government”.

          The NSA is known to have expoited some now-fixed backdoors, and companies are required to (and thus, do) respond to all lawful subpoenas, but repeating the claim that they do this happily and without following due process is a slander without basis in anything but conspiracy theories.

          • baconbits9 says:

            The other difference is also that I am allowed to lie to facebook and google. As far as they know my name really is Harry Johnson and I reside at 69 peckerwood way.

          • vV_Vv says:

            The NSA is known to have expoited some now-fixed backdoors, and companies are required to (and thus, do) respond to all lawful subpoenas, but repeating the claim that they do this happily and without following due process is a slander without basis in anything but conspiracy theories.

            My impression from what I’ve read about the Snowden leaks was that the companies were more or less on board with it or at least the government could strong-arm them into giving them access using secret orders from special courts that operate without public oversight. But I might have misunderstood something or I might be misremembering.

            But even if the tech companies don’t always cooperate I doubt that the NSA has much trouble getting access anyway, and I presume that they have a database of pretty much every person on earth.

            I’m not judging, maybe that’s what it takes to prevent another 9/11, my point is that it is silly to complain about the US government having a citizen database citing concerns about potential misuse, because the US government most certainly already has one, but it can’t use it for official purposes, which is just inconvenient and doesn’t prevent misuse.

          • vV_Vv says:

            As far as they know my name really is Harry Johnson and I reside at 69 peckerwood way.

            Unless you disable geolocation on your phone they know where you are at all times with a resolution of a few meters. And if you disable geolocation is it really disabled? Who knows, have you seen the code running on your phone? And even if they don’t do anything sneaky, the IP address itself gives away the rough location.

            Moreover, have you installed Watsapp on your phone? If so, Facebook has your entire phonebook.

          • baconbits9 says:

            They can know where my phone is at all times, but again the issue isn’t “knowledge” its the forced extraction of knowledge by a powerful agency with a spotty track record. If I lie to facebook their recourse is practically nothing, if they find out I don’t use facebook their recourse is practically nothing. If that happens with a government mandated ID the consequences can be fines and imprisonment. There is a fundamental difference there. It isn’t that I don’t want anyone to know my name and where I live, its that I want to be able to choose who I give that information to.

          • Matt M says:

            Indeed. There’s no precedent for Facebook carrying out targeted assassinations of its political enemies. Facebook mostly uses my location to try and serve me more relevant ads – something that generally improves my life.

            There’s plenty of precedent for the state doing that. And they’ve legally declared their right to do so. They mostly use people’s location info to try and spy on them or lock them in jail for various things – something that would dramatically harm my life.

            It’s the difference between lending $100 to your good friend you’ve known your whole life, and lending $100 to a random crackhead. There’s no reason to expect that people should either “be willing to lend $100” or not. You lend and share with people you trust, and you avoid doing so with people who are clearly and obviously not trustworthy.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Indeed. There’s no precedent for Facebook carrying out targeted assassinations of its political enemies. Facebook mostly uses my location to try and serve me more relevant ads – something that generally improves my life.

            This is a big part of it to, I get something from google knowing my position sometimes, the government knowing my position brings primarily potential costs.

          • vV_Vv says:

            You don’t get the point. If Facebook, Google, Apple, or your phone company know your position (and your phone company needs to know your position in order to provide you service), then the government also knows it.

            If the government wants to harass, imprison or assassinate you, lack of national ID is not going to stop them, or even make it any more difficult.

            Hence concerns that national ID could be used for nefarious illegitimate purposes by the government are irrational.

          • John Schilling says:

            Hence concerns that national ID could be used for nefarious illegitimate purposes by the government are irrational.

            Except that if there’s no national ID card, my phone can be a burner that I paid for using cash and a pseudonym.

            More generally, denying a potential adversary [weapon X] even though they also have [weapon Y] is not inherently irrational, and it is needlessly insulting to simply assert that the proponents of such are being irrational.

          • baconbits9 says:

            You don’t get the point. If Facebook, Google, Apple, or your phone company know your position (and your phone company needs to know your position in order to provide you service), then the government also knows it.

            No they don’t, because I don’t have to use those companies products and I don’t have to give them every bit of information that they want and it isn’t a crime to give them mis information. Even if the they did give the government all that data wholesale without warrants etc it is still fairly difficult for them to build a database properly without their own confirmed data as reference points.

            On the other hand once they have a national registry/universal ID system THEN taking all the Facebook/Google data and figuring out everything about you becomes very easy.

          • Matt M says:

            If the government wants to harass, imprison or assassinate you, lack of national ID is not going to stop them, or even make it any more difficult.

            I dunno, the government is pretty damn incompetent, and their motivation varies significantly. If they really want you dead, you’re gonna end up dead, no matter how “off the grid” you think you are (Waco, Ruby Ridge, etc.)

            But that doesn’t mean we need to voluntarily make it easier for them to pick off people they only kinda, sorta, want dead if it happens to be cheap and easy…

      • roystgnr says:

        There’s no such thing as the USA’s DMV, there’s a separate DMV or MVD for each state. It could be that a few bad ones get a lot of attention and the good ones get ignored, or it could be that by the time information circles the world “how efficient is the USA’s DMV” is understood no more precisely than “is there one DMV there or 50”.

        Or it could be that the reputation is just a little out of date? One of the most popular running jokes about how awful DMV bureaucracy is comes from The Simpsons, which started it in 1991, which was probably just about the worst time you could imagine to work in a government bureaucracy: computerization of everything, changing and requiring retraining frequently, not yet properly networked (even Windows For Workgroups didn’t come out until 1993). By the time I got my first drivers’ license a few years later, and especially by the time I first got it renewed, however, it was like a golden age of efficiency in the two states I experienced. My theory at the time was that they’d finally got the computer systems running smoothly, and of course in a government agency you wouldn’t actually fire half the staff just because they’d become twice as productive with no increase in workload, so they could handle much more work than they had.

        My most recent visits were gradually less efficient so either that effect was a figment of my imagination or just random luck or it simply doesn’t work on a generational timescale.

        • sharper13 says:

          Exactly. You’re talking about 50 different State systems. The results vary widely.

          For the ones I have experience with:

          California (25 years ago) was slow (2 hours) in most offices, but faster out in the suburbs. I’ve heard they’ve since added online appointments and sped up the wait portion.

          Utah (20 years ago and 8 years ago) was fast and efficient. They seemed to have their act together and have sufficient funding for the population level.

          Virginia (16 years ago) was a little slow, but fairly efficient.

          Arizona (last few years) was the best. They privatized all the MVD services they could, making it possible for anyone who wanted to and had the right background to start their own MVD business for car registration and licenses, pretty much anything you can’t do online (renewals). Also, all the car dealers can do new registration paperwork. As a result, there is a place you can go within 10 minutes of anywhere and you basically pay a $5 convenience fee on top of the normal State fees. If you don’t want to pay that, all the people going to the private businesses means the State-funded MVD offices (of which there are only a few) aren’t nearly as overworked and busy as they would be otherwise.

          North Carolina (last few months) has been the worst. They do renewals online, but they require teen drivers to do a multiple-stage license process in person (for the children!), so during the summer at least they have a 4-8 hour wait (I heaven’t tried the rest of the year). It takes a 4 hour wait on the phone to get an advance appointment a month+ ahead of time (I finally gave up, so maybe it’s longer). They close at 5pm and if you show up after noon they guy who does the initial paperwork verification and gives you a number basically says to not bother, because if they haven’t reached you after another 5 hours of waiting, you just get to go home and start from scratch the next day. My wife lined up 2 hours before they opened in the morning and it still took her a 6 hour wait just to trade in her AZ license for a NC one. She didn’t have time to register the car. Yeah, it’s that bad. They try to allow for most stuff to be online, but there are federally created legal requirements for in-person transactions which are causing a major rush right now. In addition to the student-driver stuff, they’re converting the entire population over to the ReadID standards, which requires everyone to come in person again to show identity documents, even if they already have a DL.

          My two cents… functional bureaucracy is fine. It’s called “process” and it can be very valuable. The types of bureaucracy where the bureaucrats don’t have the right incentives/resources, or where they have more discretion than actually needed (leading to corruption and an anti-incentive for good work without payment), can easily get out of control.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      Which person within the DMV loses in that case?

      When an insurance company is sued, it loses money, which hurts the stockholders, who elect the board of directors, which picks the managers that make the polices that the employees follow to pay or deny payment. There’s an actual causal connection there.

      The DMV cannot be sued when a driver plows into someone. Nobody has an incentive to make it harder to legally drive- and nobody has an incentive to make it easy, therefore Moloch makes it hard.

    • vV_Vv says:

      I don’t know that this is true exactly, I think the DMV loses out when they give a license to a driver who proceeds to plow into someone

      What do they lose? It’s not like the victim can sue the DMV for damages because they gave a license to an incompetent driver.

      It could be argued that it marginally decreases people’s trust in the government, but I doubt that this is a top concern of the typical DMV office manager lying down the procedures.

    • Alex Zavoluk says:

      Is anyone with any power at the DMV actually held responsible if someone with a license gets into a crash? Somehow I doubt it, and I suspect the bureaucracy does an excellent job of passing the back. No one is actually responsible, because the person in question filled out the right forms and each person at the DMV isn’t really responsible for making any decisions. Even the person who does the driving test (which often won’t be the case when the DMV gives someone a license) just has a checklist to fill out. If it does become a big problem, they can probably blame the legislature for not requiring better standards.

    • Matt M says:

      The DMV isn’t bureaucratic and slow in its efforts to test and measure driver quality. That part of it goes smoothly.

      It’s the identity verification part that’s a pain, because that IS where they have to be careful and limit access to people who can really prove they are who they say they are. There are a lot of people who would like to walk up and say “I’m John Smith, now give me an ID that I can use for virtually everything in the US” and get one with no effort, hassle, or verification.

      • baconbits9 says:

        Not my DMV, all the identity stuff is done by mail weeks in advance. I only have to go the the DMV to physically get my picture taken and have the licence printed.

        It still took an hour last time I went despite the fact that every desk appeared manned and they had moved into a new building and had updated all the technology (touch screen sign in to get numbers etc).

        • Matt M says:

          Have you lived in one state your whole life?

          I’ve generally moved states every 3-5 years and usually you can’t do anything online for your “first” appointment in a particular state, which may be coloring or biasing my experiences.

          The last time I went to one when I moved to Texas, I showed up at 9 AM, didn’t get to see a person until 2 PM, and once I got to the window, the entire transaction took about 5 minutes.

          • Alex Zavoluk says:

            I moved to Texas a few years ago and getting my old state’s license replaced definitely did not take 5 hours. Maybe 1.

      • IvanFyodorovich says:

        Yeah, and while people might not blame the DMV if they give a license to a bad driver, they probably will get blamed if a fugitive/undocumented immigrant/terrorist gets a driver’s license on the basis of fake documents, then uses the identification to escape law enforcement scrutiny/buy guns/board airplanes or whatever.

      • deciusbrutus says:

        No, that’s not what they do AT ALL.

        New Mexico changed the ID requirements between the time they issued my license and the last time I renewed it.

        The official COMPLETE LIST of acceptable ways of proving who you are is here.

        Note the omissions: An unexpired driver’s license or state ID card is NOT acceptable proof of identity. But a birth certificate (which anyone can acquire from public records) combined with a printout of a W-2 statement and printouts of utility bills, counts as proof of identity, lawful status, and address.

        I assert that it is trivial to print something that looks like a W-2 statement or pay stub or utility bill with arbitrary information in the “name” and “address” fields, and therefore that allowing those documents to prove that you ARE the person whose birth certificate you hold generates zero security.

    • Frank Ch. Eigler says:

      I think the DMV loses out when they give a license to a driver who proceeds to plow into someone

      I don’t think lose at all. Like many government regulators (“central planners”), they have no skin in the game, and have no personal liability. When’s the last time a DMV office or official was dismissed for approving a license to someone who screwed up badly?

  2. sustrik says:

    In cryptography there’s a similar technique called proof of work. The goal is to limit access to a resource that would otherwise be free.

    • Brian Olson says:

      Yeah, I was reading this post and thought, “omg it’s blockchain”. And the corollary that “proof of work” doesn’t mean useful work, and probably just proof of burning some number of CPU watt-hours. But bureaucracy is burning hours of human life.

      • sustrik says:

        I would say that it very explicitly CAN’T be useful work. If the work was useful one would be able to do the useful work for fun and profit and get the proof of work just as a side effect.

        • Lambert says:

          For a certain definition of ‘useful’.
          I’ve seen the concept of using SETI@home or one of the cancer protein folding programs as an altruistic proof-of-work get thrown around.

  3. Le Maistre Chat says:

    As Leonard Nimoy said, “The bureaucracy is expanding, to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.”

    Except that’s a glib half-truth at most. Bureaucracy must serve a useful function like the one you suggested, even if not that exact one, or societies without bureaucracy would out-compete those with it, right? It’s not like the Northwest Coast potlatch trap, where waste of wealth spiraled in a vicious circle as the people had more economic surplus, until whites came to the area, said “what a quaint spiral”, and took over.

    • AnteriorMotive says:

      In the big picture, countries with less institutional dysfunction do indeed outcompete the others. But we don’t live in the big picture.

    • poignardazur says:

      Yeah, but a country doesn’t stop existing if it’s outcompeted (unlike a society or a gene). So bureaucray being inefficient doesn’t stop it from existing.

      • Simon_Jester says:


        A country stops existing if it becomes inefficient enough under extreme conditions.

        Poland in a real sense stopped existing in the 1700s because of, among other things, accumulated problems caused by an extremely dysfunctional form of democracy in which every legislator had a veto over acts of the entire legislature. It was eventually divided up and absorbed by the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian empires.

        If other nations whose military-industrial complexes were larger and better-adapted to modern combat hadn’t beaten the Nazis later on, many European nations would have stopped existing during World War Two due to getting outright conquered by Nazis.

        Many monarchies have stopped existing as national governments due to having feeble bozos on the throne, or conversely because of civil wars fought over who gets to replace the feeble bozo weakening the state so badly that foreigners can march right in and take over.

        It’s not impossible for a government to ‘go out of business’ due to mal-administration, just difficult.

        • EchoChaos says:

          Heck, within my lifetime (and almost certainly the lifetime of most commentators here), a country very nearly did stop existing. And would have if the United States hadn’t backstopped Kuwait.

          The fact that it happens less is due to superpower politics, not so much that it can’t happen.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            See also: South Vietnam

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Kuwait doesn’t necessarily count for this purpose, in that they were so much smaller that a competently run government couldn’t really have deterred Saddam Hussein from invading.

            On the other hand, it seems possible that if the US and the coalition it led hadn’t showed up, Saddam might have kept rolling all the way into and through Saudi Arabia. There wasn’t really much to stop him, being as how the Saudi military, while well-equipped from oil money, was of doubtful competence.

            Since the Saudis did have a big enough economy to be capable in principle of organizing a state strong enough to stop the Iraqis from conquering them (on par with Iran’s)… Yeah, that could readily have turned out as an example of a state ceasing to exist through Darwinian processes if outside states hadn’t intervened.

    • LesHapablap says:

      Humans who stay cancer-free outcompete those that get cancer. It doesn’t stop cancer from being a problem though.

      Certain ideas/memes outcompete others very well, and the risk-averse ideas in compliance and box-ticking spread very easily and are resistant to change.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        I think those memes may also have hidden value on some level.

        It’s like, there’s a sliding scale between how orderly and predictable a process is, and how chaotic and locally-optimized it is.

        A highly predictable process that doesn’t make exceptions will be locally suboptimal in most if not all cases- but the predictability lets other people integrate it into plans and organizations, which would otherwise be more difficult. So memes favoring predictability and order spread in part because they have a hidden adaptive benefit for the society that embraces them, in that they make it easier to build complicated social structures that “just work,” at least more or less.

        Sort of like, say, how sickle-cell anemia seems maladaptive until you realize that the same gene that causes sickle-cell also confers malaria resistance.

      • LesHapablap says:

        Certainly some or most memes have value. But having value is not a prerequisite to being a successful meme, not by a long shot, and survival of an organization is not evidence that some of their memes and bureaucratic processes are a complete waste. For one thing, a lot of the processes are imposed from outside, by customers or regulators.

