Politics & Policy

On Paper

We choose not between Marx and Adam Smith but between the DMV and the Apple store.

I am preparing to renew my driver’s license, a process requiring some considerable preparation. My last trip to a driver’s-license bureau, in Norwalk, Conn., ended with my giving very serious thought to returning later in the evening and burning the place down, the process having been so backward and the people so hateful. I have in my life had a number of unpleasant encounters with government agencies — handcuffed in Texas, terrorized by Mexican federales, assets seized by the IRS, chased about by India’s immigration authorities, etc. Frankly, I’d rather be pepper-sprayed than pay another visit to the Norwalk DMV.

I do not expect the New York City version to be much better, but I’ll withhold judgment until the facts are in. But before I could even do that, there were other preparations to be made. For example, my passport, issued by the U.S. State Department, is perfectly adequate to get me through customs and immigration at any airport in U.S. territory, and is a fully functional form of identification anywhere in the country, and most of the world, except for a New York DMV office. For that, you need a couple of forms of identification, one of which must be a Social Security card. The mutation of the Social Security card from proof of enrollment in Social Security into a federal quasi-ID is itself a long and stupid story, and, if you happen to have lost yours in the course of having had a dozen home addresses in the past 20 years, rest assured that you’ll need more than a passport to get one. For that, you’ll need an original birth certificate. If you happen to live 1,800 miles from the courthouse holding that document, that means interacting through the United States Postal Service (“Service,” ho, ho!) because, and here I’m quoting from the august authorities in Potter County, Texas: “ABSOLUTELY NO TELEPHONE REQUESTS OR VERIFICATIONS WILL BE ACCEPTED.” For the record, the original is not only in all caps but also is bold and in red. So the easiest thing to do to get the document I need to get the document I need to get the document I need was to schedule a side trip during a visit home. Luckily, I already had the documents I needed to get the document I need to get the document I need to get the document I need, except for a form that needed filling out.

The plan from here is to assemble my documentation, fill out all necessary forms in advance, and then download a copy of Finnegan’s Wake onto my iPad for what I imagine will be a two-to-five-hour wait at the DMV. James Joyce famously took hours sometimes to compose a single sentence, and I am prepared to reciprocate as a reader. I’ll have to schedule a day off or a half-day off, assuming that this gets done in one trip, which is not a safe assumption, DMV offices being famous for making different demands once one’s number has come up than the ones advertised.

Such admiration as I have for Thomas Friedman is very, very narrow, but I do like his Jetsons vs. Flintstones analogy, e.g., that taking off from the ultramodern Hong Kong airport and landing at LAX is like starting your day with the Jetsons and ending it with the Flintstones. Mr. Friedman’s observations about infrastructure have some merit, though in many cases he mistakes the effects of policy for the effects of vintages of capital. Of course the Hong Kong airport feels more modern than LAX — it is more modern, the first terminal having been finished in 1998 and the second in 2007, whereas LAX is a hodgepodge of pieces built up largely between the 1950s and 1980s. Austin’s airport is a lot nicer than JFK, for the same reason: It’s newer. The really shocking Jetsons–Flintstones effect is not what happens traveling between the United States and other countries but simply going about one’s business in this country.

I can walk out of the Apple store on Fifth Avenue in New York, which sees more visitors per day than any DMV office, with a couple thousand dollars’ worth of electronics without ever having to stand in line, much less fill out paperwork. When I found myself in need of an unexpectedly large sum of cash while out of the country a couple of years ago, one telephone call to American Express, lasting less than ten minutes, was all it took. Services such as Seamless and OpenTable have greatly simplified all sorts of commercial transactions, and services such as Uber have begun to disrupt longstanding cartels and monopolies on taxi services and other conveniences. Some services even make dealing with the government easier, such as the concealed-carry apps that use GPS to let you know whether you’re legally packing.

And Leviathan is not happy about that.

As noted above, I will go literally miles out of my way to avoid an interaction with the U.S. Postal Service, and I had very much been looking forward to becoming a customer of Outbox, the Austin-based tech startup offering a terrific service: You have your mail forwarded to Outbox, which then sorts and digitizes it for you, giving you the option of taking physical delivery of certain documents and ignoring others, for the princely sum of $5 a month. Customers loved it, Peter Thiel and other venture-capital giants invested in it, and — no surprise — the U.S. Postal Service shut it down. The Austin post office had agreed to a test run, but when the postmaster general caught a whiff of what they were up to thanks to media reports about the service’s success, he shut the cooperation down. Never mind the benefits of Outbox — happy customers, tons and tons of recycled paper, and, not least, the promise of relieving the USPS of the burden of actually moving many tons of paper across the country, in various petroleum-powered vehicles that so worry our environmentalist friends, only to see it directly deposited into the trash — the titans of junk mail did not want to end up in the physical equivalent of a spam filter.

