American exceptionalism and the DMV factor

January 6, 2011

Everyone’s mad at public-employee unions. Republicans in the House and Senate are denouncing them. Republican governors such as Chris Christie of New Jersey are blaming unionized public workers for state budget woes. Even new Democratic governors including Andrew Cuomo in New York and Jerry Brown in California are saying public employees are overpaid, or retire too early with too-lavish pensions, or both.

Some public employees do make too much or hold featherbedded jobs, while the California situation — $325 billion in unfunded state and local retirement liabilities, often for $100,000-a-year-plus pensions for government workers who retired in their 50s — ought to outrage anyone.

But what’s really going on here is the DMV Factor.

When does the typical person come face-to-face with a government worker who belongs to a public-sector union? Not at the Department of State or the Department of Agriculture. Unless you have a child in public school, your most likely face-to-face encounter with a government employee is at a Department of Motor Vehicles.

Anyone who’s needed a driver’s license or a car plate knows that in most states, the DMV office is a gigantic raised middle finger to the taxpayer. Lines are long, clerks are rude. It can take hours to conduct the simplest transaction. The mindset of the typical DMV office is that the taxpayer’s time is utterly worthless — expect to spend the whole day in the waiting room. Then finally get to the window, and the clerk will search your paperwork for some trivial imperfection and send you away, knowing full well this will force you to waste another day in the waiting room to get back to the window.

Private businesses try to make customer service pleasant and rapid. More often than not, government customer service is contemptuous of the taxpayer — the person who’s paying the public-sector union member’s salary and benefits.

Small wonder most private-sector workers hold a low opinion of public-sector employees. Taxpayers rarely if ever encounter the efficient, dedicated public employees behind the scenes: America couldn’t be great if public workers did not mainly do a good job. The government workers most people actually encounter are the imperious, lethargic ones in the DMV office — or at Post Office windows, where the USPS motto might as well be, We Could Not Care Less.

Besides explaining why there is such hostility against public-employee unions, the DMV Factor may also shed light on “American exceptionalism.”

For decades, sociologists and writers have mused about American exceptionalism, a broad concept one of whose components is lack of class-warfare anger against the rich. In the European Union, class-based anger against the rich is the norm. European sociologists and political philosophy think such class-based anger ought to be prevalent in the United States, too. They’re annoyed that it is not.

Probably the main class-based aspect of American exceptionalism is the Horatio Alger influence — in the United States milieu, anyone can become rich. For each individual the odds are very great this won’t happen. But at least it’s possible, and Americans are dreamers: many dream they’ll be the one. The get-rich-quick dream is a lot less familiar in Europe.

Another class aspect of American exceptionalism is that most Americans rarely have face-to-face interactions with the very rich, who tend to exist behind various walls, both physical and metaphorical, and who lack the official role in society that is standard for the very rich Europeans. Practically all Americans, though, have face-to-face interactions with lazy public-sector workers at the DMV and the Post Office, and become furious that the public-sector jobs pay regardless of performance while private workers must hustle hustle hustle.

Federal and state governments — want to reduce taxpayer hostility against public employees? Fix the DMVs, Post Offices and Social Security offices where citizens and government workers interact.

Post Office note: on paper the USPS is structured to seem independent, but in effect its workers are government employees. Without its federal monopoly, the USPS would be blown out of the water by private competitors. The USPS borrows directly from the U.S. Treasury and managed to lose nearly $9 billion last year despite being exempt from competition.


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USPS is also required to deliver to every address in the US. If that requirement was removed, or if they were allowed (by Congress) to raise their rates to match their costs to deliver, they might be in better shape.

