The Civics Lesson

For the past few weeks the Kid has been taking driver’s education at his high school, and with the inevitable and required birth date past, I was machine gunned with demands. “Did you find my birth certificate? Do you have my social security number? When can you take me to the DMV?” One by one I found the required documents – all except one, the Kid’s social security card. In the envelope containing his birth certificate was an application for one written in the Wife’s hand and dated May 7, 1998. The Kid was less than 2 years old at that time, and the need for a social security card wasn’t pressing enough to actually send in the form requesting one. So it sat around the house and then was carted to our new one after we moved, completely useless except as a reminder of a simpler time when the Kid was still mastering walking instead of driving 70 mph on the local interstate.

I warned my son. “I don’t have the card, so there may be trouble at the DMV.” As an American adult there are certain things one knows that a teenager doesn’t, and one of those things is the inflexibility of government bureaucracies. He didn’t seem concerned, so we picked up his transcripts at his school and he signed the pledge to maintain his grades and to not use drugs or alcohol. With an assortment of other documents in hand including federal tax returns showing his social security number, we drove over to the DMV.

I had never been to this particular DMV office, but it was like nearly every one I’ve ever been in. Signage was everywhere with block-like figures neo-Socialist genderless figures, all of it bilingual and none of it helpful. Several other people sat in chairs in one room, and a receptionist window had a sign-in sheet but no names on it. Nonetheless it made sense to me to put my son’s name on the list, and we sat down in some tired plastic chairs under flickering fluorescent lights. “I hope I don’t fail the test,” he said nervously. I assured him that it took me several times to pass the test, and that there was no shame in failing it. He would take it again. I also warned him that the lack of the social security card could be a problem, but he seemed more worried about the test so I let it slide.

Eventually his name was called and we entered another room with three DMV employees sitting behind desks. My son sat in the single chair opposite the DMV employee, a matronly looking heavy set woman in her late 50’s. “Here for a permit?” She said brusquely. My son answered yes. He passed her the documentation. “Where’s his social security card?” She said, looking at me. “He doesn’t have one, but I have the number,” I said, smiling.

The woman sighed like a truck tire hit with a pick axe and said, “That’s the first document on the list.” I nodded and still smiling said, “But we have the number.”

I’ve dealt with bureuacracies my entire adult life. I knew this was going to happen, but I had to go through the motions so that the Kid saw that his father was at least trying to get him what he wanted.

“Sir, I can’t do anything without the card,” she said in a monotone, “You’ll have to go to the Social Security Administration to get a slip of paper that says a card has been applied for. Bring that slip to this office and we can then call and confirm that the Social Security card has been requested.”

“You can’t do anything until we get that slip of paper?” I asked.

“No.” A civil servant’s favorite word.

“Thank you for your time,” I said to her sweetly as my son stood and we left the DMV.

“What a rude woman,” he said as we walked to the car.

I’ve never understood exactly what it is about civil service jobs that makes workers so surly. They are paid decently and have better benefits than anything I’ve ever received working in the private sector. Yet they are some of the rudest, and most unhappy people you’ll ever meet in daily life.

The nearest Social Security Administration office was about 1/2 an hour away. It was just past 3:15, and having nothing else to do on a Friday afternoon I decided to get the Kid’s card so that we could get him his permit the following week. Thirty minutes later we had found the office. We walked to the door and pulled on the handle – but it was locked. I looked at piece of paper taped to the door. “As of August 11, 2011, our office hours are Mon-Fri 9am to 3:30pm.” We had driven roughly 30 miles out of our way to a federal government agency’s office that had closed 15 minutes before.

“This is why I hate government,” I said to my son as we walked back to the car. He to take it in stride. I think he had been worried about the test, so avoiding the immediacy of that came as a relief to him, but I wanted to go “Scott Walker” all over these bureaucrats’ asses.

