January 12, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

The dead weight loss of stupid regulation and poor state activity is the elephant in the room regarding the current recession. Megan McArdle's recently blogged car tribulations where she finally managed to register her car bought August 3, 2008 on January 10, 2009. The delay is due, in large part, to PA state bureaucrats misapplying state law and putting a national hold on McArdle's ability to get a drivers license. There is no left wing or right wing justification for this. Nobody particularly supports the practice of the government making regulations up as they go along and then quickly retracting their claims when somebody calls them on it.

So why does this sort of thing persist? Two reasons spring to mind. Once you've caught them, correcting the problem for everybody looks so daunting and fixing it for yourself looks so cheap that the vast majority of people just fix their own paperwork and get on with their lives. The second is that there seems to be no political advantage to undergo a crusade to fix this sort of stuff.

But sometimes the waste is just sitting right in front of you and nobody even notices. Sean O'Neill wanted to see his travel dossier so he did a FOI request. The response was mailed, twenty pages. Sending paper is more expensive than sending bits. It's slower, too.

An agent from U.S. Customs and Border Protection can generate a travel history for any traveler with a few keystrokes on a computer.

A well thought program development effort would have rated each data field whether it needed to be censored in an FOI request and enabled a "few keystrokes" report that automatically generated an electronic version that had the appropriate black boxes where sensitive data would otherwise be. Instead we have a print, a manual black box strategy (the sample page from the record has the black boxes tilted off of horizontal by a couple of degrees), and unnecessary paper mailing. Multiply this by thousands of FOI officers throughout the federal government and hundreds of thousands of requests every year and you get a system that is slow to respond and expensive.

And that's the problem of dead weight loss in a nutshell, government that is slow and expensive even when it isn't being capricious and not following the law. We can do better.

Posted by TMLutas at January 12, 2009 07:19 AM