        An aircraft engineer I know in New Zealand went to Oregon to pick up a helicopter for import to NZ. He was shocked and annoyed by how difficult it was to get things done. Things that would have been simple in NZ suddenly became complicated and hard due to dumb rules that companies had for things like renting a flatbed truck. One guy couldn’t lift anything because he didn’t have his gloves.

        You might think all the bureaucratic company rules are a net positive until you go someplace where they don’t have to put up with it, and life is just much easier.

    • Shion Arita says:

      Civilizations with steam power will outcompete those without it (and did), but steam power still didn’t emerge to prominence until the early 1700s despite the romans kind-of knowing about it. It’s certainly possible (and in my opinion very likely) that no one has figured out how to bureaucracy-poof a society yet.

    • Michael Handy says:

      One advantage of Bureaucracy is resilience and redundancy. It provides procedures that may be inefficient, but work at a minimum level, and can be done by #averageclerk rather than the ultra efficient go-getting super genius.

      That’s why corporations gather it as they increase in size. Somewhere, at some point, you will need to hire some average, somewhat competent guy for a vital function, and you’ll need to keep that function going even if HR makes a mistake and the next guy to hold the position is somewhat incompetent.

  4. jg29a says:

    My local DMV has never been bad at all — not in the small town, not in the college town — so I’ve long believed that what complainers must be experiencing is much greater population centers with similar facilities and staff.

    Now, although I did work as a commercial trucker in my youth, I was never acquainted with management’s issues. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if DMV was hell on people making their living from multiple licenses, registrations and insurance policies.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      Nor have any of the DMVs I’ve been to, around here, ever been bad. In fact, in my experience, the DMV is one of the less bureaucratic and more efficient government offices that I’ve dealt with (and I’ve had to deal with quite a few). Complaints about how the DMV is supposedly a nightmare of bureaucracy have always perplexed me.

      I live in New York City, by the way.

      • teamawes says:

        I just showed up at my California DMV this past week at 9:20, rather than 8:30 as I usually try to (it opens at 9) and didn’t make it out until 12:45. That was two hours of waiting in line to get a number so that I could wait in line to talk to a clerk to get a printout of my car’s registration-nothing unusual about my needs-followed by nearly as long waiting to talk to said clerk.

        Less anecdotally, it’s hard to imagine how the universally known meme that the DMV is horrible-as opposed to any other bureaucracy that many people interact with repeatedly, such as the post office-would arise without a reasonably density of actual horrible experiences at the DMV. I think what’s horrible is not that there’s an unreasonably high complexity of bureaucracy, just that you have to actually physically sit around for hours waiting for a trivial service.

        • Said Achmiz says:

          Less anecdotally, it’s hard to imagine how the universally known meme that the DMV is horrible-as opposed to any other bureaucracy that many people interact with repeatedly, such as the post office-would arise without a reasonably density of actual horrible experiences at the DMV.

          Your anecdote gives a clue, I think. After all, what if it’s simply that the California DMV is horrible? Well, but why should that give rise to such a pervasive meme? —you might ask. But Hollywood is in California; and where do so many of our pervasive memes come from?

          • Sniffnoy says:

            I think this is exactly it — note that the very name “DMV” is a California-ism. There are other examples of this phenomenon too (TVtropes link 😛 ).

          • Bugmaster says:

            I actually think that, for the most part, California DMVs are pretty good. The one next to my house right now is horrible, but only because it doubles as the main passport office for the county, so there are always over 9000 people waiting in line there. Each individual person is served relatively quickly and efficiently, but it’s still like shoveling back the tide.

          • jg29a says:

            Your anecdote gives a clue, I think. After all, what if it’s simply that the California DMV is horrible?

            The “small town” and “college town” DMVs I mentioned as never troubling me are Auburn, California and Davis, California. 😉

          • bean says:

            After all, what if it’s simply that the California DMV is horrible?

            It wasn’t in my experience. You can set up an appointment online, and I did so every time I went. With that, I never waited more than 10-15 minutes. I’m sure that the people in the huge walk-in line had more trouble, but it’s not a problem with the California DMV as a whole. (And yes, I was in the Long Beach area, so this isn’t just a feature of rural ones.)

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            Virginia’s DMV is also terrible. Moved there for a job a while ago. There were dozens of people in line who’s job was carrying out other people’s DMV business. 2 Hour wait at least.

        • mdv1959 says:

          FWIW, many of things you get at the DMV can be fulfilled by the local AAA. For example, I’ve gotten new license plates from AAA.

          • Nick says:

            I thought plates were done by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and not the Department of Motor Vehicles anyway? Or does that differ from state to state?

            ETA: I’m in Ohio, to be clear.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            @Nick: state to state. For instance, it’s the DMV in Vermont, but the RMV (Registry of Motor Vehicles) in Massachusetts.

          • Mary says:

            Yes. License renewals at AAA are quite quick.

        • Deiseach says:

          But you’re sitting around/standing in line because there are all those other people there; if there were only three people waiting and you still had to spend hours to talk to a clerk, that would be the DMV’s fault.

          It’s not their fault if six hundred people wait until Tuesday to renew their license which will expire on Wednesday. That would chime with the anecdotes of people in small(er) towns and cities having few to no bad experiences.

          • russellsteapot42 says:

            The problem is usually that politicians refuse to hire enough clerks to process things quickly.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            Do all of the licenses expire on the same Wednesday? That’s their fault.

            If expiration dates are mostly evenly distributed, then it doesn’t change the average number of people arriving on a given day if they show up on the day before or pick a random day 30-60 days before it expires.

            (same total number of people arrive on a day to renew their license, same number of days in the year, therefore same average)

            But if people “randomly” pick a day, there will probably be some systemic bias in which day they pick- people are bad at being random. Therefore some days will have many more people “randomly” select them to go to the DMV, resulting in longer wait times on the days that more people show up- the average wait time per person is increased because more people show up on the days with longer wait times, because wait times on longer when more people show up.

            If everyone were to show up on the exact day before their license expired, it would go smoother.

          • Plumber says:

            In my experience with the California DMV, it’s usually just a minute or two with the clerk, they’re fine.

            It’s the hours long line to get to a clerk that’s the problem.

            But if the built big enough DMV’s and enough staffing for most days then one day for some minutes there would be clerks without customers and someone would complain of “A waste of taxpayer money”.

        • bythepool says:

          The California DMV seems way busier recently because of the federal REAL ID requirements. Usually you can renew your license online or by mail but to get a REAL ID-compliant license, you have to actually go to the DMV. IME wait times with no appointment were around an hour last year, but are more like 2-3 hours this year.

          Getting an appointment will save some time, but isn’t always that useful because the DMV requires you to do a lot of things within 10 days (e.g. registering a car you bought) but there are never appointments available within the next 10 days.

          Other states where I have lived have been much better, like 30 minutes wait if the place is packed, 10 minutes if not.

          More generally, one annoying thing about bureaucracy at the DMV is that while there are detailed rules and procedures for everything, they’re administered by humans and your experience can be made quite a bit more difficult if the person behind the counter misunderstands something or is just in a bad mood.

        • IvanFyodorovich says:

          I think there are two reasons for long DMV waits:
          1. Unlike a private enterprise, they have no competition. Their incentive to make your life happy is limited. As other people have pointed out, cable companies tend to be even worse than the DMV, in part because they often have no real competition in a given region either.
          2. To the extent they do have “competition”, it’s people using their website or AAA to do stuff that could be done at the DMV. The DMV has no incentive to make your life easy if you show up to do stuff you could have done on the website. I think a lot of company phone trees are obnoxious for the same reason, they want you to give up and use the company website.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Very similar to my experience in NJ (where’s it’s the MVC and not the DMV). My wife and I went to renew our licenses, over 2.5 hours, shuffling from one line to the next and a lot of waiting. Including a significant time standing outside waiting to go in. Oh, and the parking lot was metered with a max of 2 hours (though we didn’t actually get ticketed).

      • Trevor Adcock says:

        DMVs are run by State governments and there are 50 States. Also there is a lot of local variation even in States. I think it was also worse in the past and people who are 50 now remember trying to get their license 30+ years ago.

      • gwern says:

        I’ve had similar experiences with the NY & MD DMVs/MVAs, for getting my learner’s permit (both), driver’s license (both, original & replacement), paying fines (both), turning in license plates when my car burned (NY), and replacing lost license plates (MD). As long as I bother to read the form first and show up with the paperwork*, the experience is invariably I show up at a convenient time for me without an appointment, sit in a chair for 10-15 minutes reading my book, hand them the paperwork and sit back for 10 minutes or so, and it’s done. I spend longer driving to and from the office than I do at it. Or I do it online, and while the websites may be crude and old-fashioned, they work better than most Web 2.0 crud… Except for the driving test itself, it’s generally faster than, say, eating at a sit-down restaurant. And it’s much more pleasant than dealing with my credit union (“sorry gwern, your credit card got stolen! again! enjoy sitting down with us for the next hour or two to go through every fraudulent charge also we want you to come back and also your replacement card won’t arrive for a week or two I hope you weren’t planning on traveling or buying anything online which doesn’t involve bitcoins” and don’t even ask how long it took to open the account in the first place), or medical things (I don’t think I’ve ever taken a relative to anything medical-related which took less time than my longest DMV/MVA experiences). In terms of dealing with bureaucracies and organizations, the DMV/MVA would be way down my shitlist.

        What I think might be going on is partially media stereotypes. I’ve never been to a DMV/MVA where someone is smoking inside, and yet, every episode of The Simpsons with Patty/Selma, the DMV is full of smoke (because, being Purgatory, it is located next door to Hell). That show began, it’s worth remembering, 29 years ago, and drew on a comedy well that was hoary even then. Everyone ‘knows’ the DMV is, everywhere and always, awful, and enough people have bad experiences, perhaps in places like California, to keep the stereotype alive and self-propagating in media as a useful joke (eg Zootopia‘s sloth).

        * I admit the lack of doing this may be a factor in the bad reputation…

    • shakeddown says:

      Both times I went to the DMV in Connecticut, they wouldn’t let me get a learner’s permit because one of the million pieces of paper they want had a minor flaw (for example, one of my pieces of mail didn’t have the date on it). They’re pretty bad.

      • Deiseach says:

        You have no idea how terrible UNDATED DOCUMENTS are for civil/public servants to deal with. This is a piece of evidence to back up an application; is it from this year, last year, five years ago? If it’s saying “shakeddown is a responsible person who has good eyesight, never drove drunk, and is living at 66 Buttercup Lane” – is that still true, or is it something you had from three years back and now you’re living in Crackhouse Alley and are blind in one eye and regularly get drunk as a lord every night? Regulations generally say “this has to be a CURRENT utility bill or whatever”, with no date on it, there’s no way to show it is current.

        Same with proof of address etc. – anyone can get a magazine subscription sent to their parents’ house, this does not prove they are living there. In what will be a shocking revelation to you all, I know, SOME PEOPLE LIE ABOUT THINGS! IMAGINE!

        Plus, as Scott said, it’s a filtering mechanism: if you can’t read and follow directions/can’t be bothered when getting all your documentation together for the application, then you’re likely to not be bothered about jumping red lights, making sure you have your indicators on before turning, and so forth.

        Petty regulations drive everyone crazy but in defence of my fellow bureaucratic minions: (a) they do not have the power to over-ride them, because even in the one-in-a-million chance that they let you have a permit and you then go out and plough into a schoolbus full of orphans, in a country with a population of 325 million, that’s 325 potential tear-jerking reports on the news and “why oh why wasn’t something done about it?” calls for the clerk’s head on a pike (b) there’s generally a reason for such rules (c) complain to local politicians, not the person at the window, the lawmakers are the ones who can change the regulations!

  5. There’s a lengthy chapter in James Q. Wilson’s excellent book Bureaucracy, which compares a typical DMV branch office (with long lines and confusion) to a typical McDonald’s restaurant next door (with quick service and clear directions), and examine what makes them different.

    There is a stereotype that bureaucracies are rule-bound, but Wilson found that the McDonald’s has an enormously larger rulebook for its operations than the DMV does. He also explains why a hypothetical DMV branch manager who tries to improve service will fail.

    There are a lot of other interesting comparisons, for example, the US federal agency OSHA (regulating workplace health and safety) versus its Swedish equivalent, which operate in sharply contrasting ways. The Swedes (even under a Socialist government) assume everyone wants to comply with the law, and they readily make exception and extend deadlines, and rarely impose fines and penalties; they make appointments to do inspections. The Americans (even under pro-business Republican rule) assume everyone wants to violate the law, so they do surprise inspections, impose lots of fines and penalties, and never grant exceptions or extensions.

    Wilson attributes all this to the varying incentives under a parliamentary system versus under a president/congress system. In particular, American bureaucrats do best by keeping their heads down and adhering strictly to the rules, because some congressional committee is going to notice if one business gets better treatment than another.

    • Thomas Jørgensen says:

      Sweden can assume that because every business in Sweden is unionized to the rafters. Any company deliberately cutting corners on health and safety is going to run into trouble with the union long before the government does anything. The actual function of the Swedish bureaucracy in this field is mostly to help firms but together a sensible safety framework, and then give that framework the official stamp of approval. Centralized repository of expertise, more than anything else, really.

      • Watchman says:

        I think we need to see the evidence that unionisation works as predicted here to be honest. Unions work for their members so if the members raise concerns then the union will hopefully (not always) take them up. But anyone can report a concern to a regulator, and normally in what is here the Swedish model the regulator has to act on the report. So I’d argue that the key feature of this system is that there can be a direct link between regulatory authority and workers, with the union fulfilling that role in the American model perhaps.

    • Deiseach says:

      they make appointments to do inspections

      Whatever about Sweden, in Ireland at least if you announce in advance you will be turning up on Wednesday at 10 o’clock to inspect the house/premises/nursing home, all the problems will be swept under the carpet and extra staff hired on and everything done in order, then when the inspectors have gone through and issued their report that all is well, the old scrappy cost-cutting carelessness resumes. This was one of the complaints about social workers when I was in social housing; they told the client that they’d be turning up at such-and-such a time. The responsible parent(s) were no problem, but the ones gaming the system had advance warning to make sure they either had the semblance of ‘good parent trying to do their best for their kids’ in place – e.g. making sure they had a cooked meal on the table and the kids sitting down to eat – or to exaggerate their circumstances to be as bad as possible – e.g. kick out their boyfriend for the while and go back to their mother’s house so they could claim to be living six to a room. Either way, the social workers then signed off on “my client’s circumstances are such they really do need that brand new five bedroom house in the nice neighbourhood they’ve been angling for and refusing all the other houses you’ve offered them”.

    • aristides says:

      Agreed, often the reason the reason bureaucracy seems inefficient is that Congress sets the budget separately from setting the duties, and their incentive is to set the budget as small as possible, set the duties as efficient as possible, and blame the executive for not meeting the duties. This is what prices accomplishes and what we are missing. But that only applies to government bureaucracy, private sector bureaucracies are more likly to arise from the separating mechanism you describe in this post.

      • CatCube says:

        This is one detail that I didn’t realize that people didn’t know. I recall back during one of the Obamacare fights people were banging their spoons on their highchairs because “The law passed by a previous Congress requires this thing, but this Congress isn’t appropriating money for this thing! What are people supposed to do?!”

        The answer is that they don’t do that thing. This happens all the time. In my organization, we do civil works projects. Whenever you have a federal civil works project, you require two things from Congress: an authorization, and an appropriation. These are two separate things–not least because a large multi-year project will require appropriations over several fiscal years, and monies are generally appropriated by FY.

        For example, my organization has authorization to construct three more dams than we already own (substantial structures, too, over 100′ high). However, we do not have an appropriation for them, so it would be illegal to work on them. (These are also pretty far down the benefit-to-cost ratio curve, so there’s no internal will to seek an appropriation, either–there’s plenty of other maintenance items that we’ve got shortfalls on that we’d rather have funded first.)

        • deciusbrutus says:

          See also 5 USC 3381, which has been constructively repealed each year for decades by specific language in the appropriations bill, pending a review of how to make the program implementing it more efficient.

    • Jaskologist says:

      McDonald’s may have a lot of rules, but not for the consumer. At the DMV, those rules are hitting every person walking in the door, hence the difference in reputation.

      • Matt M says:

        I would also imagine that McDonalds rules are far more flexible than DMV rules are.