Posted by wiredog | Report as abusive

Back in August I went to the DMV to get my motorcycle license. I already had all the paperwork completed as I downloaded it from the DMV website the night before. The office opened at 8:30, I had work at 9:30. When I got there at 8:20 there were already at least 50 people waiting for the doors to open. Figuring I would have to leave the line to go to work I decided to see how far I would get anyway. I was out by 9:10 with my temporary motorcycle license. The line moved fairly quick and the employee who handled my paperwork did spot a couple of misprints but just had me correct on the spot. And she also had a cold which would have given her a reason to be cranky but she was not. Same for when I went to apply for the motorcycle permit and then to register a motorcycle. All three times I had no problems at all. I think there is a stigma on the DMV that people just want to use it as a scapegoat for their frustrations.

Posted by iflydaplanes | Report as abusive

I think you are largely right; however there must be more to it. When I lived in California, the DMV offices I went to were fast, friendly, and efficient. I never had to spend more than 20-30 minutes there, even for getting a driving license. In my state of Washington, also Motor vehicle department is also very good. My friends from Europe and India are shocked by how helpful and courteous people at govt offices are here–they say you have no idea how bad bureaucracy can be until you’ve been to a govt office in Italy, or India, or wherever they are from. Scapegoating is scapegoating, and there are enough outrageous examples to support this one. Terrible public school teachers are legion–this is also one area where nearly everyone has direct experience of the incompetance of govt workers.

Posted by m11213 | Report as abusive

sorry, Greg..but all the public employees I’ve dealt with are great. Some of the public utility folks can be a little testy, but the public employees, at least where I live, are fine.

Posted by gramps | Report as abusive

each county around here runs the DMV substations, and some are fast and some not. The last time we got out fairly quickly, especially if you download the forms ahead of time and have them all ready to go.

As far as American Exceptionalism goes, it seems to be the national extension of childish egotism, where the US is exempt from all sorts of issues and limits that the rest of the world is bound to.

Posted by Jakester | Report as abusive

I had to register and comment because I was disturbed by how you were describing the DMV employees in my City. It certainly seems you have an outdated and prejudiced view of the DMV – although I must admit at times I’ve thought some Postal employees could have moved a bit faster in various offices around the City of San Francisco.

I’ve been dealing with my San Francisco DMV office on Fell St, and in the Corte Madera office since 1982, and I’ve always been agreeably surprised at how pleasant the DMV employees have made a potentially unpleasant experience for me. On several very important occasions, a DMV employee has gone out of their way to help me out of a tight spot. Although there is often a long wait, (my own fault for not making an appointment) I bring a book or magazine or newspaper or sometimes just chat with my fellow DMVers and before too long I’m being taken care of with friendliness and efficiency. California’s DMV got its case together a few years ago when they provided us with chairs and a decent waiting number system, before that, the waits were much longer – BUT I never had a bad experience with an employee.

Posted by sanfranciscoguy | Report as abusive

Here is where the author lost me: “Private businesses try to make customer service pleasant and rapid. More often than not, government customer service is contemptuous of the taxpayer — the person who’s paying the public-sector union member’s salary and benefits.”

Really? Really? This characterization of private businesses’ customer service is NOT the typical experience of me, my family members, my friends or acquaintances. Private customer service is so often either: impersonal, hard to find, inadequate, incompetent, outsourced, computerized, unethical, non-existent, or downright rude. Let’s stop genuflecting to business and any operation because it carries the label “private.” Pleasant & rapid? The author needs to read the latest studies on customers’ experience with so-called customer service. Here are just two: es-not-alone-in-poor-customer-service-st udies/ and mber/110306rego-study.html

Posted by kubikcat | Report as abusive

here’s the basic difference-

private sector businesses hire workers.
they work. if they don’t work they get fired.

public sector agencies hire employees.
they are employed. if they don’t work, they
get pay raises and eventually a nice pension.

Posted by kitramsey | Report as abusive

I agree, the DMV has come a million miles in recent years, they use a computer and a numbering system in PA, at least. You go in, the guard tells you to go to the computer, and it asks you what you need, and then issues you a proper space in the correct line, making it quick and efficient. Honestly a similar system is in place at the Social Security office too. And in so far as pleasant, I haven’t had a miser in years. The post office, does need help though.

