More on complexity in American life

One theme in my ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘ is that the sheer complexity of American life makes modern serfs out of many Americans.

It is in the nature of complexity that you cannot depict or chronicle it in one simple post. So I’ve had a go at American bureaucracy, at the tax system, at the healthcare system and so on. Now I come across this piece by Jason DeParle in today’s New York Times on the general issue of benefits in America. Excerpts with my emphasis:

As millions of people seek government aid, many for the first time, they are finding it dispensed American style: through a jumble of disconnected programs that reach some and reject others… Health care, housing, food stamps and cash — each forms a separate bureaucratic world, and their dictates often collide… Aid seekers often find the rules opaque and arbitrary. And officials often struggle to make policy through a system so complex and Balkanized.

Just one individual example:

A bureaucratic bungle compounded the woes of Ms. Johnson, who lost her job as a librarian at Magnolia Bible College in Kosciusko, Miss. Religious schools are exempt from unemployment taxes, so Ms. Johnson, 60, faced the recession without jobless benefits. She applied for food stamps and was denied because she had more than $3,000 in an Individual Retirement Account, though officials said she would qualify if the savings were in a 401(k). Finding the distinction illogical, Ms. Johnson searched the Internet and learned that Congress had just changed the law. As of October 2008, savings in either kind of retirement account are no barrier to food stamps. But state and county officials held firm, and a federal official sent an e-mail message supporting their outdated view. With the help of an advocacy group, the Public Policy Center of Mississippi, she finally traced the problem to an errant Web page at the Department of Agriculture. “To get maybe $320 of food stamps took an entire month of work,” she said.

I could paraphrase that last sentence about so, so many things here in the, ahem, land of the free.

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5 thoughts on “More on complexity in American life

  1. I’ve written and deleted three rants – all too crotchety. I’ve whittled it down.

    (1) The New York Times and National Public Radio luv these sorts of stories. I picture Mr. Suburban sitting in a Starbucks (reading) or commuting in a Prius (listening). Smug.

    (2) You did a ‘Rush Limbaugh.’ You took a piece from the NYT and got me worked up over something that’s not a thing at all.

    (3) [Legitimate Annoyance] Ms. Johnson’s situation would be more free if it were just as easy for her to get benefits out of the system as it is impossible to avoid paying into the system.

    Finally, I have to laugh at the concept of the Bible College Library. No wonder she lost her job. How many books does the Bible College Library have? Let’s count: (1) the Bible; (2) umm…

  2. “……..the sheer complexity of American life makes modern serfs out of many Americans……..”

    While American life is complex, is it any more complex than life in a comparably “developed” society, whose denizens don’t feel themselves serfs? Therefore, does the feeling of serfdom arise out of the complexity of the society, or something else?

    I put it to you that rules and regulations governing bureaucracies are essentially the same everywhere, but that the way they are enforced and interpreted by government employees may differ.

    Having grown up and come of age outside North America, I noted, when I came here, how lowly a career in government is regarded (with the possible exception of the RCMP in Canada, and the military in the USA). In North America, if you are a government worker you are almost the lowest of the low. Thus the best and brightest go into the private sector, and are considered fine fellows for doing so.

    In Britain, for example, it is considered quite prestigious for bright university graduates to join the “civil service” and make a it a career (or this used to be). Perhaps this is (was) the legacy of empire, which required the best and brightest to administer it.

    France with its prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, may have a similar attitude to careers in government service.

    I suggest, then, that the way government services are administered for the benefit of ordinary Americans might greatly improve if American attitudes to careers in government changed to how they are in Britain and France and elsewhere. A larger cadre of more capable people in government administration might result in more attention to the spirit of the various laws and regulations, than to their letter.

    Why shouldn’t a career in government be prestigious in America? Public servants, after all, run the country. There’s nothing wrong in that.

  3. Thinking about the Bible College Library is funny.

    But the ‘thing’ I got you worked up over really is a ‘thing’. It is part of a dirge of complexity that I believe is uniquely American. Yes, of course there is bureaucracy everywhere. But, please, soooo much less. I’ve lived in Hong Kong, Britain, Germany, and I know Austria and France. The last three of those are pretty bad in terms of bureaucracy. But not even comparable to the hassles and nightmares of America! And the zinger is that America has a reputation for being freer of this sort of thing.

    Phillip S Phogg, I don’t think it’s the quality of the employees in these bureaucracies that makes them so bad. It’s the Balkanization of bureaucracies. Let me just ask you: You live in Canada. How many tax returns do you file? Well, many people on the American coasts file three: 1) federal, 2) state and 3) yes, something called “Alternative Minimum Tax”, which is when they say “All the nonsense you just entered for the first two returns doesn’t matter and we will start over with a different and even more incomprehensible set of rules.” And so on.

    By the way, I also see America through the eyes of our nanny. She cannot navigate the paperwork herself, so she needs me to do it for her. She runs from agency to agency trying not to lose MediCal (healthcare for the poor), and what not. One after the other the forms come in and frighten her.

    Mr Crotchety, consider this my own rant. I’m allowed a few, am I not? I’m really fed up with the crap I get in my American mail box. I never, ever got this much crap anywhere else. I spend so much of my time and energy fighting these morons, I’m sick of it. I’ve got a few stories of my own that I’ve chosen not to tell. Eventually I will.

  4. Hooray for Mr. Crotchety! I’d like to whittle his wit down even further:

    The folks that award Guggenheim Fellowships are really bomb throwers in disguise who, like Tom Daschle and other manipulators, are deeply tangled in the system they are trying to work.

    Amen!

  5. Belated addition – on happiness before death and taxes:

    http://www.marketwatch.com/story/story/print?guid=1D4341A8-3053-4CC0-B83F-7E84A5089B1D
    The OECD says people in Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands are the most content with their lives (rankings of “life satisfaction”). There are myriad reasons, of course, for happiness: health, welfare, prosperity, leisure time, strong family, social connections and so on. But there is another common denominator among this group of happy people: taxes.

    Perhaps the European pursuit of happiness is more successful (on average)?

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