        As others have said, if you show up at the DMV with one minor thing incorrect on one of your forms, their answer will most likely be “Go away, fix your form, come back tomorrow.”

        If McDonalds has one little thing wrong with its onion slicer, you can bet your ass the first answer to the problem is not going to be, “Well, something is wrong, we can’t do it by the book, therefore no more hamburgers are being made today until we fix this.” There’s a local manager with a bit of discretion whose primary incentive is to ensure the continued smooth operation of the business. I’m guessing he has a lot of latitude to ignore any policy when strict adherence would result in a substantial loss of revenue.

        • pjs says:

          The McDonalds comparison isn’t entirely fair. McDonalds has a lot of freedom to change the product itself to find the right “efficiency” vs “quality” (customer desire) trade-off, and what we get in a competitive market will tend to look like a sensible and broadly desired balance of the two.

          The DMV’s ‘product’ is legislatively constrained, and anyway consists of things no one really wants for themselves (I “know” I can drive well; I’d rather not pay licensing fees, etc). So even the best possible efficiency point is not going to make people as happy; people will believe that the provision could both be more efficient while improving (from their perspective) the product as well (e.g. see early comment from someone about whether undated documents should be acceptable). The trade-off is going to look more wrong than for McDonalds because the DMV lacks a freedom the former has.

          Another way of arguing this point… In a competitive fast food market, you’d still have to enforce health and safety (and other laws), but on the whole the market would tend to buttress this enforcement (too much food poisoning, too many reports about dangerous ingredients, etc … fewer customers). On the other hand, in a competitive DMV environment, the demand force would be the opposite: it would reward efficiency especially where it loosened the ‘product’ (e.g. more slop in how much checking is done for license issue would make the product more attractive, not less, and if it made things easier so much the better).

          • Matt M says:

            Not necessarily.

            Who would be the “customers” of a private DMV?

            Perhaps not individual motorists themselves. Perhaps it would be the owners of private roads, who would need some organization to ensure that drivers are reasonably safe and well qualified. The owners of a private road would want to ensure their road was opened to as many customers as possible, but also have a strong incentive to ensure that unsafe drivers are not present on their roads.

            If a particular motorist certification body was found to be employing unreasonably lax standards, private roads would stop accepting that certification as valid for travel on their roads – which would make the certification entirely without value and cause the certification body to go bankrupt.

    • bean says:

      The Swedes (even under a Socialist government) assume everyone wants to comply with the law, and they readily make exception and extend deadlines, and rarely impose fines and penalties; they make appointments to do inspections. The Americans (even under pro-business Republican rule) assume everyone wants to violate the law, so they do surprise inspections, impose lots of fines and penalties, and never grant exceptions or extensions.

      I’m not sure this is entirely an American/Swedish thing, so much as cultures in different fields. From what I’ve heard, the US mining safety people (who are separate from OSHA) are a lot more on the “Swedish” model. For that matter, I worked fairly closely with the FAA when I was doing airline safety, and we were usually all on the same side. They knew we didn’t want to have planes crashing any more than they did, and were willing to work with us to do new things. It wasn’t entirely friendly, but it wasn’t like they were just out to hammer us, either.

  6. Michael Watts says:

    Acting as an intentionally stifling bureaucracy is a major part of my job.

    Specifically, my job is to respond to people who report issues to one of several public bug bounty programs. Anyone is free to file reports, which means that most reports are horrifically awful, along the lines of “when I zoom in on your app, the text becomes blurry” or “I can easily capture your users’ passwords by getting them to run my software on their personal computer”.

    It is a matter of policy to treat everyone politely and give them a chance to argue that what they are reporting is a serious security flaw that we need to fix. I will ask for better descriptions of the problem and a statement of security impact even when I know perfectly well that any attempt to answer my questions is a waste of the researcher’s valuable time, because the issue has been reported to us 400 times in the past, we understand it well, and we don’t consider it a risk. Some researchers haven’t understood this (many don’t speak good English) and have gotten quite upset after putting in hours of additional work to demonstrate an issue we don’t care about.

    I’m not trying to separate out the researchers who REALLY WANT $100 from the ones who just figured their report was worth a shot. We answer the way we do because we’re trying to avoid offending people. That means it’s better to get the researcher to give up than to tell them we’re not listening. This is basically the same strategy as a girl telling you “I would like to go out, but I’m not free tonight, tomorrow night, or at any other time when you might hypothetically be free”.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      The official policy is to give people the runaround, rather than tell them that the thing they are reporting doesn’t fall within the bug bounty program?

      • Deiseach says:

        deciusbrutus, someone who is absolutely convinced “zooming in makes the text blurry” is a serious security risk is not going to be put off by “this doesn’t count as a bug”, they’re going to keep on trying to convince you that it is a real danger, and there’s a good chance they’ll go online and rant about how they’re trying to bring a serious flaw to the attention of X but are being ignored, and then everyone and their dog reblogs about how X is sloppy careless and endangering the public. (I’m constantly amazed how people take on trust and credit anything they see online, but they do).

        Letting them gradually run out of steam is the least troublesome way.

    • Ketil says:

      bug bounty programs

      I can see why that could go wrong. At I place I used to work, the brilliant management decided to aim for more employee involvement in developing the company. So they set up a suggestions box, announced its existence and simultaneously a reward program that paid about $5 for each suggestion. Not for the best suggestion, or suggestions that actually was implemented – every suggestion.

      The obvious ensued, and management reacted by quickly removing the suggestion box, and slowly crawling back under their rock, muttering about how employee involvement is just a bad idea which obviously is never gonna work.

    • phileas says:

      That’s a great description of a Gresham’s law of bad requests / inputs. Bad requests / input drive out the good.

      No one knows how to terminate / deal with them properly, so it just gets passed around endlessly until it sucks up everyone’s time.

      Maybe also a Gresham’s law of exported trivial inconveniences. The real inconveniences eventually just bypass the system in an attempt for solutions.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Maybe also a Gresham’s law of exported trivial inconveniences. The real inconveniences eventually just bypass the system in an attempt for solutions.

        The limit of this, a very common one, is that the front door through the bureaucracy is closed entirely (though this is not obvious because the process to denial is long and convoluted), but there’s some back door — some form of bribery, or knowing the right person, typically.

  7. skybrian says:

    I wonder if this is any different in an HMO situation (such as Kaiser)?

    It seems like doctors are not trusted to fill out the paperwork correctly because nobody is otherwise looking over their shoulder to see that they do it correctly, and they are working for a different company than than the insurance people with different incentives.

    By contrast, people with managers watching over them might actually be trusted more?

  8. Bugmaster says:

    FWIW, in my personal purely anecdotal experience, the DMV quality of service is actually not bad — certainly better than what you’d get from, say, Comcast. Admittedly, some of their offices are continuously overloaded, with wait times pushing 3..4 hours; but this is not necessarily due to any excessive bureaucracy — just a scarce resource being over-exploited. The lines are managed very well, the service is clear and effective, and they make the effort to pipeline as much as they’re able… but there are just too many people.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      The office being overloaded is a clear sign of poorly allocated scarce resources. If no employee is ever idle, the number of people that can be helped per day is fixed- set approximate appointment times, and make everyone wait an average of 30 minutes from their appointment time to be seen!

      • Deiseach says:

        deciusbrutus, let’s say that there are five employees in the office. They work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a half-hour lunch break – that’s 9.5 hours each. They spend 15 minutes with each client – so that’s 38 people in a day, times 5, means they can get through 190 people in a day.

        All you need to knock this system out of whack is for 10 people to turn up in a rush without an appointment needing their licenses renewed because they’re going to expire tomorrow. No, they can’t wait for you to schedule an appointment with them for Thursday, they need their license right now because their job depends on them being able to drive to get to it, and they forgot it was going to expire until it was too late to get an appointment in time. Or for people to turn up without the proper documentation so they have to be re-scheduled for another day. Or for someone’s appointment to run over the 15 minutes (ever see this when waiting in a doctor’s office?) or any of the usual kind of human screwups that happen. Or one of your five clerks calls in sick that morning. This means delays, means backlogs, means people waiting longer, means lines form…

        We’re not talking about an assembly line where you can measurably churn out 500 widgets an hour, we’re talking about dealing with humans, and humans are not uniformly perfect and efficient.

        • ArnoldNonymous says:

          Forgive me if I’m wrong, but aren’t these sorts of issues exactly what https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queueing_theory is for? By adding some slack you can have the best of both worlds. Admittedly with this slack you might actually only be able to help less customers per day than with the current system, but in exchange they don’t all have to wait 3 hours.

          • terpbear says:

            Yes, there’s no reason it should be a regular occurrence for someone to wait hours. If you have scarce resources, fine. But it’s inexcusably inefficient to have customers wait hours for those scarce resources…ever.

          • Garrett says:

            By slack, you mean “waste, fraud and abuse” right?

          • deciusbrutus says:

            Slack is roughly “ability of the system to gracefully handle variation from ideal situations”.

            It does cover “someone takes an hour instead of a half-hour for lunch”, but it also covers “today most transactions took 15 seconds more than usual because the primary printer was out of service and the backup is a slightly less short walk, so there was an extra 15 minute wait time at the end of the day.” and “More people than usual had their paperwork in order, so there was enough time to handle some more walk-ups”.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          Those 10 people get seen IFF someone misses their appointment time and there isn’t a backlog elsewhere, or if appointments get done faster enough than expected to create a gap.

          People who reschedule appointments simply get a new slot. People who are late forfeit their slot, but can join the waitlist- if the person with the next slot is ready in time, they get yours and you might get theirs.

      • vV_Vv says:

        An appointment system is more convenient for the customers but has lower throughput per employee: some x% of customers will not show up or show up late, causing some of your employees to be idle.

        If the total throughput is the issue and you don’t want to hire more employees, then you don’t want to reduce throughput per employee: past a certain point it would make the backlog increase indefinitely, making the system unsustainable.

        The obvious solution to long queues is to hire more employees to do the processing, but this costs money of course.

        • Ghillie Dhu says:

          It doesn’t have to be either-or. Many restaurants take but do not require reservations; as long as you don’t allocate all your expected capacity to the appointments and allow those serving appointments to pull from the FIFO queue when idle, you could get the best of both worlds.

          I’d be inclined to charge a fee (or at least a refundable deposit) to book an appointment, to prevent the appointment system from getting clogged with no-shows (which case becomes indistinguishable from the current system).

          • terpbear says:

            Not to mention, you’ve now provided people the choice to pre-sort themselves based on their preferences.

            Throughput should not be the only consideration. A doctor or a lawyer that has little spare time, will value those hours waiting very highly and will be highly incentivized to make an appointment ahead of time. The more casual person, perpetually unprepared or random emergency situations would have the inverse preference.

      • Bugmaster says:

        This scheme can only work if you ban walk-ins completely. My local DMV/passport office does allow walk-ins, which means that they get 50x more customers than they can serve without creating a huge line, assuming that service times are on the order of minutes, not milliseconds. The only reasonable solution would be to build another DMV.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          You don’t have to ban walk-ins. Just have them wait for an available employee.

          Even have one or two employees specifically handling walk-ins as FIFO, and also providing surge capacity for when a transaction takes longer than expected or an employee is incapacitated.

  9. Note, too, that U.S. bureaucracies are not always worse than government bureaucracies in other countries.

    For example, the US Postal Service is the best and cheapest postal system in the entire world. Yes, it is. US mail moves faster, and gets delivered more quickly, than the mails in any other sizable country. The USPS is almost unaffected by labor strife and theft of valuable items from the mail. And (unlike almost all foreign postal systems) it receives little or no direct government subsidy.

    As to the cost of labor, I believe this happened by lucky accident. Thanks to rules intended to drive what used to be pervasive politics out of the system, the US Postal Service is utterly unique among public and private employers, in giving essentially zero weight to irrelevant factors such as personality and appearance. Even mail carriers are hired based on competitive exams.

    As a result, the Postal Service employs many intelligent and skilled individuals whose quirks or backgrounds make them otherwise unemployable. Hiring equivalently skilled people the normal way would be much more expensive, because ordinary employable workers have many other options in life.

    • Michael Watts says:

      A legal monopoly on delivering mail is an extreme government subsidy, regardless of whether you want to call it a “direct subsidy”.

      It is true that there’s an exception for urgent packages, defined as packages which the sender has paid above a certain amount of money to send. A legal monopoly on cheaply delivering mail is still an extreme subsidy.

      • terpbear says:

        Yes, and cheaper borrowing costs using federal government credit and no income/property taxes. And billions in unfunded pension liabilities every year. Oh, and they did post a $2.7 billion loss last year (although better than the $5B loss the prior year). They may be decent (arguable), but a claim to little or no subsidies is laughable.

        What do you think happens when the USPS posts a loss? They borrow money. Who ultimately ends up paying? Taxpayers.

        • baconbits9 says:

          Well at least they stuff garbage in my mailbox 3 times a week.

          • terpbear says:

            Even better when you consider that you’re forced to subsidize/pay for the monopoly privilege of paper spamming yourself. Borders on Kafkaesque.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          Postal pensions are the best funded “unfunded” pensions out there. They compare favorably to Enron’s or GM’s “fully funded” pensions.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Enron and GM don’t have the ability to levy taxes to fully fund their pensions.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            Neither does the USPS. The USPS pays OPM the full amount out of the user fees it collects, and then the standing appropriation pays the pensions.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            Postal pensions are the best funded “unfunded” pensions out there.

            Yes they are. The USPS has to 100% cover the cost of the pensions.

            I wish that every government agency had an identical requirement, with it being a line item out of their own budget.

            They compare favorably to Enron’s or GM’s “fully funded” pensions.

            Better than favorable. Corporate pensions on only required to be 85% funded, with a government backstop guarantee if that turns out to be insufficient, which is beyond assinite. This is not a spreadable risk. If one major corporate pension fund fails, they all will all at the same time. Face it now, deal with it now.

          • Brad says:

            On the other hand the PBGC caps the coverage whereas state and federal (but not municipal) pensions are protected in full by the Constitution.

          • terpbear says:

            I’m not sure if pointing to two bankrupt companies inspires much confidence in USPS pension arrangements. And I believe ERISA plans are required to fund accrued benefits, or be subject to penalties. So I think the private sector is subject to similar requirements.

            Where does the 85% funding requirement come from re: private plans? And for the “government backstop”, I presume you are referring to PBGC insurance? The insurance that’s required by law for certain defined-benefit plans? And that “backstops” those plans purely out of the premiums paid?

          • Brad says:

            And that “backstops” those plans purely out of the premiums paid?

            They do until they run out of premiums paid and then the rest of us pay, even if we aren’t “supposed” to. See also: financial crisis, The.

          • Worley says:

            There’s a lot of confusion going on here. The requirement for private pensions to be 85% funded (or whatever it is) is part of ERISA. Such pensions are guaranteed by the PBGC, which is a corporation, and the guarantee is funded by a tax on insured pension funds. Over the years, a number of such funds have gone broke, so they don’t all go broke at the same time. OTOH, if the PBGC goes broke, there isn’t a government backstop for it.

            Federal pensions are probably claimable against the US government, but in that case, you’re only going to get your money if Congress appropriates it.

            State and sometimes municipal pensions are given the status of contractual obligations by some state constitutions. But if that government goes into bankruptcy, contractual obligations can be reduced or voided.

            Of course, the effects of all of these can be changed if the political climate at the moment of crisis supports it.

      • MH says:

        The whole ‘legal monopoly!’ thing is more than a little undercut by the Universal Service Obligation, as well as the set of exemptions (“packages”, for example, or “express mail”). It’s a very limited restriction on, primarily, first class mail, which the post office is legally required to deliver to everyone in the United States for a reasonable price with six day a week deliveries.

        Including restrictions on what other companies can provide is just basic market reasoning. If you need something that provides mail to everyone (and you really, really do), you’re going to either need to have that restriction or have a universal service obligation for all companies that deliver things so that they can’t just pick out the profitable routes and ignore the really expensive ones that don’t return much revenue. (This is very literally what the private ones do right now: unless you’re paying super crazy prices if you’re not on one of the good routes they’ll take your package to the place that is legally required to deliver to the unprofitable ones, namely the post office.)