Posted by QBpowertraffic | Report as abusive

I’m a private sector middle manager who knows more public sector people than you’d ever expect. They are all moderatly-to-highly educated, lovely people with very little stress. They don’t worry about if or when they will retire, or how to pay their small portion of medical premium, or where their pension income is invested or how it is allocated and whether the investment returns are adequate for their retirement secenario. They take vacations and never worry about work backlog when they return, as most of the pieces have been picked up by others. Once in awhile they work overtime and it is a huge deal! When I explain that my work projects require me work long hours and to miss recreational opportunities, they are puzzled and they can’t imagine why I could possibly like my work. When I explain that I am evaluated on the quality, effectiveness, efficiency and economic feasibility of my projects, they stare at me with a blank look, then invite me to their next party. When they retire at 55 with their pensions and medical bennies, they invite me to go on cruises with them. It would be so much fun! But alas I have too much work to do in the private sector because, ev en though I’ve been saving and investing carefully for retirement, I still don’t know when that day will ever come. These ARE great people I am supporting, but I will need to win the lottery in order to join them in their recreational lifestyles.

Posted by CarynP | Report as abusive

Where did my post go?

The public sector employees I know are quite delightful, low-stressed people. They don’t worry about retirement, where the funds are invested, or if they’ll be able to afford medical insurance. Their biggest financial issues in life are already solved for them. They can’t understand why I work long hours to do an exceptional job on projects. I explain how my work performance is evaluated — high quality, economic feasibility, efficiency. I get blank stares from the happy people. Then they ask me why I can’t go on vacation like they do. Happy people is what I see!

Posted by CarynP | Report as abusive

I’ve been to a few different DMV’s in New York, and it’s alwasy smooth sailing through well organized offices interacting with a pleasant staff.

I recently had to sell a property in which one corner had been part of a gas station. A DEC official was an enormous help to me in tracking down old records on what had happened to the gas tanks and how the property had been used. He even sent me an old newspaper clipping he’d found about a previous owner.

I’ve never found New York State employees to be anything but courteous and helpful, though they are often understaffed. And no, I don’t have any connection with New York State.

If you want to try a horrible beuracracy try dealing with immigration — it’s a wonder that anybody wants to come here at a..

Posted by bruce1963 | Report as abusive

As m11213 rightly said, its a total shock for someone not native to this country to see so professional and courteous service from a government servant. I went to DMV in the state of Louisiana and in California, at both locations the service was just great. sometimes you really have to go out to see/appreciate the quality of work/life we enjoy.

Posted by rague | Report as abusive

A few years ago while trying to leave Sicily by train, I learned after the trip was underway that, due to an accident, it would not be able to cross the strait to the Italian mainland and my destination in Bologna. I got off the train at the next stop and caught the first train back to the point of origin in Palermo.

Then began the adventure of trying to claim a refund for my rather expensive ticket. Of course, not being able to speak Italian was a definite handicap, but I finally found a railroad employee who spoke enough English to understand the situation. To make a very long story short, at long last an ancient little man unearthed an equally ancient and yellowed ledger, made a show of blowing the dust off it, and, with trembling hand, wrote my name, address, and other information in it. No computers for these folks!

Imagine my surprise when no refund ever appeared in my mailbox in the U.S.

Posted by RobLewis | Report as abusive

Post Office and DMV bashing is about 15 years out of date. I would much rather deal with the Post Office or DMV than I would cable companies, cell phone providers, big banks, auto dealerships…practically any sales or customer service relating to consumer purchases. Switching to competitors doesn’t help as they have a monopoly on indifference and deception. Seems many business models nowadays revolve around ‘tricks and traps,’ which the consumer has to exhaustingly navigate to prevent being fleeced.

Posted by joeybada | Report as abusive


Perhaps you could tell us what USPS competitor will deliver a letter from me to any address in the US for 44 cents? The cheapest FedEx will do it is about 6 dollars and that is NOT overnight.

