Friday, June 03, 2005

Why The Soviets Lost

My daughter needs to get her driver's license. She took Driver's Ed a couple years back, did segment one and segment two. Now, she just needs to take her driving test. Back in the '70s, you gave the cop a ride and that was that.

We learned that since Jane is over 18, we have to get a Driver's Permit before she can take the driving test. OK. We went to the Secretary of State. Stand in line. My daughter complains. I tell her, "get used to it." We get a number and a form to fill out.

"I don't know my Social Security Number."

While I'm trying to contact my wife to ask her what Jane's number is, the bureaucrat turns my daughter away. I get back without the SSN, wait to talk to the bureaucrat and ask if they can take the paperwork without the SSN and we'd call it in. No, they can't do that.

We rush home (the office closes at 5:00), get the SSN and return just before the office closes. We wait through the line again. Jane hands the girl the form with SSN.

She says, "Do you have your Birth Certificate?"

Of course, we don't. I tell the bureaucrat that this is our second visit. Unspoken is the question, "why didn't bureaucrat #1 say we'd need that, too." Bureaucrat #2 is adamant. She needs three pieces of ID. I show her the SSN card, printed by the Federal Government. That's not good enough. She says we'll have to come back.

When are you closing tonight? 5:00. What time is it? Three minutes till.

Driving back without the permit to take the test to get the license, I find something good from the experience.

"Jane, do you know what's good about all this stupid inefficiency?"

"What."

"Imagine having to stand in lines like this to everything. Imagine a society where everything is run through a bureaucrasy like this. Nobody'd get anything done, they'd spend all their time standing in line. That's why the Soviets lost."

1 comment:

UML Guy said...

I have two quibbles:

1. As bad as your experience was, I believe the Michigan Secretary of State office has gotten markedly better since I got my license 26 years ago. The biggest improvement was when we finally dumped Richard Austin, and his replacement (Candace Miller, if I recall correctly) insituted major overhauls. Improvements since then have been minor, but noticeable. (The most recent improvement I noticed was when I stopped patronizing Grand Rapids offices and started going to the Allegan County office. The longest line I've seen has been three people.)

2. My Indian and Jordanian former roommates would say that the Secretary of State office is actually a demonstration of why we won, but not in the way you indicated. They said that in their countries -- and in other countries they had visited -- the bureaucracies were much worse; but more important, they were more corrupt. How quickly you got served was based on your social status and the size of the bribe you paid. I once read that the wait for phone service in Egypt was twelve YEARS. They explained that was largely because anyone with a brain bought their way ahead in the line. That twelve year figure (essentially forever) was for people who couldn't pay. And their point was this: as inefficient as our bureaucratic lines might be, they're also egalitarian. Everyone waits the same. And this means that, rather than the privileged skating through while others spend DAYS in line, everyone here spends an hour or so in line. In the long run, that means we have more people who are more productive more of the time.

They also said that, whether we realized it or not, Americans are the hardest working people on the planet, on average. When we work, we work, pretty much. In their countries, when someone works, they do little or nothing. My niece is in Kazakstan with the Peace Corps right now. She says that at the place where she's assisting, the work day starts promptly at nine or ten -- and begins with a two hour coffee break. That, too, is why we won.