        • terpbear says:

          Or just figure out a way to subsidize the remote deliveries instead of nationalizing/monopolizing the entire service under government control? It’s silly to suggest that the universal service obligation requires the government run the whole thing.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Basically, the US grants the Postal Service a monopoly only on types of postal delivery that are essential. For example, you need it to be guaranteed that businesses can mail anyone in the country a bill, no matter where they live, without it being unduly expensive to do so.

            If you replace that with a privatized system, the privatized system will cherrypick the most profitable mail delivery routes and ignore the rest. A large percentage of the country ends up living in places that can’t get mail delivered at a reasonable price, and correspondingly you’ll see things like national businesses ceasing to do business with anyone who lives in those towns, precisely because it’s too troublesome to mail them a bill or a notice.

            If you remove the monopoly and subsidize the unprofitable routes, you’ll create endless fuss and argument over exactly which routes should be subsidized exactly how much. You’ll have multibillion dollar corporations who now have incentives to lobby Congress for greater postal subsidies, or for subsidies in the areas where THEY took over from the postal service but not areas controlled by their competitors. Much more so than the existing USPS does with its monopoly, because the USPS isn’t privately owned by people who get to keep the profits it makes.

          • MH says:

            You mean like a subsidy like a special tax status and an exclusive (but fairly narrow) license to do something? The post office isn’t funded by Federal taxes, you know…

          • A large percentage of the country ends up living in places that can’t get mail delivered at a reasonable price

            You mean “can’t get mail delivered at a price representing the cost of delivering it.”

            Similarly, people who live in a very low population density area can’t get to a supermarket without a long drive. People who live in densely populated areas can get housing without paying a higher price than those who live in low population density areas.

            What is wrong with any of these outcomes? Why should people not bear the costs, and receive the benefits, of their decision on where to live?

            I should add that I think your “large percentage” is a considerable exaggeration, but there might well be people who had to pay somewhat more for first class mail absent the existing requirement.

          • Matt M says:

            Agree with David.

            I keep hearing about these hypothetical people that would be unserved in a free market for postage. Has anyone attempted to estimate how many of those people actually exist?

            I grew up in a somewhat rural area, approximately 10 minutes drive to the nearest small town and 20 minutes to the nearest reasonably sized town. We lived on a gravel road that the county rarely maintained. We couldn’t get cable TV. Everyone had well water.

            But we, and everyone in our area, were happily served by UPS and Fedex without complaint.

            Like, I’m sure there are some people who were “more rural” than us, but I can’t imagine there’s a ton of them.

          • JulieK says:

            If you remove the monopoly and subsidize the unprofitable routes, you’ll create endless fuss and argument over exactly which routes should be subsidized exactly how much.

            Let’s say we remove the monopoly, while continuing to provide postal service to all locations for the same price. So businesses can still send bills to everyone.

            Private companies might start delivering mail to more dense areas at the same rate, or even slightly cheaper. The USPS ends up primarily delivering to more rural areas, operates at a loss, and has to be subsidized. But we don’t need to decide which areas to subsidize- it happens automatically (via the invisible hand of the market).

          • JulieK says:

            Also, would it be so terrible if people in remote areas had to travel to a village post office to receive their mail, rather than getting door-to-door service? I think this system used to be pretty common in the past. (In fact, the Israeli post office *still* has this system for packages – only letters are delivered to the door.)

          • deciusbrutus says:

            I don’t think it’s possible for competing companies to deliver the same total volume of mail at the same price as a monopoly can.

            The operating expenses of a postal carrier are NOT proportional to the number of letters they deliver; splitting the letters between two competing companies means that the total cost of mailing those letters needs to cover nearly double the operating expenses.

            Rapid cross-country delivery options aren’t expensive because they have a high marginal cost- they are expensive because there is a high cost to have the infrastructure to make them happen at all. Doubling or tripling the number of parallel infrastructures will nearly double or triple the total cost; either prices will then have to fall to the point where total revenue increases enough to cover the extra costs (as with Fedex and UPS both having similar ‘next-day air’ services, because neither has the capacity to handle the total demand for that service).

            But the demand to have something delivered literally as fast as possible at the price needed to do so (rather than merely as fast as economically reasonable) is pretty low.

          • I don’t think it’s possible for competing companies to deliver the same total volume of mail at the same price as a monopoly can.

            If your argument is correct, how is it that the USPS, UPS, and FedEx are all in business? Shouldn’t one of them have outcompeted the others?

      • A legal monopoly on delivering mail is an extreme government subsidy, regardless of whether you want to call it a “direct subsidy”.

        Yeah, yeah, yeah. But, as far as I know, all other countries’ postal systems also have a legal monopoly, tax-exempt facilities, etc., etc., PLUS billions of dollars in direct tax subsidies.

        The USPS is unique, or at least very unusual, in that it doesn’t get direct appropriations.

        Apples to apples, please.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      For example, the US Postal Service is the best and cheapest postal system in the entire world. Yes, it is. US mail moves faster, and gets delivered more quickly, than the mails in any other sizable country. The USPS is almost unaffected by labor strife and theft of valuable items from the mail.

      Indeed. I think that most Americans fail to appreciate how good they have it, in this regard.

      Perhaps this wonderful report from the “Annals of Improbable Research” might help to instill some appreciation and pride for our postal service workers:

      Having long been genuine admirers of the United States Postal Service (USPS), which gives amazingly reliable service especially compared with many other countries, our team of investigators decided to test the delivery limits of this immense system. We knew that an item, say, a saucepan, normally would be in a package because of USPS concerns of entanglement in their automated machinery. But what if the item were not wrapped? How patient are postal employees? How honest? How sentimental? In short, how eccentric a behavior on the part of the sender would still result in successful mail delivery?

      We sent a variety of unpackaged items to U.S. destinations, appropriately stamped for weight and size, as well as a few items packaged as noted. We sent items that loosely fit into the following general categories: valuable, sentimental, unwieldy, pointless, potentially suspicious, and disgusting. We discovered that although some items were never delivered, most of the objects of even highly unusual form did get delivered, as long as the items had a definitely ample value of stamps attached. The Postal Service appears to be amazingly tolerant of the foibles of its public and seems occasionally willing to relax specific postal regulations.

      Some highlights:

      Molar tooth. Mailed in clear plastic box. Made a nice rattling sound. Repackaged in padded mailer by unknown individual; the postage and address had been transferred to the outside of the new packaging. A handwritten note in a woman’s writing inside read, “Please be advised that human remains may not be transported through the mail, but we assumed this to be of sentimental value, and made an exception in your case.” Days to delivery, 14.

      Ski. A large amount of postage was affixed to a card that was attached to the ski. The ski was slipped into a bin of postage that was being loaded into a truck behind a station (a collaborating staff member created a verbal disturbance up the street to momentarily distract postal workers’ attention). Notice of postage due received, 11 days. Upon pickup at the station, the clerk and supervisor consulted a book of postage regulations together for 2 minutes and 40 seconds before deciding on additional postage fee to assess. Clerk asked if mailing specialist knew how this had been mailed; our recipient said she did not know. Clerk also noted that mail must be wrapped.

      Coconut. Fresh green coconut containing juice, mailed in Hawaii. Delivery at doorstep, 10 days.

      Street sign. Conceivably a stolen item, or illegal possession. Notice of attempted delivery received, 9 days. Handed over at station with comment that mail must be wrapped.

      Deer tibia. Our mailing specialist received many strange looks from both postal clerks and members of the public in line when he picked it up at the station, 9 days. The clerk put on rubber gloves before handling the bone, inquired if our researcher were a “cultist,” and commented that mail must be wrapped.

      … our investigation team felt remorse for some of its experimental efforts, most particularly the category “Disgusting,” after the good faith of the USPS in its delivery efforts. We sought out as many of the USPS employees who had (involuntarily) been involved in the experiment as we could identify, and gave them each a small box of chocolate.

      We, and all scientists, owe a debt of gratitude to these civil servants. Without them, we would have had but little success in pushing the envelope.

      • J Mann says:

        Oh, that punchline. For some reason, it kind of makes me angry.

      • terpbear says:

        I always get the sense when someone jumps in to praise how incredible some government program is for performing its purpose, especially when it’s granted the privilege of a strict monopoly, that there is some underlying defensive desire to moreso demonstrate that a public organization can do something well than to objectively prove that they are actually doing a great job.

        Like, there’s no comparative analysis here. We don’t know how efficient a private system (or other system) would be. Why do we think it’s good? They shipped some shit and it made it to its destination? Because we pay $0.49/stamp and that’s considered not a lot of money? compared to…? How do we know this service couldn’t actually be easily performed for $0.10 or $0.01 and we’re actually being absolutely gouged? What has the USPS improved upon? I used to buy things in catalogs as a kid, and packages would be delivered typically in two-to-six weeks and I’d pay $10 for the shipping. Nowadays, Amazon doesn’t charge me anything (nominally), and I can get it within one or two days. And since I live in a major city, I can get some items in ONE HOUR. Why is the USPS good again?

        The defense is usually built on some grand narrative about how incredible it is that so many working parts can come together to do something, and for only so much money. I get the sense that if a department was in charge of and had been granted a monopoly to produce pencils, and sold them for $20/each, some of these people would suggest how incredible it is that you can mine graphite from this part of the world, log trees from this other part, rubber from here, steel from there, ship them around the world, coordinate the massive machines to create perfectly identical and precise tools that can be used to transfer knowledge across generations. And for $20 whole dollars! You don’t know how great you have it! People lived in caves and drew on the walls with blood! Sure, in a vacuum, that would probably sound incredible. But it sounds pretty bad when in reality I know I can basically get them for free.

        As far as I can tell, there’s no strong iterative process at or directing the USPS. Whether that iterative process is firing poor employees, proactively eliminating and developing products or going entirely out of business and being replaced with a better organization entirely. I’ve yet to see a truly incredible organization that is not the result of a strong iterative process.

        • Said Achmiz says:

          I used to buy things in catalogs as a kid, and packages would be delivered typically in two-to-six weeks and I’d pay $10 for the shipping. Nowadays, Amazon doesn’t charge me anything (nominally), and I can get it within one or two days. And since I live in a major city, I can get some items in ONE HOUR. Why is the USPS good again?

          No comment on the rest of your comment, but are you under the impression that Amazon runs its own end-to-end parcel delivery service, or something?

          I order stuff from Amazon all the time. Indeed, their packages arrive quickly, and indeed, thanks to Amazon Prime, I pay no marginal delivery fee per package. You know who delivers most of those packages?

          The U.S. Postal Service, of course.

          Edit: I feel like this point deserves to be driven home with an example. Here’s the complete tracking information from one of my recent Amazon orders:

          Shipped with USPS
          Tracking ID [REDACTED]

          Tuesday, July 24

          2:11 PM
          Brooklyn, NY US

          9:23 AM
          Out for delivery
          Brooklyn, NY

          9:19 AM
          Out for delivery
          Brooklyn, NY US

          Monday, July 23

          8:37 AM
          Package arrived at a carrier facility
          Brooklyn, NY

          7:11 AM
          Package transferred to USPS for final delivery
          Brooklyn, NY US

          Sunday, July 22

          6:19 PM
          Shipment departed from Amazon facility
          Teterboro, New Jersey US

          5:29 AM
          Shipment arrived at Amazon facility
          Teterboro, New Jersey US

          Saturday, July 21

          Package has left seller facility and is in transit to carrier

          So, the package was shipped from the seller (by an unspecified shipping method) on the 21st. On the 22nd, the package arrived at the Amazon warehouse in Teterboro, NJ (in the north-eastern-most part of New Jersey). Later that day, the package was loaded onto an Amazon truck. The truck drove (presumably through Staten Island, and over the Verrazzano Bridge) to Brooklyn—taking, it seems, over 12 hours to make the trip (really heavy traffic on the bridge, I guess)—where the package was handed off to the USPS, on the 23rd. The Post Office then sorted the package, assigned it to a carrier’s route, etc., and on the afternoon of the 24th, I received my item.

          Now, do you suppose that this process would be more or less efficient and cost-effective if Amazon had to do that last leg of the shipping & delivery process themselves? (And if your answer is “it would be more efficient and cost-effective if Amazon did it”, then the follow-up question is “what bizarre brain virus is afflicting Jeff Bezos and causing him to leave all this money on the table?”)

          • Chad Gonczy says:

            More or less efficient and cost-effective…to whom? To the system as a whole, or to Amazon?

          • The Nybbler says:

            The truck drove (presumably through Staten Island, and over the Verrazzano Bridge) to Brooklyn—taking, it seems, over 12 hours to make the trip (really heavy traffic on the bridge, I guess)

            Naa, there’s just a missing step, where the package sat in another facility (possibly still in the truck) waiting for the post office facility to open. From Teterboro (where it likely arrived by air, the airport being the only place of note in Teterboro) the truck would have gone over the GWB, most likely, and gone through the Bronx on one of various routes to get to Brooklyn.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            Amazon *is* building out a network of local delivery networks.

            I wish I could put a flag on my account to ALWAYS deliver via Amazon Flex or via Amazon Delivery. They are the only ones who don’t lie about the delivery time.

            Too many places, too often, the local national post delivery agent scans all of the amazon boxes as “delivered” as soon as they load them up in their van, instead of when they actually actually really deliver them, so that their employer can claim to have hit their contracted SLA.

          • Said Achmiz says:

            @Chad Gonczy:

            I don’t know what “the system as a whole” means, but the possibilities here are “the customers” and “Amazon”.

            If it were more efficient and cost-effective for Amazon (to stop delegating to USPS) but bad-or-neutral for the customers, Amazon would be doing it, presumably, unless it was so bad for the customers that they’d revolt and stop buying on Amazon. This scenario speaks well of the U.S. Postal Service.

            If it were more efficient and cost-effective for the customers but bad-to-neutral for Amazon, then, certainly, Amazon wouldn’t do it. However, this, too, speaks well of the U.S. Postal Service.

            If it were more efficient and cost-effective both for Amazon and for the customers for Amazon to stop delegating, then Amazon would definitely do it, and this scenario would reflect poorly on the U.S. Postal Service.

            Mark Atwood says that Amazon is doing this. I have never heard about this before! Let’s do some reading…

            Amazon Flex seems to be one of the “take advantage of the terrible job market”, “gig economy” sorts of plans. Is it plausibly more cost-effective and efficient than using USPS? Perhaps. Whether we, as customers and as citizens, are ok with this, is an open question for another time, I suppose.

            “Amazon Delivery” seems to be referring to this—which appears to be intended to replace UPS and FedEx. It’s not clear whether it’s also meant to replace Amazon’s reliance on USPS. I also couldn’t easily find information about the progress of this project (but I also didn’t spend more than five minutes searching).

    • deciusbrutus says:

      The USPS uses almost exactly the same personnel management philosophy as almost every US civilian agency does, and even has a large amount of overlap in the people that have final appeal authority over their decisions.

  10. Ketil says:

    There’s a rather entertaining news story here, where a doctor was annoyed by having to file meaningless reports, and started to fill them in with meaningless information. “For water buffaloes with nausea”, “For treatment of brain edema in lemon sole”. And so on, you get the picture. Apparently, this went on for about a year, before he outed himself on a blog. (In Norwegian, sorry)


  11. localdeity says:

    I’m guessing that, to the extent that red tape does serve as an effort metric, it wasn’t carefully designed as such.

    The evolution mechanism that seems plausible to me is, something terrible happened once and some people introduced rule A to cover their ass, then something terrible happened in that situation and some people (not necessarily the same group) introduced rule B to guard against that, iterated several times. The rule changes will tend to take power from low-level decisionmakers and involve a formal process for consulting formally certified experts and specifying their approval in formal ways that the most unqualified people who still speak English can follow. Each change is introduced with the short-term goal of either avoiding tragedy or at least being able to deflect blame if it does happen. If there is some proportionality between the bureaucratic effort required, and the value of the thing it guards when it’s needed, that is probably an accident, and will get out of whack with the next rule change.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      I see a lot of policies that are obviously of the form “Do something that would have prevented the last event, specifically, without regard to whether it is addressing a systemic reason for that event or a coincidental one.

      See: TSA making people remove shoes.

      • Deiseach says:

        That’s because old regulations never get scrapped, but new ones are layered on top of them, and nobody dares risk ignoring the old regs because that is just asking to be sacked (nobody asked your opinion if this was a good idea or not, you’re just a low-level minion, do what you’re told, the higher pay grades do all the thinking round here).