I have never had a bad experience or encountered a rude person at the California DMV. You can make appointments and be in and out in 30 minutes usually, but even if you don’t have time to make an appt maybe it will take you a couple of hours but the people there have always been pleasant, courteous and helpful. YMMV.

Posted by AndyinSD | Report as abusive

What a facile, uneducated piece about an important issue. I’ve had experiences at DMVs in NY, CT, AZ, and CA for decades and never has it take more than an hour or two. And the experience has improved substantially over the years with the use of sign boards and triage to route people based on their requests.

The sudden hatred of union pensions is rather obvious: it’s the last place where working people keep some money relative to the wealthiest. Bust the unions, get rid of union pensions, and then you get the last bits of the economy streaming upward along with the rest of economy. Think I’m joking? Look at the data for wages and income over the past three decades of de-taxation of the wealthiest. You’ll see only the top 1% did well, about 8% increase year after year. Everyone else bumped along at 0-3%, less if they were in the bottom 90%, more if not. From 1946 to the mid-1970s, everyone saw their income double.

The way money flows in any economy is determined by what happens when a dollar comes into a business. If companies pay living wages, by choice or through unionization, there is less money for the investors, management, and customers (in the form of stable prices or lower prices). What we’ve seen over the past three decades is less money going to workers and far more to management and investors. This includes deliberate choices by states to not fund their pension obligations to avoid raising taxes on their wealthiest citizens.

It’s no surprise that in the 1960s CEOs earned about 25 times the lowest wage but today earn 250 times, or more. And most corporations, especially large ones, have found ways to dodge taxes and many pay no taxes at all. The same tax dodging is true for wealthy individuals and families, as well. And when they can’t dodge taxes, they literally hire lobbyists to get their income classed as investment income instead of wages.

My hunch is that we don’t have riots in the streets, despite economic disparity greater than the Robber Baron era, simply because we have Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance to help the neediest. Get rid of those programs, and my guess is that’s next on the list after busting unions and pensions, and then you’ll get riots.

In the meantime, re-taxing the wealthiest, forcing large corporations to pay more in taxes, and making all state taxes progressive (currently they’re regressive) would fix most or all of the economic problems we face.

And if you think the rich earned what they got with no help from anyone, ask yourself how you can enforce a legal contract without a court building, judges, clerks, and the rest. Taxpayer funded infrastructure is the only thing that makes wealth possible. Taxing the wealthiest, those who benefit most, is the only way to keep this infrastructure in good shape for future generations.

Posted by FredFlintstone | Report as abusive

“For decades, sociologists and writers have mused about American exceptionalism, a broad concept one of whose components is lack of class-warfare anger against the rich.”

It helps when half the poor and middle class people in the US (yes, republicans) honestly believe that the rich will create a $50k/year job for any less than an extra $500k/year in their own account.

Posted by mikezilla | Report as abusive

I usually like Gregg’s writing but this has to be the most uneducated piece he has ever written. IN CA, most of the DMV interactions are conducted via the web. I can’t even remember the last time I was in an office.

With the USPS, as a writer above stated, it cost 44 cents to mail a letter anywhere in the US. That’s why they lose $9 billion a year, not because of waste.

and then to talk about public sector customer service? Are you kidding me? Banks, credit cards, cable, wireless phone companies; all have the absolute worst customer service usually outsourced to people you hope are not stealing your SSN #.

Finally, the controversy of public sector employees is just a smokescreen over the fact that executives and financiers have certainly looted the country for far more than public sector employees have. By obscuring issues over pay and fairness, CEO’s and Wall Street workers can continue to rake in hundreds of billions of dollars every year while we squeeze the cops and firemen and public works employees.

In your ESPN columns you usually give a weekly award for worst play, coaching decision, game, etc. Well Gregg, this week you win the award for the worst researched, poorly substantiated column of the week. Nothing sweet about it; all sour.

Posted by srs67 | Report as abusive