American exceptionalism and the DMV factor
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.