        • CatCube says:

          I’ve noticed that when the stupidest things happen in a bureaucracy, it’s usually at the intersection between two sets of rules that may be perfectly sensible on their own. The nonsense happens when you’re trying to satisfy both requirements, because the how the rulesets interact was never considered when drafting them (often because they were drafted years apart for different reasons).

        • deciusbrutus says:

          The examples I have are all individually boneheaded.

  12. Robert L says:

    The theory that bureaucracy has hidden benefits doesn’t require or consist of a conspiratorial explanation, it is better understood in Darwinian terms as part of the adaptive landscape. Lions are bad for wildebeest because they eat them, lions are good for wildebeest because by (selectively) eating them they bring about changes in the wildebeest genome which makes them less susceptible to being eaten by lions.

    We routinely demonise bureaucracy in a kind of reflex, sub-comic manner as we do dentists, and taxpaying. Good dentistry is obviously pretty much an unalloyed good, a fact most of us acknowledge by vouluntarily submitting to an paying for it; but everyone hates and fears dentists (by their own account). Similarly it is obviously a good thing in general that there are lots of rules and that there are measures to ensure they are followed. Here in the UK health and safety (comically, elf’n’safety) rules are routinely derided when what the vast majority of the rules are, is sensible provisions to ensure that avoidable unjury and death should wherever possible be avoided. Hard to argue against.

    • Watchman says:

      But I have yet to see a UK case where the stupidity accorded the health and safety is actually in the rules rather than in the overeager interpretation. The Health and Safety Executive are very big on pointing out that they are not responsible for the way other bureaucrats try to minimise risk, so please go and talk to the idiots responsible…

      Having had dealings with HSE, they’re actually all about sensible risk management, and other than fairly obvious stuff (hard hats on building sites, secure chemical storage) they aren’t prescriptive. Not always helpful, as in effect they once ended up telling me to defer a decision about electrics in a school to our newly-appointed caretaker, since there was no internal expertise or procedure, and only good practise guidelines.

      • dark orchid says:

        Agreed. HSE does a rather good job of making sure people don’t get killed doing their work. The problem is almost entirely people who use it as an excuse because they don’t like or don’t want to do something.

        HSE even used to have a “myth of the month” series where they called out some of the silliest “elf’n’safety” claims, e.g. http://www.hse.gov.uk/myth/dec07.htm

        There was once a case where a child threw a triangular flapjack at another and hit them in the eye, and their school responded by ordering in the name of health and safety that all flapjacks were to be rectangular from now on.

        To which HSE replied: “We often come across half-baked decisions taken in the name of health and safety, but this one takes the biscuit.”

  13. Jan Samohýl says:

    “maybe everything is as bureaucratic as it is without any conspiratorial explanation”

    I think that’s how it is. Before OSS and Wikipedia became common, I and my father used to think that things like frequent changes in software (which were tough for my father, being 60 in the 90s) are some sort of deliberate conspiracy.

    But.. there is as much bureaucracy on Wikipedia as in other organizations. And people engage in it for free! It’s actually quite weird.

  14. Doug says:

    I wish I could remember who said this, but old organizations typically tend to be much more risk-averse than young organizations. Mostly because they’ve had time to make more mistakes, and therefore the history of those mistakes becomes encoded in their institutional memory. Whereas young orgs simply don’t know what they don’t know. So they aren’t afraid to move fast and break things.

    This often takes the form of post-hoc responses to one-off fuckups. Usually involving all the Stakeholders™ sitting down in a very somber meeting. Blinded by the availability heuristic, the implicit assumption is that said once-in-a-lifetime fuckup will be happening fifty times a minute from now until the heat death of the universe. The required action is usually the addition of a very formalized, very comprehensive, very inflexible rule or procedure, which attempts to prevent said fuckup in every imaginable corner case variant.

    The new rule makes the org ever so slightly sclerotic and bureaucratic. But that’s a relatively intangible, distributed, hard-to-quantify cost, whereas the spectre of another fuckup in the same vein is dead-simple to imagine. Bastiat rolls over in his grave. And of course, nobody ever unwinds a rule once it gets introduced. “Rules and Regulations” guidebooks also never contain any history or context. Because that could be interpreted as a wink and a nod to ignore the rule if the subject felt like it.

    Nor is there ever any incentive for authorities to ever go through and cull out-of-date, defunct, and ineffective policies. Maybe a given rule is vestigial and useless, but maybe it’s silently preventing total catastrophe. It’d be like trying to remove random car parts from your engine.

    Over time this type of post-hoc damage control just keeps accumulating in the org’s DNA. Like dysgenic mutational load. The bigger and older the org, the more time it has to accumulate this junk. If the org is viewed as a cohesive agent, the more it sees the dumber it becomes. It’s like learning in reverse.

    (An under-appreciated alternative, is simply to fire the moron who caused the fuck-up in the first place. To be fair it’s likely that said moron isn’t actually at fault. Often he’s just an unlucky bastard, who was doing the same thing as everyone else. But the unfair capricious termination of an individual may be worth it, if it satisfies the bloodlust of Stakeholders™ to “do something”. This is kind of like the US Navy’s policy of firing any captain whose ship runs aground regardless of the circumstances or fault.)

    • deciusbrutus says:

      The policy of ending the career of a skipper whose ship runs aground is rather like the policy of evicting a tenant whose apartment is the source of a fire that destroys the building.

      Maybe there’s some other aspect of blame to consider, but it was literally their job to prevent that from happening, and as a result there isn’t a place to billet them right now.

    • Worley says:

      There’s also the factor that “there are two sorts of jobs”, viz.: Jobs where one has recently been hired and expects to move to a different job within a few years. These jobs are generally in economic equilibrium with the job market, and the worker has little invested in the longevity of the organization. The other type are long-term jobs, often with seniority-based pay systems, and in organizations that have some sort of “sustainable advantage”, i.e., they’ve latched onto some source of money that they can monopolize. In these jobs, the workers are often paid well over market rate and are enormously invested in the long-term stability of the organization. (Think of any unionized or civil service job with a long waiting list of applicants.)

      This structure is going to make old organizations a lot more risk-averse than young organizations, because they’re made of different types of people facing different incentives.

      (As an aside, I’ve been looking into “age discrimination in employment”, and one study turned up that age discrimination consisted mostly of the fact that old organizations won’t hire old people into these sorts of cushy, long-term jobs. The jobs that old people *do* get don’t pay differently from the jobs that young people get, once you adjust for the skills required. OTOH, old people who lose jobs, often have lost these sorts of cushy, long-term jobs. Needless to say, they find their new situation much less desirable.)

    • John Schilling says:

      This is kind of like the US Navy’s policy of firing any captain whose ship runs aground regardless of the circumstances or fault.

      Fortunately, that isn’t actually US Navy policy.

      Very, very, very fortunately.

      • The Nybbler says:

        So according to Wikipedia Kelly ran the Enterprise aground, hypocritically told an off-color joke which he got reprimanded for, presided over Tailhook, and was forced to retire in disgrace? I’m not so sure the lack of such policy was a good thing in his case.

      • bean says:

        Policies change over 110 years, even in the USN. These days, the exploding command pins go off rather quickly.

    • Tenacious D says:

      I’ve heard Taleb point out that companies on the S&P 500 only remain there for 12 years on average. This level of churn probably helps keep the economy as a whole more dynamic since vestigial policies thereby have a limited life expectancy even if no one actively culls them.

  15. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Typo: “ever say no” should presumably be “never say no”.

  16. paranoidaltoid says:

    Seeing how much time and exasperation people are willing to put up with in order to get what they want is an elegant way of separating out the needy from the greedy

    This seems likely: Imagine a company that requires doctor’s notes vs a company that accepts all sick requests… Employees are more likely to call in sick falsely if it’s easy to do so, and making them jump through hoops curtails that. The needy are more likely to jump through hoops than the greedy.

    That said, I think most hoop-erecting organisations usually use their power for evil & should be opposed. Hoops disfavour amateurs, contenders, small businesses, misfits, etc.

  17. Brad says:

    It costs more money, but a doctor that works for whatever institution (independent medical examiner) makes a lot more sense than any kind of note from your doctor mechanism.

    I wish there were IMEs for “emotional support” animals.

    • Matt M says:

      Basically the military model?

      You show up at sick call, the disgruntled doctor whose primary job is to stop you from taking off work says “Take a couple Motrin, you’ll be fine, NEXT”?

      • CatCube says:

        The doctor’s motivations may be more complex than that. There may be attention from higher medical headquarters when there are a lot of people medically unqualified, and then they start going through records and asking questions of the form, “Is this guy really unfit for work?” That will provide a good measure of pressure to not just hack off on everybody’s cough as SIQ, but it’s not absolute.

        Hand to God Almighty, I had a dude go to sick call because of a complaint about joint pain when cleaning the squad bay, and came back with a “no sweeping” profile. That is literally something that an MD put on paperwork.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          Patient:”Doctor, it hurts when I do this”
          Doctor:”Don’t do that”

          If the command wants to have him looked into for malingering as a result, they should do so. Otherwise, if they care about his health, have him do things that don’t cause joint pain. If they don’t care about his health, or are afraid of other people using his example to malinger, give him a mop.

          • CatCube says:

            Well, I was “the command”, and the problem was that this was exactly as useless as the joke you quoted. It’s been long enough that I don’t remember all the details, but the NCO who brought this profile to me did ask something like “Can I give him a mop?” to the First Sergeant and myself.

            Which I can’t answer, because the doctor didn’t do his fucking job and bound the problem. Is it repetitive motions? Particular weight? Exerting a certain amount of force while bending over to sweep under a table? Or, is it that the guy is probably bullshitting, because there’s no consistency between his claimed symptoms and particular things that might cause them? I’m not expecting an MRI or something, but at least do some screening.

            Anyway, the reason I brought this up was merely to point out that while military doctors do have a deserved reputation for blowing off patients, the underlying motivations are a little more complex than a simple policy to do so.

  18. fazalmajid says:

    Health insurance in the US seems to be an arms race between insurers who will try to avoid paying by hook or crook, including arbitrary denials unless you push back, and randomly “forgetting” to send payments. Health care providers respond by hiring assistants. The whole process increases costs that are excessively high to begin with. By my reckoning the US could afford universal health care by simply bringing its administrative costs in line with other OECD countries as a percentage of total health spending.

    • arlie says:

      At this point, I feel like it’s a race that’s been won by the insurers, but not always to their benefit.

      I’m currently taking a more expensive (to the insurers) drug for a chronic condition, because of a complex bureaucratic dance that resulted in them disallowing the prior drug, me paying for it out of pocket for a year, and my doctor finding a replacement they would allow. I’ll never get the money that I paid out of pocket back, but they’re well on the way to having paid more than they “saved” during that year.

      Meanwhile my employer (who chose the insurer) got a bad review on Glass Door out of the deal. (The employer didn’t even get back to me about my complaints.)

      And when I casually mentioned the latest insurance refusal to my dental hygienist, she commented helpfully that she could report that day’s procedure under a different code, that they would pay for – not as much as if they were paying for the real thing, but better than totally out of pocket. (I haven’t had a periodontal crisis while on this dental insurance, so I’m not allowed routine care intended to avoid having another one! Because they want to pay for the same expensive rigmarole I’ve been through twice already – while increasing my risks for a whole host of other problems – a lose lose for us all.)

      Anyway, anecdotes aside, this particular bureaucracy is doing an excellent job of both screwing over the patients, and raising their own costs. Fortunately I have significant income, and live well within it, so can afford paying for important procedures they chose to disallow.

      They also destroy their own reputations in the process, but that’s not a problem for them. On the one hand, it’s a race to the bottom, and while they may currently be in the lead, their competitors aren’t far behind them. And on the other hand, the customer is my employer, not me – as long as they keep the HR bureaucrats happy, they can continue to do whatever they want. And even if they impose real costs on the employer – e.g. causing employees x percent more sick days, and/or finding that employees are spending considerable work time dealing with insurance bureaucracy, and/or having good employees leave/refuse offers because of the health care company – this may not be something the HR bureaucracy cares about.

      FWIW, absence of the first of these drugs would predictably have had me off work on disability. So I paid for it, and I and the doctor’s office did our best to shift the bureaucracy. But that’s another potential cost for the employer.

      • deciusbrutus says:

        Huh. My dental insurance pays 100% of preventative periodontal treatments, limit 4 cleanings per year. Because 16 cleanings and 4 xrays is less expensive than one root planing.

    • dodrian says:

      I’d be interested in seeing your reckoning. Other sources I’ve seen indicate that we might save some money, but that would require having fixing the inefficiencies in the current publicly funded system.

      in any case I very much doubt it’ll be able to fund the cost of a fully public system.

  19. Quixote says:

    I’m not sure the DMV is actually that bureaucratic. In my state, most of my dealings with the DMV have been pretty quick. I can get to an office as it opens and be done in half an hour, with the actual business being done swiftly in 5-10 minutes, and most of the time being waiting in line because the volume of people is very high (large city).

  20. fortaleza84 says:

    It’s interesting that appellate courts tend to have extremely picky rules about fonts, type sizes, colors of submissions, and so forth. The US Supreme Court is among the worst offenders in this regard.

    I have often wondered if the purpose of all these rules is to discourage appeals.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      The purpose of those rules is to provide a clean reason to reject appeals that arrive printed in yellow on canary paper, in 2 point wingdings.

      The effect is to discourage appeals.

      • fortaleza84 says:

        Realistically, how do you know for sure? There do exist courts and agencies which will accept appeals handwritten on a postcard. They don’t seem to have a problem with the sort of abuse you describe?

        Besides, a lot of these appellate court rules are far stricter than what is necessary to have the court consider the appeal.

  21. regularjoeski says:

    There are 2 major issues with this. First if you can not be quickly fired, or fired at all as in governmental bureaucracy, there is no reason to be efficient. If you process one applicant/hour or one/day which will the rational actor choose. McDonalds can quickly fire the inefficient worker. You have a better chance of expiring at your desk than being fired at a government job. Government/bog bureaucratic organizations collect inefficient workers like barnacles on a ship. Second, the insurer could choose to only allow MDs who use expensive treatments appropriately. This however sounds like work. It is easier to set up a process which involves lots of red tape along with allowing old fashioned empire building. There is data that all the pre-certification process does is cost money overall. The manager who pushes the process though gets promotions the bigger the department. Since picking the right panel is hard the pre-cert path seems easier.

    • Matt M says:

      McDonalds success as a business also depends on worker efficiency.

      DMV funding does not. If anything, the less efficient they are, the more funding they’ll get (because clearly their inefficiency means they have a manpower shortage and need to increase headcount)

      • Xenosisters says:

        The crucial point is, like you say, where does the institution get its money from? McDonald’s is subject to profit and loss, and the DMV isn’t. McDonald’s may have more rules on the books, but there’s only ever one rule that actually matters in a corporation, and that is to make as much profit as possible. There is nothing about this directive that lends itself to bureaucracy, no matter how large the firm becomes. If the owner of a company has to split it into multiple divisions which he can’t directly oversee, he may impose some nominal rules on the new managers of these divisions, but their job security ultimately depends on nothing but whether they make him money. If a manager can’t run a division such that it is profitable to have that aspect of production done in-house, the owner will fire him and/or cut the division and purchase whatever it was producing from external firms if necessary.

        The profit and loss principle aligns incentives all the way down a firm. Each level of management wants the revenues of the level below it to exceed its cost by as much as possible. Each unit of a firm is constrained by the market in the same way as a firm itself.

        The DMV is obviously nothing like this. What determines if an individual DMV branch will expand, remain as it is, or be forced to close? If it were a private company, the answer would be “how many people is it serving well enough that they pay for the service, at what cost?” As a government bureau, the answer is “someone’s arbitrary will, constrained by rules put in place to ensure that person has at least some minimum standards of procedure and won’t do anything with a chance of embarrassing his superiors.” Even most of the comments here defending the DMV mention that their DMV’s have very long wait times. If the DMV were a private company, this would lead them to open more offices or hire more staff. There was some great discussion of fire departments on Marginal Revolution a while ago which illustrates how government bureaus don’t work the same way: funding for fire departments has gone up steadily for the past several decades, while the number of fires has sharply declined. In other words, demand has dropped precipitously, but they continue to put more resources into production.