And that was that. We got five minutes of Jetsons before being returned to the town of Bedrock.

As anybody with any sense knows, the postal “service” is a disservice, the mission of which is to annoy you. I am far from avant-garde when it comes to technology, but I do not recall that I have had a paper bill to pay in years. The last time I was asked for a paper check, it took me a couple of hours to turn up a checkbook. (If you’re sensing that my own desultory record-keeping is part of the subtext here, you are not wrong.) My own method of dealing with the USPS at the moment is to have my mail brought to me in a bundle every other month or so and then sorting through it while standing in front of a 50-gallon trash bin. Being a writer and speaker, I still receive the occasional check in the mail, though I am perplexed as to why the publishers, nonprofit institutions, and business groups that sometimes pay me have not made the switch to electronic banking. But other than checks, holiday cards, and the occasional wedding invitation, mail is worse than useless: It is a chore. Under no imaginable circumstance other than that of state-enforced monopoly could it survive. Its employees plainly hate the people who think they are their customers — that is, mail recipients — because we are not their customers. Junk-mail firms are their customers; we are their problem. Just yesterday I witnessed a harried business owner outside the New York Design Center confronting his mailman about the morning’s deliveries, which had not arrived as of midafternoon. “I’m trying to run a business here!” he complained. The mailman just made that bureaucrat face — you know that bureaucrat face, a unique and delicate blend of boredom and contempt – and trundled along with his over-compensated drudgery.

Soon enough, that businessman will not need the USPS on anything like a daily business. In fact, I’m surprised that anybody relies on the USPS for anything. As a technology, the post is as dead as the pulped trees it circulates to no productive end. “On paper,” I note, is slang for having a criminal record, and therefore potentially under the thumb of government, which seems to me entirely appropriate.

Practically the only time I am required to touch paper — the other barbarous relic — is when I touch government: Every periodical writer knows the special joy of doing a half-hour’s worth of IRS paperwork to collect a symbolic honorarium, or of filling out legally necessary contracts and releases for unpaid media appearances. Last month, I was invited to speak at a Tribeca Film Festival’s “Disruptive Innovation” seminar, and was amused to note that there was a page of legalese pasted on the door to the effect that by sitting in the room with me and the other panelists, participants were agreeing to be filmed and released the organizers from any future legal consideration. Which is to say: Disruption, hell yeah, under very specific legal guidelines and the watchful eyes of our attorneys at Nasty, Brutish & Short LLC.

Market incumbents do not like disruption. Uber, the ride-sharing service that has loosened the stranglehold of the taxi cartels, has been the object of government attacks and vigilante attacks both. Various regulatory agencies have tried with varying degrees of success to shut it down, London’s taxi drivers are even as we speak promising “chaos” in response to the firm’s success, French vigilantes have attacked its drivers, and in Seattle — blessed Seattle! — self-styled anarchists are targeting its cars and drivers. “Anarchists” for state-enforced cartel economics to increase private profit — somebody is unclear on the concept, it seems.

A great deal of the program of the old Left — from its full-on Marxist wing to its Proudhonian anarchist wing — is in the process of being accomplished by 21st-century capitalism. The means of production have been radically democratized, with multi-billion-dollar firms springing up out of garages and dorm rooms. The privileged position of dominant old-line financiers is being undermined rapidly by innovations such as Kickstarter, which blurs the line between the altruistic and the consumerist. The life expectancy of large corporations has collapsed, from about 75 years in the 1960s to 15 years and declining today. When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon called for “a war of labor against capital; a war of liberty against authority; a war of the producer against the non-producer; a war of equality against privilege,” he certainly did not have in mind Uber or Outbox; his most famous motto was, after all, “Property is theft.” (I think there is rather more to his idea of property than that simplistic formulation communicates, but this is not the place for that particular essay.) But the characteristics of those firms — relatively modest capital requirements, subverting various kinds of political authority in the form of licensure and regulation enacted in the interests of market incumbents, empowering efficient producers to compete with rent-seeking non-producers, and, above all, undermining the privileged place of state-sanctioned monopolies and cartels — looks a lot more like what the 19th-century revolutionaries had in mind than the USPS does. If what you mean by “capitalism” is the East India Company, then capitalism is not very attractive; if what you mean by “capitalism” is Kickstarter, then it is.

Not that a man transported from the 19th century to our own time would recognize that. If we could transport M. Proudhon or any of his contemporaries to the here and now, their eyes would not register any economic system with which they were familiar at the sight of the daily wonders we take for granted. They wouldn’t see capitalism; they’d see magic. But the DMV, the USPS, the housing project, and the prison would all be familiar to their 19th-century eyes. Our choice is not really between neat ideological verities with their roots in Adam Smith or Karl Marx, but between the DMV and the Apple store. Each model has its downsides, to be sure, but it does not seem like a terribly difficult choice to me.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving reporter of National Review.


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