SYNDICATED COLUMN: If You Don’t Hate the Government You’re Not Paying Attention

Massachusetts — Boston City Hall

Boston City Hall is considered by architecture experts to be one of the ugliest buildings in the United States.

Imagine a store that makes its customers miserable. This interior is ugly and uncomfortable. At best the staff is indifferent and slow; at worst rude and incompetent. You pay sky-high prices for inferior goods. Often you pay full price yet leave the place empty-handed.

You don’t have to be a marketing expert to guess what would happen to such an establishment. It would go out of business. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if a mob of ripped-off consumers burned the place down.

I’ve just described the U.S. government.

You interact with government many times each day. How many of those encounters are positive?

Close to zero.

Let’s look at the single-most common connection between governments and citizens: the payment of taxes. Sales taxes on goods and services — painful and annoying. Income taxes — the same. What do you get back for paying for your taxes? Nothing specially for you. Sure you benefit from public schools, roads and so on. But those bennies are shared. And you might not even use those. What if you don’t have kids, or send your kids to private school because the public school isn’t good enough? Aside from the occasional unemployment check, most people never receive direct help from “their” government.

When we interact with agents of the state — the employees of the metaphorical store I described up top — it’s a miserable experience. OK, you’re thrilled when the firefighters show up. But you’ll probably never have to call them more than once in your life. The vast majority of the government workers you meet aren’t there to help you. They’re out to lower your quality of life.

Here, in rough order of frequency, are the government workers you are most likely to come into contact with:

Cops: they exist to give you tickets. Fines for minor offenses are exorbitant: $150 on average, up to $2400 in some states. Points raise your insurance rates. You might even lose your license. If you’re black they harass you; they might kill you. Once in a blue moon, they might save you from danger. Mostly it’s about the tickets.

TSA: the Blue Derps of the airport world delay your trip, mess up your neatly packed luggage and steal your precious fluids and sharp objects. There’s no evidence they’ve ever foiled a terrorist.

Clerks at government offices like courthouses, the DMV or Social Security: unlike the aforementioned they probably won’t take your money or possessions. Instead they waste your time. Sluggish, cynical and uncaring, the typical civil servant drags their feet with no apparent sense of urgency. Many are surly and rude.

Jury duty: in a perfect world, could be interesting. Most municipalities make jury duty as inconvenient as possible, particularly for the self-employed and parents and other caregivers. Why can’t you write a letter to ask to be excused?

IRS: if you hear from an agent, you’re being audited. Be prepared to cough up thousands. If you’re lucky.

Government facilities are as awful as the people who work there.

Government buildings and offices tend to be old and rundown. Given that wait times drag on interminably you’d think they might provide such basics as comfortable chairs with charging stations and work booths for your laptop and wifi, but no. They could pick up a cue from restaurants that give you a buzzer or text you to let you know when your table is ready so you could get a coffee or whatever while you’re waiting — right. Like they give a damn.

God help you if try to call a government office. Crazy voicemail phone trees, brief office hours (they’re open while you’re working), long hold times, arbitrary disconnections and, if you ever get through, probably no help in the end.

Obviously there are dedicated public servants who view taxpayers as valuable customers and work hard to help them. But these saints are exceptional. Here we’re discussing your typical interaction with government and government workers. Those interactions suck.

By global standards of injustice and inconvenience these problems pale next to getting blown up by a Hellfire missile or being raped or succumbing to cancer. Nevertheless they have serious repercussions.

Lousy customer service by government inexorably creates and grows contempt not merely for specific government agencies like the police but for government in general. Particularly on the right opportunistic politicians exploit the resentments of people who feel mistreated and neglected by a government that supposedly serves them. I get nothing from the government and I work hard, get rid of welfare for lazy slobs! Hell, as Ronald Reagan said, government is the problem, not the solution — get rid of it entirely!

Anti-government sentiment is a major motivation for Donald Trump’s Tea Party base. Liberal entreaties that we ought to appreciate such important “socialist” government services as a military that protects our borders and public universities that educate our children fall on deaf ears (and not just among conservatives) because those positives are psychological abstractions.

Our material day-to-day interfacing with government is as I describe it above: relentlessly negative. They suck away our cash, slow us down and disrespect us.

Crappy government is more of a feature than a bug. Offices are poorly maintained and uncomfortably furnished for a reason: budget planners don’t prioritize renovations. Financial cutbacks in the public sector mean below-market salaries and dead-end jobs without opportunity to advance so it’s hard to attract the best and smartest workers. You can’t blame those who get stuck there — even the good ones — for turning surly.

Bureaucratic dysfunction is so entrenched it’s hard to imagine an improvement. But the blowback will come.

Look at images of revolutionary uprisings throughout history. Crowds of people consumed with rage roam the streets destroying everything in sight.

Look at images of collapse. Hollow expressions from years of being beaten down.

Whether by revolution or implosion, a system that ladles out as many industrial-sized buckets of contempt-provoking annoyance and oppression as the United States government must inevitably go the way of that suicidal, idiotic store.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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14 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: If You Don’t Hate the Government You’re Not Paying Attention

  1. I completely agree, except for the caption on Boston City Hall. The people of Boston hate it, but the the “Architectural Experts” love it.

  2. Imagine walking into a store where they gave you only two choices: your money or your life. And if you tried to walk out they’d try to take both.

    It would be difficult to even consider that establishment as being one intended to serve the public.

  3. uh, yeah, ’tis true – but the punchline is that the government is us. (“We have met the enemy…”)

    “We duh pipple” got lazy and inattentive & the swamp swept in. I believe that it is still *possible* to drain the swamp without violence, but it would take a sustained effort from all of us.