        What I really want to emphasize, though, is that this isn’t just an incentive problem. People opposed to government bureaucracy emphasize the incentives at play too much. A new head of the DMV couldn’t run it like a business if he wanted to, because it isn’t subject to profit and loss. He couldn’t judge his underlings by double entry bookkeeping because the money the DMV takes in comes from taxes rather than voluntary payments, so they don’t know what the demand for what they do really is. Basically, a government bureau can’t be as efficient (where efficiency is defined as satisfying the wants of the public to the greatest degree at the minimum cost) as a corporation, not because they aren’t incentivized to be, although that’s also true, but because they can’t calculate what their efficiency actually is.

        On Bulls**t Jobs: Everyone is familiar with complaints about public bureaucracy. The interesting thing about the Graeber book is his claim that private companies are becoming bureaucratic as well. To the extent that they are, I’m almost certain the reason is either to comply with government regulation, or something like what Scott is describing here, where apparent inefficiency is actually saving someone money in some non-intuitive way.

  22. baconbits9 says:

    The question isn’t “why is there pointless petty bureaucracy in some places” its more “why isn’t there pointless and petty bureaucracy everywhere”. The central question in our lives isn’t “why do bad things happen” its “given everything that can go wrong and the staggering improbability of us existing how do good things happen”. The capacity for misery seems endless. What, you might ask, could be worse than a world war with millions of your countrymen dying, loss of territories, national pride and reparation payments at the end? Well all that then years of hyperinflation. What is worse that that? Well all that plus just as things are getting back on track a world wide depression. And then the Nazis coming to power, and then another world war. The question of “how did Hitler come to power” really does boil down to “15 years of abjectly shitty conditions in Germany”.

    If we are talking about bureaucracy we should start from the understanding that inefficiency and decay are the baseline expectation. You might look at the surface of a massive corporation like Starbucks and think “well they barely change” but behind the scenes they have entire divisions of people fighting decay. Continually checking the quality of the beans they are shipped, getting through regulatory hoops, incorporating new technologies and adjusting to the changing tastes of the public. Billions are spent just so you (along with millions more) can have a hot cup of coffee that mostly meets your expectations on the way to work.

  23. AISec says:

    Public Choice Theory provides a nicely parsimonious explanation of Bureaucracy at the DMV: such government functions don’t have to improve because they aren’t generally subject to market competition. Nothing more sinister need be assumed.

    On the other hand, incentives at insurance companies are clearly to keep costs down. See examples such as “Streetsurance” in John’s Grisham’s The Rainmaker, and of course, Insuricare

    • stucchio says:

      This is not true in the United States. Obamacare mandates that at least 85% of all money received by an insurance company be spent on either useful medical care, waste or fraud.

      As a result, the only way an insurance company can increase profit is by increasing the amount spent on useful medical care, waste and fraud. I.e., receive $100, spend $85 on useful medical care, that’s $15 in profit. Receive $200, spend $85 on useful medical care and $85 on fraud, that’s $30 in profit.

      • Christophe Biocca says:

        IIRC the bell system was under a similar pricing constraint as a regulated monopoly. So are all the cost+ contractors for NASA and defense contracts.

      • Chad Gonczy says:

        Can you elaborate on this? Not being snarky, genuinely curious.

        • stucchio says:

          It’s a rule in Obamacare, this page discusses it:
          https://www.healthcare.gov/glossary/medical-loss-ratio-MLR/ https://obamacarefacts.com/obamacare-rate-review-80-20-rule/

          Slight error I made: sometimes it’s 80/20 instead of 85/15.

          A simple and realistic scenario that an insurance company is likely to get into. Suppose I’m very close to 80%. Then I discover a fraud ring, perhaps a big one, accounting for 5% of revenues. My choices are:

          1. Spend 1% more on fraud investigators to reduce expenses by 5%.
          2. Let the fraud continue.

          Choice (1) cuts my MLR to 78% = 21 / (21 + 75).

          In order to get my MLR back up to 80% I need to cut my non-medical expenses from 21% to 18.7%, a total of 2.3%, which has to come out of profits.

          Now typical health insurance companies have a profit margin of about 3-5%. So I’ve just reduced my profit margin to 0.7-2.7%. Not a chance. The fraud will continue!

          • Education Hero says:

            The control measures against this would be external auditors, the SEC, and the IRS. Their combined scrutiny should significantly disincentivize fraud.

          • stucchio says:

            Education Hero, in most other markets, profit motive is also a good control measure against this. In my market, whenever I can spend 100rs to stop 101rs of fraud, I’ll do it. No discussion – I want that extra rupee.

            Can you explain why you think the SEC, IRS and other auditors will be an effective regulator on this matter? Last I checked, it’s not illegal to be the victim of fraud. It’s also not illegal to put too little effort into identifying unnecessary medical procedures or to allow doctors who overprescribe unnecessary tests to remain in your network.

          • Education Hero says:

            It’s not illegal to be a victim of fraud, but it’s illegal to provide SEC filings that don’t reflect proper internal controls (including against fraud). Same goes for IRS filings.

            External auditors provide attestation as to whether a company’s financial statements are prepared in accordance to generally accepted accounting principles (laid out by FASB on behalf of the SEC), and this includes the design, implementation, and maintenance of internal controls necessary to prepare financial statements that are free from material misstatements due to fraud or error. The external auditors themselves are subject to audits by the PCAOB on behalf of the SEC (regulatory capture is not in play here, as demonstrated by their derogatory nickname “peekaboo” among external auditors out of earshot). Financial statements filed with the SEC are also subject to SEC audit.

            Said financial statements are required to access capital markets, even by smaller companies not required to file with the SEC, and capital market access is necessary for virtually any health insurance company. All companies are further subject to IRS audits as well. All of these things don’t necessarily eliminate all fraud, but they certainly provide significant disincentives against it.

  24. William says:

    Along this line is the idea that strong federal institutions lead to incrementalism in foreign policy. If you’re a centrist democrat, one of the reasons you may be particularly concerned about trump’s impact over the long run is the potential for weakening institutions and straying from incremental policy. If you’re a leftist I’m not sure you worry about Trump from this angle.

  25. meh says:

    the doctor will always just check “yes”

    Is insurance fraud not a thing for doctors?

    • Garrett says:

      There’s multiple parts here. Generally, there’s a separate code for a diagnosis (you have depression), and one for the treatment (take anti-depressants). Then there’s a choice of eg. anti-depressants to choose from. As Scott has written elsewhere, the “best” choice isn’t always obvious for an individual patient.

      Fraud would involve the medical provider purposefully submitting a diagnostic code which is improper. This is frequently seen where providers claim to have seen patients they haven’t seen. But if the diagnosis is right (or only mistakenly wrong) for a patient encounter which actually occurred, and the treatment provided was reasonable for that diagnosis, there’s no fraud there.

      So then it comes down to the choice of treatment. And the differences in the costs of treatment for very similar drugs can be incomprehensibly different between different insurance companies. So there are cases where being prescribed the generic of one drug actually costs more than the brand name of a very similar drug. So a doctor who has chosen the generic, best-in-class drug for a particular condition which is usually the cheapest will think “duh – they need this”, when the insurance company really should be more specific and ask if the doctor would be okay with trying a specific different medication first because it would cost the insurer less money. Maybe yes. Maybe no. But I get the idea that what the insurance company sees as the best alternatives are different from what the doctor sees as the likely alternatives.

  26. BBA says:

    There’s a recent story about the State Department refusing to renew passports issued to people born near the Mexican border, on the grounds that their birth certificates were fraudulently obtained. This is something that happened – a sympathetic midwife would fill out the paperwork attesting that a child was born in Brownsville when in fact they were born across the border in Matamoros, and the child would thus get a genuine Texas birth certificate and claim US citizenship. The problem is that there are also a lot of people of Mexican descent who really were born in Brownsville, and those same midwives also attested to many true birth certificates. So in such cases, the State Department is asking for all kinds of supporting evidence of where their parents were living when they were born, which most people don’t bother keeping – why would you need any additional proof when the government has always accepted your birth certificate? And naturally, since my birth certificate says I was born in a hospital far from the border they’d never ask the same of me (plus I’m white).

    The law, of course, has not changed at all as to who is a citizen and entitled to a passport. The bureaucratic policy was established during the Bush and Obama years, discontinued due to a civil rights settlement, and reinstated under Trump. The change is clearly driven by a shift in priorities, from preventing racial discrimination (even if it means giving passports to non-citizens) to preventing fraud (even if it means denying passports to citizens).

    • deciusbrutus says:

      I find it odd that ICE officials are serving warrants to enforce a State Department decision.

    • Chad Gonczy says:

      There are always unanticipated costs to lying, even if the lie seems clearly justified in the short run and the consequences are hard to imagine. Doesnt necessarily make lying wrong, but the cost/benefit balancing is nearly always harder than it seems at first blush.

    • Mark Atwood says:

      I read that this policy and these sorts of events date back to the prior administration as well. In light of my mistrust of the press, I don’t know which aspect to believe.

  27. theredsheep says:

    I did a short stint helping people fill out applications for foodstamps at the DCF. After a while I noticed that certain questions seemed “rigged” to produce false disqualifying answers. For example, “are you a resident of the state of Florida?” It already asks for an address, obviously. The computer can tell that already. But that one extra question gets a certain percentage of applicants hemming and hawing–I just moved here, am I a resident yet? I’m homeless, does that count?–and thus gets them to disqualify themselves by giving what feels like an honest answer. There were a bunch of others that seemed bunk, but that’s the one I remember now, years later. The whole process seemed designed to be as arduous as possible, because the state only had so much cash and every fresh applicant was another slice of the pie.

  28. sumdr says:

    For some support of the view that, whatever we do, we shouldn’t take the existence of seemingly non-productive jobs too hard, I’m reading Twelve Rules right now. Somewhere in the “don’t bother children when they are skateboarding” chapter, he points out that part of the Khmer Rouge’s justification for forcing everyone out of the cities and into the farms was that businessmen, bankers, and bureaucrats accumulate wealth without producing anything of value. Obviously, their “productive jobs only” model didn’t last very long. Granted, they also burned all of the money in the banks, believing more or less that it was a means of measuring and entrenching the inequality built up by the capitalists, and my first instincts imagine that this would be a bit more destabilizing than trimming down the DMV.

    My take on this is that a lot of these pointless jobs are part of the cost of systematizing things. At the DMV, my “time there” to “time doing something related to getting my license renewed” ratio is extremely low, say 5 minutes out of three hours. In those five minutes, I’m not sure what time is being wasted — there’s a woman behind the counter transferring my written name into the computer (this could be updated, but it’s no worse than a lot of private medical practices, who totally have the capital and profit incentives necessary to fix this) and correcting me for writing my height as 5’12” instead of 6’0″ (perhaps pranksters like me are the real problem), but… someone has to do that.

    Or consider how police officers these days spend most of their time doing desk work: well… it seems like you would want police to be keeping decent records of what they do, something like log files on a computer. You would hope that most of it is pointless: ideally, there’s a bunch of non-conspiratorial speeding tickets, with maybe a few violent offenders taken in without a fight (like you’d hope your log files just say “yep, loaded this, started that. Done.”), but when something goes wrong, it’s nice to have an idea of what happened. But unfortunately, for humans, this logging process is just as expensive as the actual police work, whereas a computer has the advantage that writing programmatically-generated text is negligible compared to anything interesting.

    If you fired 80% of police and told the rest to just… “stop crime and don’t be a jerk about it,” then whenever one of them is a jerk, it might be harder to pin something on them (it seems to be hard enough now, but perhaps the threat of accountability eliminates most of the non-gray-area cases). This could well lead to a more reckless police force, so perhaps, in this way, bureaucratically-sustained accountability is something of a luxury. Though I doubt that the path to salvation for, e.g., North Korea, lies in paperwork.

  29. benjdenny says:

    I think the big take-away for the DMV is not that it has an incentive to have a bureaucracy, but rather that it has no incentive at all not to have one, and an incentive to be cheap(in operation, not in terms of what it costs to do the actual service). The state uses the DMV as a method to tax poor people who are otherwise politically difficult to tax; every dollar they spend making this happen is a dollar in the costs contra account to their service revenues. More than that, if they are inconvenient enough to keep people from getting vital services, they don’t lose money; the penalties for not having a current license or current registration are much higher than the costs of renewing them in the first place, and squeeze poor people who can’t fight back in any meaningful way.

    Contrast this to third-party DMV service providers, who are universally acknowledged to be much quicker and more convenient than the DMV themselves. They have much higher overhead per-transaction(better employees are more expensive, better equipment is more expensive, and they tend to be in more valuable real estate that was purchased more recently or rented for more money). Once you subtract out the DMV’s share(I.E. the normal amount it costs to get a registration or license renewed), they are doing the service for much less money. Why are they so much better? Because if they were bad, people wouldn’t use them; there’s competition. The DMV is by definition cheaper, so there’s always a horrible but cheaper opponent they can’t compete against on cost, too, so they have to be at least “better enough” to justify their fees even if there isn’t a nearby third-party competitor.

    Short version: the DMV doesn’t have a bureaucracy as such, it just blows because it’s cheaper to blow than be good, and it’s primary goal is taxation, not providing value. If there was any financial incentive to do their job better, they could easily do it faster and more cheaply, as third-party competitors show.

    • Garrett says:

      I’d also add that there’s a principle/agent problem to have everybody, whenever possible, have a new employee take over the parts of their job they don’t like. Secretary doesn’t like the filing part of the job? Hire an assistant secretary to do it, paid for by the employer. Thus you can improve your pay indirectly by reducing the parts of the job you don’t like while not actually defrauding anybody or anything.

  30. Nicholas Conrad says:

    I think what you’re saying is: in the absence of functional markets people have to find new ways to allocate scarce resources. The tragedy of line rationing systems is that it’s an all-pay auction. That is, everyone who says ‘it’s not worth it’ and gets out of line incurred the dead weight loss already.

  31. The Nybbler says:

    I think in some cases it’s intentionally a barrier to reduce abuse, but I’m not sure it works and I’m not sure it matters to those erecting it, as long as it reduces _use_; to the insurance company as long as the number of people needing the treatment and the number of people getting it are close, it doesn’t matter that these aren’t the same people.

    After my hip surgery some years back I had the joy of hobbling on crutches past many handicapped spots, most empty and a few with people more able-bodied than I was at the time, because I’m terrible at navigating bureaucracy and they were presumably good at it.

    • Deiseach says:

      a few with people more able-bodied than I was at the time

      It’s hard to tell sometimes; yes sometimes it’s people who have gamed the system, but other times it’s people who are not visibly disabled but do have requirements. My late father, for instance, applied for and got a ‘parking in handicapped spaces’ licence even though (visibly) he was not in a wheelchair or on crutches. If you’d been hobbling past at the time, doubtless you’d have thought “how come this guy can park there?”

      But you wouldn’t have seen the dialysis catheter under his clothes (which is why he couldn’t wear a seatbelt and had a medical exemption) or known that although he could walk unaided, he couldn’t walk very far (he was given a crutch to walk with as support by the hospital, but it was too unwieldy to fit into the car when he was driving himself). So he really did need to be able to park as close to the door as possible, and that meant in the handicapped spaces.

      • The Nybbler says:

        People claim that all the time and sometimes it’s true, and the fact that you can’t tell by looking is used as an excuse to pretend there isn’t a whole lot of faking. But my mother has a handicapped permit, and she can certainly walk a whole lot better now than I could then.

    • Garrett says:

      I had knee surgery some years ago and was required to be on crutches for 2 weeks. No placard. Instead I resolved to do my shopping at 3am. Overall, it worked out.

  32. Robert L says:

    Perhaps we should define “bureaucracy.” It seems to me that if you don’t want bureaucracy you have to answer no to at least one of three questions which anybody sane would answer yes to, viz:

    Should there be rules about things? Should we insist on evidence that rules are complied with? Should the evidence be recorded and the records kept?

    If you do answer yes to those questions, you want bureaucracy. You may have a comic objection to the term, because bureaucracy is only ever explicitly named as such when it has gone comically wrong. It’s like mother in law jokes, you can make them if you like but unless you think all forms of marriage should be abolished forthwith, you are logically stuck with mothers in law.

    • ahenobarbi says:

      I wanted to point out that are a few ways to get marriages without getting mothers in law. Only all of them are really, really bad.

