Friday, September 07, 2018
Imagine a store that makes its customers miserable. The interior is ugly and uncomfortable. The staff members range from indifferent and slow to rude and incompetent. You pay sky-high prices for inferior goods. Often you pay full price yet leave the place empty-handed.
You don't have to be a marketing expert to guess what would happen to such an establishment. It would go out of business. It wouldn't be all that surprising if a mob of ripped-off consumers burned the place down.
I've just described the U.S. government.
You interact with the government many times each day. How many of those encounters are positive?
Close to zero.
Let's look at the single most common connection between governments and citizens: the payment of taxes. Sales taxes on goods and services -- painful and annoying. Income taxes -- the same. What do you get back for paying your taxes? Nothing specially for you. Sure, you benefit from public schools, roads and so on. But those bennies are shared. Aside from the occasional unemployment check, most people never receive direct help from "their" government.
When we interact with agents of the state -- the employees of the metaphorical store I described up top -- it's a miserable experience. OK, you're thrilled when the firefighters show up. But you'll probably never have to call them more than once in your life. The vast majority of the government workers you meet aren't there to help you. They're out to lower your quality of life.
Here, in rough order of frequency, are the government workers you are likeliest to come into contact with:
--Cops. They exist to give you tickets. Fines for minor offenses are exorbitant -- $150 on average and up to $2,400 in some states. Points raise your insurance rates. You might even lose your license. If you're black, they harass you; they might kill you. Once in a blue moon, they might save you from danger. Mostly, it's about the tickets.
--TSA agents. The blue derps of the airport world delay your trip, mess up your neatly packed luggage and steal your precious fluids and sharp objects. There's no evidence they've ever foiled a terrorist.
--Clerks at government offices, such as courthouses, the DMV and Social Security offices. Unlike the aforementioned, they probably won't take your money or possessions. Instead, they waste your time. Sluggish, cynical and uncaring, typical civil servants drag their feet with no apparent sense of urgency. Many are surly and rude.
--Officials in charge of jury duty. In a perfect world, jury duty could be interesting. Most municipalities make it as inconvenient as possible, particularly for the self-employed and parents and other caregivers. Why can't you write a letter to ask to be excused?
--IRS agents. If you hear from one, you're being audited. Be prepared to cough up thousands -- if you're lucky.
Government facilities are as awful as the people who work there.
Government buildings and offices tend to be old and run-down. Given that wait times drag on interminably, you'd think they might provide such basics as comfortable chairs with charging stations and work booths for your laptop and Wi-Fi, but no. They could pick up a cue from restaurants that give you a buzzer or text you to let you know when your table is ready so you could get coffee or whatever while you're waiting. Right. As if they care.
God help you if you try to call a government office. Crazy voicemail phone trees, brief office hours (they're open while you're working), long hold times, arbitrary disconnections and, if you ever get through, probably no help in the end.
Obviously, there are dedicated public servants who view taxpayers as valuable customers and work hard to help them. But these saints are exceptional. Here we're discussing your typical interaction with government and government workers. Those interactions suck.
When it comes to injustice and inconvenience, these problems pale next to getting blown up by a Hellfire missile or being raped or succumbing to cancer. Nevertheless, they have serious repercussions.
Lousy customer service by government inexorably creates and grows contempt, not merely for specific government agencies, such as the police, but for government in general. Particularly on the right, opportunistic politicians exploit the resentments of people who feel mistreated and neglected by a government that supposedly serves them. "I get nothing from the government, and I work hard. Get rid of welfare for lazy slobs!" As Ronald Reagan said, government is the problem, not the solution.
Anti-government sentiment is a major motivation for Donald Trump's tea party base. Liberal entreaties that we ought to appreciate such important "socialist" government services as pollution control and public universities that educate our children fall on deaf ears (and not just among conservatives) because those positives are psychological abstractions.
Our material day-to-day interfacing with government is as I describe it above: relentlessly negative. It sucks away our cash, slows us down and disrespects us.
Crappy government is more of a feature than a bug. Offices are poorly maintained and uncomfortably furnished for a reason: Budget planners don't prioritize renovations. Financial cutbacks in the public sector mean below-market salaries and dead-end jobs without opportunity to advance, so it's hard to attract the best and smartest workers. You can't blame those who get stuck there -- even the good ones -- for turning surly.
Bureaucratic dysfunction is so entrenched it's hard to imagine an improvement. But the blowback will come.
Look at images of revolutionary uprisings throughout history. Crowds of people consumed with rage roam the streets destroying everything in sight.
Look at images of collapse -- hollow expressions from years of being beaten down.
Whether by revolution or by implosion, a system that ladles out as many industrial-sized buckets of contempt-provoking annoyance and oppression as the U.S. government must inevitably go the way of that suicidal, idiotic store.
Ted Rall, an editorial cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of "Francis: The People's Pope."
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