    Even on my most optimistic days, I don’t see that happening. Neither will armed revolution happen; or rather if it does, it will be too little, too late, and consist of inter-faction fighting rather than a concerted effort to set the country back on its intended course. A military coup might be the *best* we could hope for – we wind up with a police state but at least the trains keep running.

    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper.

    – T.S. Eliot

    • I met a traveller from an antique land,
      Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
      Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
      Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
      And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
      Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
      Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
      The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
      And on the pedestal, these words appear:
      My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
      Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
      Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
      Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
      The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

    • Very perceptive. All too many people either praise democracy (which is great while it works, true…) or pray for revolution (but who has the guns and the will to carry one out? and what sort of society would they prefer to create?), but the truth is that a military dictatorship is often the least bad scenario in a failed democracy (the military can be ruthless and heavy handed, but few generals want to drag their own country to paradise at gunpoint).

  4. Well, *I* think it’s an *interesting* building. While it’s certainly not “pretty” it beats the everlivin’ fork out of the indistinguishable gray soviet-bloc style boxes we see so often. (Along with their modern counterpart: indistinguishable glass boxes.)

    We need to embrace diversity in architecture as well as in humanity.

  5. I don’t have a problem with the lower levels of government over 95% of the time, the police have given me one ticket in close to 50 years of driving. They helped with my stolen car, three times; homeless thieves snatched it the first two times. The third time made the news, it was 5 pm had the club on but young teens looking for a score where out cruising and spotted my easy to jimmy 95 Honda. I chased them on foot out the parking lot. Five hours’ latter the 13-year-old driver turn off the lights, the police backed off but kept flooring it into a serious crash that put two of his gang members in the hospital. The beef I have is they should warned me by phone about the tow and impound fees after the wreck left the evidence yard, I received a letter in the mail six days’ latter.

    The library system is great. The bus and train are para government and without a car I am always riding on them. There should be more buses but budgets hold them back but the trains are slowly upgrading.
    Long ago the state fire dept. saved my parents’ home from a wildfire. The DMV is overloaded, the solution use the DMV in a upper income town, the lines are shorter.

    My one real encounter with government employees that needed to be pushed out of the door:
    After earning a B.A. in science with a 3.6 G.P.A. the state university denied my application to the science teaching certification program. They told me in writing I had almost no chance to ever be accepted, a lawyer friend agreed with me that it was age discrimination. I hit them with the Federal Education Department, the university brought up my application lacked a key signature, my printer didn’t size the form very well and cut off the line. They could have told me to correct it instead they tried to say I was borderline fraudulent. The Feds got them to say I could reapply next year, I found a job in a science lab…I might make just a dab less than a science teacher but all I have to is repair equipment and perform experiments all day, no homework to grade, no test to make, no upset parents, no bored students to deal with.
    Bussiness can be down right mean and gready:
    My downstairs neighbor, an electrical engineer, was fired along with everyone else over fifty when the the place he worked had the bussiness pass from father to son ( I would have sued). My downstairs neighbor ran his own catering service for several months until he had a stroke. He has recovered some and now works a very small job at the VA and he depends on friends and charity to help pay the rent.

    My real beef with government is with congress and the state legislatures, they have melted under the pressure of big money and to beat they rivals they voted for tax cuts, loopholes and subsidies to benefit big business and wealthy. The bill has gone to middle class, but that is not enough so they have cut services and took out massive loans to pay for it all. Big money has excellent propaganda machine, blame yourself for hard times, blame illegal aliens, blame foreign competition…how about blaming congress and the legislatures for gutting the New Deal.

    • «how about blaming congress and the legislatures for gutting the New Deal.» Who pays the piper calls the tune. Who is to blame for a system in which the US Congress and the state legislatures are bought by «campaign contributions» ? Those dastardly Russians ? The Chinese ?…


  6. Ayn Rand comes to mind.
    In “The Fountainhead” or in commentary about it, a point is made about how stairs represent a barrier to the public’s access to a public library. (Keep in mind, when Rand was writing, if you were in a wheelchair, you immediately had about 50 IQ points taken off by a significant number of people who dealt with you, so her point isn’t about accessibility for the handicapped.)

    I mention that because the building Ted has chosen for his example? It’s no uglier than the interior of a public university or a courthouse. As someone who has spent a lot of time in classrooms and in courthouses (as an observer), I conclude that the buildings are made ugly on purpose to communicate in the most effective non-literate way: this is not a place where good things happen).

    When I was a kid, he public schools still had a little flair to them. The buildings weren’t fantastic by any means, but they at least didn’t fill you with dread as you drove by. …

    • Unlike churchs.
      Masons actually knew certain building secrets to literally elevate the consciousness of the masses.
      They could play with light, space, and sound.
      How many Whispering galleries get built these days?
      What about Nightingale floors?
      Government buildings are designed to make you small and insignificant.
      The Nazis understood architecture perfectly.

      If you read the Fountainhead, have you ever read Kesey’s sometimes a great notion? Similar themes.
      Rand hated Libertarians. Google it up. she called them “Hippies of the right” and hated their coopting her work.

  7. I hear tell your police shoots white people as well, though not, proportionately, as often.

    Regardless, good of you to empathise with the disdain that many on the right feel for the government. The idea that US government services and facilities are sometimes lousier than ones here in Russia never fails to shock me, and yet…

    • I hear tell your police shoots white people as well

      In 2015, The Washington Post launched a real-time database to track fatal police shootings, and the project continues this year. As of Sunday, 1,502 people have been shot and killed by on-duty police officers since Jan. 1, 2015. Of them, 732 were white, and 381 were black (and 382 were of another or unknown race).