On Paper
We choose not between Marx and Adam Smith but between the DMV and the Apple store.


Kevin D. Williamson

I am preparing to renew my driver’s license, a process requiring some considerable preparation. My last trip to a driver’s-license bureau, in Norwalk, Conn., ended with my giving very serious thought to returning later in the evening and burning the place down, the process having been so backward and the people so hateful. I have in my life had a number of unpleasant encounters with government agencies — handcuffed in Texas, terrorized by Mexican federales, assets seized by the IRS, chased about by India’s immigration authorities, etc. Frankly, I’d rather be pepper-sprayed than pay another visit to the Norwalk DMV.

I do not expect the New York City version to be much better, but I’ll withhold judgment until the facts are in. But before I could even do that, there were other preparations to be made. For example, my passport, issued by the U.S. State Department, is perfectly adequate to get me through customs and immigration at any airport in U.S. territory, and is a fully functional form of identification anywhere in the country, and most of the world, except for a New York DMV office. For that, you need a couple of forms of identification, one of which must be a Social Security card. The mutation of the Social Security card from proof of enrollment in Social Security into a federal quasi-ID is itself a long and stupid story, and, if you happen to have lost yours in the course of having had a dozen home addresses in the past 20 years, rest assured that you’ll need more than a passport to get one. For that, you’ll need an original birth certificate. If you happen to live 1,800 miles from the courthouse holding that document, that means interacting through the United States Postal Service (“Service,” ho, ho!) because, and here I’m quoting from the august authorities in Potter County, Texas: “ABSOLUTELY NO TELEPHONE REQUESTS OR VERIFICATIONS WILL BE ACCEPTED.” For the record, the original is not only in all caps but also is bold and in red. So the easiest thing to do to get the document I need to get the document I need to get the document I need was to schedule a side trip during a visit home. Luckily, I already had the documents I needed to get the document I need to get the document I need to get the document I need, except for a form that needed filling out.

The plan from here is to assemble my documentation, fill out all necessary forms in advance, and then download a copy of Finnegan’s Wake onto my iPad for what I imagine will be a two-to-five-hour wait at the DMV. James Joyce famously took hours sometimes to compose a single sentence, and I am prepared to reciprocate as a reader. I’ll have to schedule a day off or a half-day off, assuming that this gets done in one trip, which is not a safe assumption, DMV offices being famous for making different demands once one’s number has come up than the ones advertised.

Such admiration as I have for Thomas Friedman is very, very narrow, but I do like his Jetsons vs. Flintstones analogy, e.g., that taking off from the ultramodern Hong Kong airport and landing at LAX is like starting your day with the Jetsons and ending it with the Flintstones. Mr. Friedman’s observations about infrastructure have some merit, though in many cases he mistakes the effects of policy for the effects of vintages of capital. Of course the Hong Kong airport feels more modern than LAX — it is more modern, the first terminal having been finished in 1998 and the second in 2007, whereas LAX is a hodgepodge of pieces built up largely between the 1950s and 1980s. Austin’s airport is a lot nicer than JFK, for the same reason: It’s newer. The really shocking Jetsons–Flintstones effect is not what happens traveling between the United States and other countries but simply going about one’s business in this country.

I can walk out of the Apple store on Fifth Avenue in New York, which sees more visitors per day than any DMV office, with a couple thousand dollars’ worth of electronics without ever having to stand in line, much less fill out paperwork. When I found myself in need of an unexpectedly large sum of cash while out of the country a couple of years ago, one telephone call to American Express, lasting less than ten minutes, was all it took. Services such as Seamless and OpenTable have greatly simplified all sorts of commercial transactions, and services such as Uber have begun to disrupt longstanding cartels and monopolies on taxi services and other conveniences. Some services even make dealing with the government easier, such as the concealed-carry apps that use GPS to let you know whether you’re legally packing.

And Leviathan is not happy about that.

As noted above, I will go literally miles out of my way to avoid an interaction with the U.S. Postal Service, and I had very much been looking forward to becoming a customer of Outbox, the Austin-based tech startup offering a terrific service: You have your mail forwarded to Outbox, which then sorts and digitizes it for you, giving you the option of taking physical delivery of certain documents and ignoring others, for the princely sum of $5 a month. Customers loved it, Peter Thiel and other venture-capital giants invested in it, and — no surprise — the U.S. Postal Service shut it down. The Austin post office had agreed to a test run, but when the postmaster general caught a whiff of what they were up to thanks to media reports about the service’s success, he shut the cooperation down. Never mind the benefits of Outbox — happy customers, tons and tons of recycled paper, and, not least, the promise of relieving the USPS of the burden of actually moving many tons of paper across the country, in various petroleum-powered vehicles that so worry our environmentalist friends, only to see it directly deposited into the trash — the titans of junk mail did not want to end up in the physical equivalent of a spam filter.

And that was that. We got five minutes of Jetsons before being returned to the town of Bedrock.