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OPINION: Life is hard, and the market won’t fix it

November 20, 2020

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

Yesterday I had to call the bank because I lost my debit card and needed to replace it. I had to spend 35 minutes on the phone listening to a representative repeat that they could not send me a new card because my information wasn’t in the computer and that I should call back in 24 hours. Deeply skeptical that the computer would miraculously function properly after a day’s-long rest, I asked instead to speak to a supervisor. Immediately transferred, the next representative simply asked for my ATM pin and informed me a new card was on the way.

I was, as I imagine most would be, extremely aggravated after spending 40 minutes on the phone, of which a total of three minutes were useful. Why hadn’t the first representative just transferred me right off the bat if his supervisor could fix the problem?

The DMV is a familiar example of the archetypal government bureaucracy: inefficient, replete with endless lines and staffed by, at best, obviously disinterested and entirely unhelpful government employees. How can the DMV get by under such poor management? It is a government agency with no competitors and thus no motivation to offer a better product. A market, we are told, would fare better because consumers would simply switch to a better firm.

But the same obviously isn’t true for my bank, even though it is a private, profit-driven firm whose survival rests on its ability to remain competitive. Maybe it’s a bad example, though. Maybe I should find comfort in the fact that my bank isn’t letting anybody easily access my account. I can’t, however, say the same for the other bureaucratic Leviathan with which I am currently entangled: my health insurance company.

I’ll admit it: I have no f*cking idea how health insurance works. Each time a problem seems resolved, it reappears alongside a brand new one like some scrub-wearing, sterile hydra. Was this bill paid or not? Why are they sending me money? Where, how and when do I submit this claim?

My confusion isn’t an unfortunate side effect of a necessarily complex industry; it is exactly the point. Endless forms and phone calls discourage people from seeking medical care and getting an accurate picture of what they owe or what is owed to them. I’m lucky to be on my parents’ pretty good health insurance plan and to not have been through any serious or life-threatening medical events. The last thing anybody needs coming out of heart surgery, chemotherapy or a stint intubated in a COVID-19 ward is a mountain of bills and the unrelenting dread that they will be saddled with gargantuan debt.

All of this difficulty and stress comes from a private firm supposedly motivated by market forces to make themselves as attractive as possible by offering the best product. If this is the best the market can yield, then clearly the market has failed.

Beyond merely setting us an hour behind schedule or adding sizeable doses of stress to our days, dangerous red tape stymies immigrants’ abilities to navigate the legal system, prevents small businesses from taking advantage of vital government services and can saddle unwitting, well-intentioned people with a lifetime of debt. Simply thinking the market will abolish these dysfunctional processes is not borne out by the evidence.

The soul-sucking power of the private bureaucratic machine infects almost every aspect of our lives. It not only further depresses the most difficult experiences, but it also ruins the beautiful.

Everybody is familiar with the opulent commercial aircraft of the mid-20th century. Dressed in their finest, smiling passengers sipped fine wines and lounged on comfortable seats with ample leg room as they gazed, awe-struck, at the passing clouds. “How incredible,” they must have thought, “we are flying through the air.”

Can anyone recount a similar flying experience? The airport, where people of all walks of life from around the world gather momentarily before abruptly redispersing, should be the site of incredible excitement and romance. Instead, it is the great chore of chores, waiting in long lines before discovering your departure was delayed and that nobody has any information. It’s not unlikely that the airline overbooked the trip and that you won’t be able to fly at all. If you make it onto the plane, you find nightmarishly small seats—accommodations which certain airlines are constantly making narrower and narrower. The airlines get to do whatever they want, and flying is miserable.

It is simply false that the profit motive is necessarily more efficient; I have been miserable working out health insurance claims, trying to ship a package at the post office and getting a new card from the bank over the phone. Whether public or private sector, we need to abandon the stress and confusion in favor of simpler, more compassionate processes. We need to recognize that mountains of paperwork aren’t inevitable and that our lives are so much more fulfilling when we just get to move through them with as few lines, forms and fees as possible. It’s time to prioritize making things easier and to realize that the private sector won’t just magically do this for us.


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  1. Class of '21 says:

    Nice article — love the airplane example.

  2. Ben Ray says:

    My response to this article — “EPIC BRUH MOMENT”

  3. Radu Stochita says:

    Make the systems work for the people, right? There is a big threat around the corner and that is the tech guys trying to reinvent the wheel, and I am not so sure if they can offer a solution to this problem. Or maybe make it even more complicated.

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