  33. sclmlw says:

    On writing the note:

    Can’t you just say he needs the chair as part of his therapy to foster better mental health?

    Pain is subjectively reported (there’s no objective treat we can employ to tell you you’re in pain) so I’d think a psychiatrist would be the person in the best position to interpret whether the patient really needs the chair – for mental health reasons.

  34. Jeff Heikkinen says:

    Just seeking clarification on one point from near the beginning:

    “In principle doctors are supposed to help with this, but doctors have no incentive to ever say no to their patients. If the insurance just sends the doctor a form asking “does this patient really need this medication?”, the doctor will always just check “yes” and send it back. Even if the form says in big red letters PLEASE ONLY SAY YES IF THERE IS AN IMPORTANT MEDICAL NEED, the doctor will still check “yes” more often than a rational central planner allocating scarce resources would like.”

    Is this meant to be a part of the hypothetical, or an empirical claim about actual doctors?

  35. Charlie Lima says:

    The simplest explanation is that the same phenomena is at play:

    Bureaucracy raises the cost of getting something and painful bureaucracy makes it less likely that people will utilize things they should not.

    So consider the DMV. Who are the stakeholders? The public, the employees, and the politicians ultimately in charge. Who gains if bureaucracy increases?

    Well for a start the employees. Bureaucracy increases your ability to minimize actual work. It also fosters an ecosystem of rules and guidelines that can protect bad workers from getting fired. It also will make some other stakeholders increase resources going into the DMV to deal with terrible service. Hiring more people opens more management positions with better remuneration. It also gives employees leverage through two mechanisms: first by increasing the person count (important for union leverage) and secondly by making it harder to replace people who understand all the arcane policies.

    So what do employees lose? The respect of the public. Some peace of mind on the job. But let’s be honest the DMV is one of those places that people will simply never respect, just like actuaries or accountants at best you can hope for is a lack of annoyance. Unlike those professions, you have a monopoly so it is not like the customer can easily circumvent you.

    So how about politicians? Well rarely somebody will run on the DMV as an issue, but at least half the political spectrum would greatly appreciate the campaign support for low information, low turnout state elections. Inept bureaucracy fosters more money in some very Democratic friendly pots. Likewise, increasing civil service jobs to “fix the problem” allows for some degree of cronyism and bringing home the bacon.

    What is the gain for fixing the problems for politicians? Well the state recoups some money, but it is typically far easier to hunt up revenue of cost cuts elsewhere. You get gratitude from the voters … when they next have to set foot in the DMV in 2 – 10 years. I have heard political types talk about discount rates for voter gratitude, let’s just say this is really small.

    At best until very recently you might fire all the civil servants (good luck with that) and hire some contractor. Congratulations you now own all the downside risk (e.g. they end up discriminating against poor urban African Americans) and chances are the upside gains will not even be attributed to you (success has a thousand fathers after all).

    What about the voters? Their time is wasted as are their tax dollars. But it is a low level annoyance that they encounter only infrequently. They could vote through various changes by candidate selection or referenda … but the DMV falls well below abortion, taxes, schools, or a few dozen other issues. And if they did force a fix they would save an hour or two … every couple of years.

    So who really makes out? The empire builders. Shoddy service leads to more hiring which leads to more management and union leadership positions. And for them it is much like the insurance case. If the experience is not bad enough too few people get hired and money is allocated to places other than where they want. The fact that one goes towards salaries & promotions and the other towards profits seems pretty immaterial to me.

    Frankly I suspect the whole system only avoids lurching towards utter catastrophe by the fact that most humans are not strict interest maximizers on these terms. Enough employees actively try to thwart bureaucracy creep to ensure the system does not implode. They are just unfortunately fighting headwinds that provide return to bureaucracy so the equilibrium is shoddy service, small empires for for a few lucky folks, and jobs that eventually settle on someone for whom the cost benefit of wages offered vs soul sucking tedium balance.

    • MH says:

      Bureaucracy only minimizes actual work by replacing it with less pleasant, more repetitive work. I’m not sure that’s much of an incentive there. But I think the point about people not being simplistic-economics-interest-maximizers is probably the big explanation here. For all the appeal of fake cynicism about incentives government employees tend to do a great deal of work with surprising efficiency. And that’s got a lot to do with the fact that they’re doing something that does have a real and very direct importance to society.

      A lot of government bureaucracies often seem bad or slow in some respects, but most of them are light years from the annoyances of other large organizations. It’s just that with the other ones you’re generally not (1) actually required to deal with them, (2) have very serious consequences to not doing it and (3) are dealing with an organization that takes ‘everyone gets treated the same to the extent possible’ as a foundational value. So people feel trapped by dealing with them and no amount of efficiency short of them never having to deal with them at all is going to alleviate that.

      • Charlie Lima says:

        Not in the slightest.

        For instance in some states places other than the DMV can handle DMV functions (e.g. AAA). They somehow manage to provide the same exact services without such terrible customer service and inefficiency.

        Likewise, I have see massive variation between state DMVs. Some, like CT, are absolutely terrible. Others like OH are wonderful (e.g. you basically never have to show up in person because they have put all the routine things online). Unsurprisingly OH averages a wait time of 14.5 minutes while CT averages 53 minutes. Maybe the regs are actually that different in CT … but then why doesn’t CT change to something more like OH? Somehow OH is licensing drivers, registering vehicles and doing so with less than a third of the dead knock loss of CT.

        Shockingly, Ohio contracts out BMV services (you bid for a position based on where/when/how you want to be open and get flat reimbursements per service) and somehow has less than half the traditional hassles of standard government employee based state systems. Connecticut hires simple civil servants. It is almost like Ohio has a vastly different incentive structure that leads to vastly different outcome while doing the same exact functions.

    • Deiseach says:

      Shoddy service leads to more hiring

      Unless there’s a recruitment ban in place due to austerity economics and thus a national agreement on “no new hires, natural shedding of jobs due to retirement”.

      It’s not always one big master plan to empire build; sometimes there are only two windows open when six could be because there are only two people there to deal with customers and there’s a snowball in hell’s chance of getting an extra person as long as the embargo is still running.

      • Charlie Lima says:

        Why do such plans arise? Largely because it is so hard to fire dead weight or change work rules that the easiest possible way to reduce superfluous employee count is to wait for people to retire.

        Well functioning organization do not do this. They either fire people they do not need and hire new ones, or they reassign people from areas of excess to areas of deficit.

        Public employees have made both firing and reassignment difficult. It provides them with immaculate job security. Typical firing rules are so byzantine that it is literally easier to wait for enough people to retire than to rejigger the workforce with any planning or nuance.

  36. kaakitwitaasota says:

    I taught in China as an English teacher (you may remember me as the host of the rather botched Chengdu meetup) until a couple of days ago, when I got fed up with the bullshit involved in the country’s ESL market and packed up for Ulaanbaatar. Anybody who thinks the US is bad has clearly never dealt with Chinese bureaucracy…

    To get a work visa, you must apply from the consulate or embassy which has jurisdiction over your place of residence; this usually involves an in-person visit because they increasingly want fingerprints. (Pity the poor inhabitants of the Mountain West). To teach English, you need to have your diploma, a clean background check, and a TEFL certificate like a CELTA that certifies that you can teach English.

    But you can’t just show up at the consulate with these documents in hand, because the consulate doesn’t know off the bat that you haven’t faked them. If you want to use a foreign document in most countries, you get around this by getting an apostille, a magic sticker attached to the document that the Secretary of State (in each of the 50 US states) can attach to the document. Unfortunately, however, China’s not a member of the apostille club. To get the document certified for use in the Middle Kingdom, you’ll have to follow the following steps:

    a) Get a notary to certify that the original of the document does indeed appear to be the real thing. The notary’s notarized note is attached to the document.

    b) Go to the Secretary of State and get it “certified”, which is like an apostille, except not, and is a piece of paper with a gold foil sticker on it that certifies that the notary was real.

    c) For documents issued in states under the DC embassy’s jurisdiction, take it to the State Department in Washington to get another certification, certifying that the secretary of state in Maryland or South Carolina or Idaho really did issue the piece of paper certifying that the notary was a real notary.

    d) Take it to the consulate or embassy and get a sticker certifying that that consulate recognizes that state’s secretary of state’s certification that the notary was real or, alternatively (near DC or in the Mountain West), that the embassy recognizes that the State Department’s certification that the Secretary of State’s certification that the notary is real is real.

    e) Apply for the visa.

    The “jurisdiction” requirement can be awful; my no-criminal-record check was issued in DC’s jurisdiction, my college diploma in that of Houston, and my TEFL certification (a CELTA) in that of London–I had to pay to have it shipped to the UK and have a company go through the whole notarization-certification-embassy-sticker process there.

    Two flaws become immediately apparent to anybody who’s not a Chinese bureaucrat:
    1) This is an absurdly long-winded, time-consuming process to certify that a document is what it says it is. (Visa and document certification companies get to rent-seek to their hearts’ delight, however).

    2) The only person you actually need to fool is the notary–everybody after the notary is only certifying the previous certifier–, so it provides almost no security whatsoever. Probably it actually hurts security compared to just bringing the document in since no bureaucrat in the chain is likely to cause a kerfluffle by essentially saying that their predecessor was wrong.

    Unsurprisingly, lots of people come teach in China illegally on tourist visas. Ultimately I’m glad I went through the process legitimately, since it made it much easier to play hardball with my recruiter once on the ground.

    This whole process seems to fit into Scott’s thesis on the role of bureaucracy. Irresponsible sexpats are much less likely to get all their ducks in a row to get the visa legitimately, so at least in theory you’re raising the quality of English teachers by using tedium as a proxy. And while the “each bureaucrat only certifies that the previous bureaucrat was real” process does nothing at all to make the process more secure, wastes time and money, and allows anybody who can find the most gullible notary in the state of Massachusetts to come in on a fake Harvard diploma, it also shields each bureaucrat from being liable for well-crafted fakes. Seen through the lens of social choice theory, this makes sense–the bureaucracy is an independent party in public policy, and it’s interested in creating enough work for itself to seem useful with a minimum of real responsibility or liability.

    (Additionally, because China’s certification process only works for China while apostilles can be used in many countries, original documents thus certified cannot be used in large swaths of the rest of the world. I thought about going to Kazakhstan, but Kazakhstan requires an apostille on your diploma, which I don’t have. The result is that there are fewer destinations for teachers who want to pull a midnight runner and teach somewhere else, though I don’t think this is an intentional side effect.)

    Meanwhile, in Mongolia, you can just come in as a tourist, find a job, and get a work visa at the local Ministry of Foreigns. I’m already liking it far more than I liked China.

  37. dark orchid says:

    How does this apply to bereaucracy within an organisation where they’re spending their own money?

    I used to work at a place where if you went on a business trip, there was a flat rate for lunch and dinner. Let’s say they paid $25 per lunch then for every day on your trip you could claim $25 unless lunch was provided, such as at a seminar with catering included in the price. If you just bought a sandwich, you still claimed $25 and kept the difference – this was entirely legitimate. The result is that filling in the expenses claim took about one minute.

    At another workplace, everything needed to be fully documented. You had to make photocopies of all receipts, highlight the items you were claiming for, fill in a spreadsheet’s worth of information on an online system that takes five times as long as it should, including uploading a scan of each photocopied receipt as a separate file. If you paid in foreign currency, you also needed a screenshot from xe.com on the day and if you paid by card, a copy of your credit card bill to prove the effective rate that you paid. Based on the hourly rate most people were paid there, making an expenses claim could often cost as much again as a good lunch out, and there’s always someone at the other end checking up – once I bought a sandwich mid-morning to have as lunch later on halfway through a long train journey, and someone from accounts e-mailed me back to say they’d spotted that I was making a claim for lunch when the till receipt showed a time of 10am. After we’d cleared this up, I was asked to document things like this in a text box on the form in future.

    Something they didn’t check of course was whether you just got a sandwich at the local subway or a two-course meal at a fancy restaurant, as long as you had everything fully documented.

    I can’t spot the economic incentive here, and in fact in some areas like transport it encouraged everyone to get the more expensive option because that came with proper paper tickets rather than a discounted e-ticket, or take a taxi instead of an uber even if it cost several times as much. (This was particularly funny in Italy when one taxi driver just handed us a stack of blank receipts so we could fill them in ourselves. We did, with the exact price we’d paid, and no-one ever queried it.)

    • Deiseach says:

      If you just bought a sandwich, you still claimed $25 and kept the difference – this was entirely legitimate. The result is that filling in the expenses claim took about one minute.

      Which is fine until someone decides cost-cutting is the order of the day, too many people are buying $5 sandwiches and pocketing the $20 difference, and then there will be hell to pay when (a) all the people accustomed to spending $25 on lunch now have to pay for that themselves or only buy a $5 sandwich instead to claim expenses (b) everyone making a nice little top-up from claiming the $20 difference now loses that.

      As long as you have money to burn and not every single employee is getting $25 for their lunch expenses, then it works. As soon as the system gets abused or gets too costly, then you have to put the unwieldy “you bought this at 10 in the morning so it’s not lunch” system in place, because you can’t rely on everyone being honest (e.g. pocketing the $20 difference because that was the letter but not the spirit of the rule – it was supposed to pay for a full lunch for someone absent on business reasons, not be money in your pocket).

      • dark orchid says:

        At the place I mentioned, it was both the letter and spirit of the law that you took your $25 whatever you’d eaten – the claim form didn’t even have a field where you wrote an amount in, it was a table with a row for each day and while there were amount columns for hotel and transport costs, lunch and dinner were simple check-boxes. I think the idea was something like, you treat your employees well and they reciprocate in the quality of the work they deliver.

        The first time I had to fill in a claim, I queried this and was told, yes you absolutely do claim your full $25 even if you only had a sandwich.

        Compared to the other place I mentioned, it worked really well in terms of morale.

    • CatCube says:

      I recall an article some years back about how terrible the expense account system was at a tech firm–I want to say it was AOL, but can’t swear to it–and the reason was that somebody had embezzled some several hundred thousand dollars by abusing the system. The solution was to require extensive documentation, to such a hellish extent that the article referenced an employee who threw away the receipts for an almost thousand dollar reimbursement rather than spend the time dealing with it.

      This happened because once there was a huge amount of money gone missing, the department that ran expense accounts had every incentive to be absolutely sure that all charges were legitimate, but the salary (or morale!) costs for complying with their requirements came out of everybody else’s budget. Hence, they had no reason to not pass ridiculous rules, and if the C-suite would try to rein them in, they could point to the embezzlement and say “Hey, do you want to be blamed for the next instance?”

      I wonder if your second example had a similar experience.

    • ahenobarbi says:

      Company I worki at first the thing where we have to keep all the receipts. Worst was when I was staying at hotel, grabbed some snacks from minibar, asked to pay for them with my private card do that’s I don’t have to go through pain od expensing them… and the expense handling team complained that’s they’re on the receipt from the hotel do I must put them inne the report(them that I exceeded daily food burger, then something, then that I’m taking too long).

      So I start talking about this with my coworkers about this and every one thinks it’s great system. I couldn’t understand why though. I mean it makes sensem for expensive stuff like flights oraz hotele but none od going on business trip to earn extra $20/data.

  38. Worley says:

    It seems like most of this is a consequence of the fact that it (whatever “it” is) isn’t a “system”, it’s a “society”. A system is where an engineer, based on certain goals, assembles a group of parts to work smoothly together to serve the goals. A society is an assemblage of individuals, each of whom has their own f**king agenda, which a larger society hopes will make some progress serving the goals. When you’re building a society, you have to spend most of your time “getting the incentives aligned”. You could summarize it as “General Electric has over 100,000 employees. *None of them*, from president down to janitor, has as their top priority making a profit for General Electric. Nonetheless, General Electric makes a large profit each year. How do they *do* that?”

    This is obvious, but people seem to work hard to forget it. The worse case (IMO) is left-leaning sources speaking about “the healthcare system”, and then proceeding to be amazed that [the demon of the month] isn’t 100% dedicated to providing universal health care at a very low cost.

  39. Lab Rat says:

    I think of bureaucratic inefficiency mainly as an emergent property, best described by the “iron law.” The productive people on the front lines of any organization will always lose power relative to the bureaucrats, because the latter group is in actually in charge of the organization. The rules and regulations generated by the bureaucrats to justify their positions accumulate and necessitate the further expansion of the bureaucracy. If a financial crunch comes, the people running the system have the wherewithal to protect themselves, often at the expense of productive employees. I think this explains a significant portion of cost disease.

