the state of the state

When I first became a fan of stand-up comedy and TV sitcoms, say in the mid-’80s, there were a lot of jokes about how terrible the DMV was. Jokes about long lines, interminable waits, snotty employees, and byzantine paperwork requirements. Jokes along the lines of, “Hey, did you hear about my problem with ______?” “Well, it could be worse.” “How?” “You could’ve had to go to the DMV!” Lame jokes, mostly, but jokes which, like jokes about racial tensions and airline hassles, reflected a shared perceived reality.

And, indeed, in February of 1989, when I first had to interact with the Georgia DMV to get my learner’s permit, it was still a thoroughly unpleasant experience — the office was stuffy and packed with people, and the state employees behind the desk were cranky, frustrated, and immovable: trolls with job security.

But by the time I had to renew my license, five years later, the situation was much different. The old, crappy office had been closed; the new office was actually inside a supermarket, between the vegetables and the meat counter. There were no long lines; adequate staff had been hired, and hours had been expanded. The DMV workers themselves seemed to have had a little fairy dust sprinkled on them — they were polite and efficient and generally friendly. I walked out amazed.

Since then, my DMV experiences have gotten better and better. I’ve gotten licenses and registered my car in Washington, New York and twice now in California, and while the regulatory burdens created by some officious state legislatures still grate on me — I don’t really understand why I have to get a weight certificate for my tiny pickup while much heavier (and more polluting) SUVs and minivans are exempt from this requirement — the DMV experience itself has only gotten more efficient and user-friendly.

So it was not surprising, but a little saddening, when I discovered last week that the California DMV had discontinued its weekend hours. No doubt this is due to the massive California budget shortfall, which in turn is due to the shrinking tax base caused by the worldwide economic slump.

I might have closed the DMV on Mondays and kept Saturday service, but I can’t argue with the Governor’s demand that California close its budget gap. Still, this is one of the little, hidden costs of serious recession. It’s not just the big stuff like unemployment and foreclosure — everything gets a little lamer, a little crappier, a little more frustrating for the average person. The Lady Friend and I were discussing how Elton John goes to the DMV, and we agreed that his assistant probably goes inside and stands in line for him, but for the rest of us, this process is going to start sucking a lot more.

I think that’s unfortunate, not only because I don’t have an assistant to stand in line for me, but also because I think repetitive frustrating experiences with government bureaucracy contribute to people’s perception that government is inefficient, corrupt, non-functional, and a refuge for scoundrels. This same effect also works its unfortunate magic on communist lefties like me, by the way, because I’m sure lean times also force private companies to curtail their service staff, which leads to the perception that corporations are inefficient, corrupt, etc. But private companies can (and do) look out for their own relationship with consumers. Government, on the other hand, is constrained by an unwritten code of modesty in the civil service, so that its successes are seen as merely meeting expectations, while its failures are public, noisy, and politically loaded.

So the recession of the 1970s led to a throw-the-bums-out dismantling of the government in the 1980s, fuelled by a surprisingly robust collective resentment of government’s most visible institutions — the DMV, the IRS, and the school system. I’m not convinced that most Americans really understood the economics of trucking regulation or savings-and-loan oversight. But they did understand their own personal experiences with public institutions, which by the late ’70s and early ’80s had become unpleasant, frustrating, and often quite costly. So voters gave fairly sweeping authority to President Reagan and, later, Newt Gingrich, allowing them to deregulate and privatize all kinds of things, not based on whether it made good social and economic sense to do so, but based on a highly personal anger towards a system seen as both hopelessly incompetent and full of knaves.

When a whole new generation of voting adults arrived on the scene last year — young people with no memory of a serious recession or its attendant aggravations — the political landscape shifted some. Barack Obama’s message of government as a useful tool that could, in the right hands, be used to make life better resonated with kids who had never known the depths of customer service failure to which many of our institutions had fallen by the Carter era. Sure, Obama reasoned, our government has been put to bad use recently, but that was the result of mismanagement at the top, not a fundamental problem with the idea of public works and civil service. But whether today’s young voters continue to have faith in the power of public action, or whether they fall into the same cranky disillusionment that gripped their parents and grandparents over the past thirty years, probably depends on, as much as anything, how long they have to stand in line to get a driver’s license.

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