In the private sector that I have worked since I was in high school, I have developed a positive attitude that has improved with time as I realized that people would rather work with or be helped by a sunny personality than a surly one. It’s a lesson that my mother, one of the world’s best saleswomen, tried to teach me when I was young but the lesson didn’t make it through my thick skull until I was middle aged.

The woman that “served” us at the DMV stood no chance of making it outside of that office. She had probably worked there her entire adult life and never been exposed to the demand for a positive attitude at one’s job created by the fear of being shown the door. In fact in her position she probably had never been exposed to free market pressures at all. Just in the past 10 years I have had to constantly learn new skills just to avoid the unemployment line; during that same time I doubt she’s even changed desks.

During our long ride home my son and I talked about this. “Maybe she’s trapped,” he said at one point. I glanced over at him. “She’s bored with her job but she can’t change. Maybe that’s why she’s rude to everyone.”

He was right. It was easy for me to demonize government bureaucrats like the DMV lady and the Social Security Administration office that closed at 3:30 in the afternoon. But the problem wasn’t that they were overpaid: it was they were trapped like flies in amber in jobs that paid them too well to abandon yet offered nothing but monotony. Whereas I dealt with constant change in my field in the private sector, there was nothing like it in the public sector. Promotions were based on retirements, not merit, so everyone just sat around and waited. While they didn’t have to worry about where their next paycheck came from, they knew that they would be doing a decade from now exactly what they did today. The thought had an almost Twilight Zone-ish vibe to it.

The question is how do we change this situation? It’s not enough to institute budget cuts; as the public sector is highly unionized only the youngest or those with the least seniority will lose their jobs. The problem is the culture. How do we change the culture of public service to better match that of the private sector?

Imagining a public sector where private sector rules applied would revolutionize the entire edifice – from the DMV all the way up to the judiciary and Congress. Services would be cheaper, the taxpayers would save heaps of cash, and the DMV would be a more pleasant experience than it is today. The benefits would also extend to the workers who would be given more mobility and exposure to new ideas and new jobs in exchange for the loss of a lifetime employment contract that is looking more illusory given the perilous state of our government finances.

Public sector workers like the woman at the DMV would fight such change to her last breath. Perhaps it’s too late for people like her ruined by a lifetime of tedium, but there are solutions for younger workers. Maybe these changes will have been done by the time my son visits the DMV with his son to get him his driver’s permit.

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  1. Ken Mueller:

    I’m guessing we have passed the critical time and mass to make any meaningful change with the usual political means at our disposal. See the problems encountered by those trying to fix these problems in Wisconsin and Ohio.

  2. Bill Beyer:

    Washington state has mostly privatized DMV functions- it’s wonderful.
    I get my tags in the local Albertson’s, from people competent and pleasant.
    I don’t hold much hope California could do so, though, and they need it desperately,
    as I remember from when I lived there.

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  16. marine43:

    I am a handyman(self employed) Been at it for about 8 yrs now, just talked to a customer yesterday. I get very slow in the winter, and with THIS economy it is even worse. I negotiated myself down to just a bit over half my hourly rate. The folks i am working for are really nice people, and need to get the deceased mom in laws house ready to sell. I truly feel for them and they are the same with me. I will have a couple months work, and they will get some good work done that they can afford.I went in with both eyes open, and thank God to have the work. I feel bad for folks that work is a means to an end. I feel i improve folks lives, and relieve some stress on a daily basis. All word of mouth and most days i love goin to work.

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  18. Roger:

    This story is eerily similar of my trip to the DMV with my daughter a few years ago when she took her driving test. We too had to go back to the SS administration office to get that slip of paper. Although we got the proof of the SSN later that morning, we were not able to go back to the DMV that day. You see, only 6 people are seen daily for the driving so by the time we got back, they had maxed out for the day. The next morning, we showed up an hour before the office opened; we were number 8 (or so) in line but stayed anyway. Sure enough, they kept disqualifying people left and right for not having crossed their t’s and dotted their i’s and we got in.

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