    From a 20,000-foot view, competition protects against this inefficiency. New, leaner organizations with small bureaucratic classes can outmaneuver older, entrenched organizations, especially during times of crisis. However, the more insulated from competition an organization, the more its bureaucracy will grow. Large corporations are bureaucratic nightmares, because the cost of entry into their markets limits new competitors. The large corporations can also lobby governments and control their own regulatory environment against any new competition that does emerge.

    It’s an old libertarian talking point, but government organizations have the worst bureaucracies because there is no competition. In addition, any attempts at reform are usually surface-level changes that have to be managed by the very people the reforms are meant to address. Give this environment a few decades to fester, and front line employees that actually care all but disappear, relative to the mass of bureaucrats.

    Incomplete Alternate hypothesis: It has something to do with resource competition and scaling. Big things tend to get bigger for a variety of reasons, not least of which is they can command more of the resources. I wonder if, similar to metabolic scaling, there is a limit to the amount of terminal units (capillaries or front line employees) a large organization can support. If this makes any sense, does this mean organizations have an upper size limit that only increases when technology advances?

    • Lambert says:

      I’ve seen the idea of scaling thrown around a few times before.
      As the org chart grows taller, the ratio of front-line employees actually doing the work to management shrinks.
      The other issue is that the game of telephone between the top and the bottom gets longer, so top brass has less of an idea of what’s going on with the actual value adding side of the firm.

  40. phileas says:

    I’d analogize it to Trial by Ordeal. For a long time, people believed in it as a legitimate form of justice. Maybe they still do, outside the formal legal arena. It’s certainly part of the myth of a hero’s journey.

  41. fortaleza84 says:

    I would guess part of the problem is that for a lot of people, imposing arbitrary requirements on other people gives them a nice feeling of power. At the lowest levels, where bureaucrats sometimes just invent unreasonable rules, this seems to be the case.

    We’ve all had the experience of a low-level bureaucrat who invents a ridiculous rule and a request to speak to a manager or supervisor has fixed the problem. What seems to be going on is that the low-level bureaucrat is subconsciously playing status games so that he or she can feel important. So perhaps this phenomenon also takes place at higher levels.

    • Matt M says:

      I really don’t think that’s the case.

      I was formerly an admin guy in the Navy, meaning a professional bureaucrat and rule-enforcer in one of the most bureaucratic organizations known to man.

      I think my customers occasionally saw me as “inventing rules on the spot” but I really wasn’t. Any time I was in that situation, it’s almost certain that I was either

      a. Confused about what the rule actually was/how to apply it (sucks but that’s what happens when there are 500 poorly written, contradictory rules)
      b. Correcting someone else who mis-applied a rule in the past (a lot of people learn bad habits and think they are within the rules, when in fact they are not)
      c. Enforcing the rule as written, to include things like “the CO has the authority to ignore this rule upon request, but I do not”

      Even among the laziest and scummiest of my co-workers, I really can’t think of a time someone simply made up a rule for some sort of status game. Worst case scenario, they made up a rule to avoid doing work, but that’s a different category of error…

      • fortaleza84 says:

        Perhaps not you, but it’s happened to me on many occasions. For example, at the state agency where I work there is a security desk when you enter the building (where you show ID and sign in); and a service window at the actual agency where you present your paperwork. There is also a security desk at the agency which doesn’t have any real function except to buzz people in to the bathroom and perhaps get involved if there is trouble in the public waiting area.

        Anyway, the guy at the agency security desk started asking people to show him their paperwork. This raised some questions since it did not seem that he had any authority to do so. Complaints were made, and eventually he was told to stop. And then he started doing it again. Ultimately he was transferred to another position.

        Perhaps you can think of another explanation, but it looks to me like the only reasonable explanation is that this security guard liked the feeling of power and importance that comes from having people hand over their paperwork for him to review.

        I see people with this type of attitude on a regular basis and after reading “The elephant in the brain,” I’ve come to believe that a lot of peoples’ behavior can be explained by attempts to jockey for social status.

        Even among the laziest and scummiest of my co-workers, I really can’t think of a time someone simply made up a rule for some sort of status game

        I think people tend not to be aware of it when they are playing status games. You really need to keep your eyes open to see it. But once your eyes are open, you start seeing it everywhere.

    • Trollumination says:

      That’s not how it really looks from the low level, though. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked low-level retail jobs, but this is a constant dynamic.

      Customer walks in with an unreasonable request, totally against every policy you’ve been taught, one which you could easily be fired for granting. Perhaps the customer walks in with a bag of empty Meijer Cola cans and wants them returned for deposit. But as your store isn’t Meijer’s, and therefore doesn’t sell Meijer Cola, you follow the returnable can policy and tell the customer you’re sorry but you can’t give them a deposit refund for those, you didn’t buy them here, and maybe you should take them to Meijer’s.

      The inevitable outcome is that custy starts hollering for the manager, the manager saunters over and magnanimously orders you to give the customer a deposit refund. And now you look like a big jerk.

      I didn’t make the bottle deposit rules to ‘feel important’. I didn’t make them at all. And I will be written up if I break them. But the manager has the authority to overrule them, and feels like a big boss for doing so, total ego trip that far outweighs the store losing $4.80 because god knows whether we can get reimbursed for these cans that our suppliers don’t take.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Prediction: The manager eventually takes the cans over to Meijer’s, gets the $4.80, pockets it, documents the cans as disposed of, and writes off the $4.80 for customer goodwill.

      • Trofim_Lysenko says:

        I didn’t make the bottle deposit rules to ‘feel important’. I didn’t make them at all. And I will be written up if I break them. But the manager has the authority to overrule them, and feels like a big boss for doing so, total ego trip that far outweighs the store losing $4.80 because god knows whether we can get reimbursed for these cans that our suppliers don’t take.

        Speaking as someone who has indeed worked low-end retail, then low-end customer service, then been that manager in customer service, you’re either failing to model your manager correctly, you have a shitty manager, or a bit of both.

        I can imagine a hypothetical manager who gets an ego trip by coming in and making an exception to a rule for a pain in the ass customer. However, in my experience most such managers and supervisors (to include myself) are just as annoyed by the customer as the front line employee. First, because they have to deal with the same attitude and unpleasantness (I once had an employee I suspect to this day of deliberately goading his problem guests to the most incandescent levels of outrage, then sweetly saying ‘Let me get my supervisor, I’m sure he’ll help you!’). Second, because the time spent stroking the guest and resolving this issue is time taken away from whatever task they were doing before they had to drop it and respond. Third, because the bureaucracy is never just one layer deep. That $4.80 has got to be accounted for, and your boss now has to explain to HIS boss where it went, with all the accompanying hassle.

        To the extent that low level supervisors and managers have the ability to “fix a problem”, Fortaleza, the usual explanation is not that the rule was made up on the spot by the low level employee. The usual explanation is that the rule was made up by senior management, but that there is a general workaround added “For guest satisfaction”, and use of that workaround is supposed to be limited to “If you really HAVE to”. Let me use a real-world example, with a few details fudged.

        Coupons are mailed out all the time by a business, targeted based on loyalty program data. If everyone who received these coupons acted on them, it would be a very bad thing for the store that issued them. The store counts on the response rate being low. Furthermore, they add in limitations and rules so that if you only follow part of them, you end up in the store and making a purchase but unable to use the offer. A few of these limitations include:

        -Must present the physical coupon.
        -Minimum purchase of at least $X.
        -Only Valid at X Time on Y Date.

        and so on. But if it’s a targeted coupon on a loyalty card account, doesn’t the store KNOW it’s offered you this coupon? Why should you have to present the physical mail piece? They have to have the codes and such stored in their computers, right? And indeed, at least SOME of the time they could redeem the offer without the physical coupon. Or rather, the supervisor can, because he has more knowledge of the computer system than the front line employee, or he has the e-mail from the marketing department with a list of all the valid codes in case there’s a coupon with a bad bar code. So when a customer who left their coupon at home or in the car or just doesn’t feel like digging it out and throws a sufficiently severe tantrum, the supervisor can utilize this additional knowledge and resolve the issue.

        Why doesn’t he do it every time? Or just tell the front-line employee to do it every time? Well, see above. The whole point of those rules is to act as a filter. If you bypass the filter, you screw with the plans of the guys in marketing and finance who made statistical predictions of exactly how many people would use that 50% off Caramel-Flavored Sanitary Napkins coupon that was only good on alternate thursdays, and exactly how much that would cost the company relative to the revenue generated by extra trips to the store.

        So Why doesn’t the supervisor give that information to the front-line employee and say “But don’t use this option unless you really need to, so we don’t bypass the filter too often”? Well, in MY case, if I had an employee I felt I could trust to be smart about that sort of thing, that might be exactly what I would tell them. But in general, if all your employees could be trusted to exercise that sort of judgement, you wouldn’t -need- a supervisor in the first place.

        Mind you, I still think this is often a terrible system. The worst problem is that when it comes to retail/fast food/customer service policies, the end result is a set of incentives that generally rewards shitty, unpleasant, obnoxious, selfish assholes. The more people you make wait in line behind you while you stop all traffic at a cash register to demand that your three year expired coupon from a competing store be honored god damn it or you will rain -hell- upon this place’s facebook and yelp pages, the more likely the supervisor is going to find some way of making you happy, if only to make you GO AWAY.

        • Brad says:

          Yep. I don’t see why stores want to set up an asshole filter. Not every customer is worth making happy. On the contrary some you’d be much better off chasing away to your competition.

          • Matt M says:

            I think their concern is less that customer’s actual business, and more that the customer will badmouth the company to their friends, leave a negative yelp review, etc.

            In NPS speak, they aren’t so much trying to turn the customer from neutral to a promoter, they’re trying to turn them from a detractor to neutral. Detractors are always harmful. There’s virtually never a situation in which it’s a good thing for someone to actively hate your company.

          • Deiseach says:

            What Matt M says – you don’t want somebody going on social media giving a distorted view (because nobody ever says “I was a total asshole in the store today”) of the situation and this getting passed around as “Joe’s Place is really terrible for customer service, avoid going there” by people who have never even been there in the first place.

            Plus, even a bad terrible customer is a customer as long as they’re spending money. You want that money in your shop, not a competitor’s shop.

          • Brad says:

            In my experience, no one is just an asshole when it comes to stores. This guy’s “friends” know he’s an asshole.

            The yelp argument is a little better since the stars get averaged in and most people won’t read the comment (where in all likelihood it’ll be obvious that the author is an asshole.) But this kind of giving in to assholes by managers was happening long before there was a yelp.

            I wouldn’t say that any customer is still money. When I worked retail there were people that did what amounted to stealing from the store with the acquiescence of a manager (e.g. return scams).

          • Matt M says:

            In my experience, no one is just an asshole when it comes to stores. This guys “friends” know he’s an asshole.

            Yeah, but they’re also assholes.

            I’ve been amazed how many people I’ve seen post things on social media about how “horribly” they were treated by some business, by my read it was all them being an entitled jerk who didn’t understand some policy and wanted special treatment, yet the replies are filled with their friends saying OMG I’LL NEVER SHOP AT THAT PLACE AGAIN

            I think most people in service industries understood the intuition behind NPS long before Yelp was a thing. The manager is willing to enable the return scammers to steal from the store not because he cares about their business, but because he doesn’t want them badmouthing the store to others.

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:

            In my experience, no one is just an asshole when it comes to stores. This guy’s “friends” know he’s an asshole.

            Probably true, but it doesn’t stop them from bandwagoning when it comes to word of mouth. The dynamic motivating these policies is pretty much exactly what Matt M outlined, and you’re right that it predates yelp and facebook and such. Amusingly enough, my current employer centers its entire customer strategy around NPS, despite it being an iffy measure for our business (How likely are you to recommend….? 6/10 . Reason: “This place is incredible, but I don’t like telling people to go to casinos.” or “Everyone is super friendly and the food is great, but I didn’t win”)

          • Matt M says:

            That’s why NPS is best used as a relative measure within-industry.

            You can also text scrub for comments and filter out ones that are basically unavoidable if you’d like.

            I once did some work for a large Telco who was really proud of their -20 NPS, because hey, we’re better than Comcast!

    • Deiseach says:

      Chiming in here from experience both as retail and as low-level bureaucratic minion: fortaleza84, it’s not the front-line people, the person on the other side of the window or the phone who makes the crappy petty rules. Those generally come down from head office/on high and are slapped down for you to implement even if you can foresee they are going to cause problems when dealing with the public.

      And the reason the manager or supervisor can “fix” the problem? They have the authority (greater or lesser depending; someone who owns their own small corner shop versus someone working in a large chain supermarket) to over-ride the rules in some instances. They specifically have the authority by virtue of being that step or steps higher on the ladder than the cashier or clerk in the local government department. They can say “sure, give the customer whatever/accept that cheque/take in that application” because they’re the boss and have the written or de facto authority to do so. On the other hand, the cashier/wait staff/clerical officer can’t do that and sometimes it’s even a firing offence if you do bend the rules. Not because they invented that rule in a fit of power-tripping and the boss is making the common-sense decision to fix the problem, but because the rule came down from a much higher level, the front line staff explicitly are forbidden to use their own initiative on such decisions, and the higher grade person has a little more authority to make decisions to over-ride the rule.

      I got eaten alive in my retail job for accepting a cheque from a customer, whereas if the boss had been there themselves they could have made the decision “sure, take that cheque” because in that instance, they would have been breaking their own rule. I didn’t make the rule about “no unsecured cheques”, so for a customer to think I was being unreasonable and pettifogging when the boss was perfectly happy to take the cheque when they asked to speak to them – no, that’s not how it worked. I didn’t make the rule, I got in trouble for bending it, and the ultimate decision was with the boss because they were the store owner and could do whatever they damn liked with their own business.

      • fortaleza84 says:

        I would have to disagree, I regularly see rules get made up by low level people. See my example above, for example.

  42. detroitdan says:

    I’ve just signed up to comment at this blog which has an impressive amount of commentary! In fact, it seems a bit overwhelming.

    I recently retired from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and agree 100% with the original post that bureaucracy is used to ration care and reduce questionable charges. This is part of my standard spiel with regard to my former employer and profession. Of course, the downside of this is that constituents (patients, doctors, hospitals) all end up hating your bureaucratic organization. But somebody’s got to do the job of denying reimbursement when appropriate.

    Are there better ways? Single payer health care like in Canada would streamline the process and remove many layers of bureaucracy and vested interest. You would still need the painful process and bureaucracy, but the reasons for the red tape are much clearer when employers and profit-making insurance companies are removed from the process.

  43. Jason K. says:

    The use of bureaucracy-as-rationing is one of my big concerns with the government running healthcare. If it ever gets implemented, we are going to either end up with a byzantine set of regulations around who gets care and when(with people being screwed over in the margins), or we will see bureaucracy become a defacto rationing method. The latter is more likely, because if it does go full government, woe to the politician that has someone explicitly denied care on their watch. So the ones that are weeded out will never be explicitly denied, they’ll just keep appealing and escalating until they don’t need the care anymore, one way or another.

    Death via bureaucracy.

  44. Plumber says:

    Here’s another rant ’bout rules from higher ups.

    Many years ago someone decided to implement a rule that each man in turn has to do a “safety walk-through” for a week, find and report an unsafe condition and detail how the problem was fixed.

    After more than a decade of this, there’s not much we can think of, so I for one and glad when I find something unsafe, which I don’t report unless it’s my “walk-through” week (save it for latet!).

    For the past few weeks each of my co-workers have reported “Liquid on floor, slip hazard, dried floor” but it turns out some poor schmuck actually read the damn things, and we got the word not to report that anymore. 

    Fortunately, our “secure” building (with a metal detector and armed guards at the main entrance) often has side doors that are often left unlocked, so most of my safety reports are of me locking a door (usually locking a custodian or a forklift driver out, but rules are rules).

    Central planning! 

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Ahhhhh, misaligned incentives on the safety walks. We’re “fortunate” in that we have some relatively minor safety problems that management doesn’t really want to push to correct, so they keep showing up as findings every single week. Pretty pointless to report something that’s never going to get fixed, but that’s not my problem.