The Challenges For Democracy

Article 2: Social Fabric: Who Rules Who?
Do we want a world in which people are ruled or served?

Copyright © 2004 Dorian Scott Cole

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Talk to a survivalist, or a lot of other independent minded people, about government interference in personal affairs, and be prepared to get an earful. Are being ruled or being served the simple exclusive choices that some would have us believe?

Recently the year end omnibus spending package that Congress puts together, had a clause in it that authorized leaders of Congressional committees to look into individual tax records - an unlawful activity. The fact that no individual congressman would take responsibility for including the clause indicates how controversial such a move would be. Removing the clause was conjectured as near impossible, although news media and public pressure seems to be making that happen.

We are told that these omnibus spending packages are so big that "pork" slips through easily (more like "ham salad"), and even "mistakes" happen, such as authorizing peeking into financial records. No one has time to read all of this stuff. This is really a lame-duck Congress... responsibility sheds off congressmen like water off a duck's back: "We don't know how it happened." Ultimately after the authors of the legislation were identified and they denied actually putting it in the bill, the blame was shifted to a "staffer."

I'm wondering if this article should be about being ruled, or simply about incompetent people who can't even do their jobs. Once again I have to raise the issue, should there be public oversight committees to review legislation and congressional activity, since Congressmen declare loudly that they can't do it themselves? Is the bureaucracy too big?

What possible business could congressional leaders have looking into individual tax records unless they are up to no good and exercising power - ruling rather than leading. Public servants?

Fortunately we have the news media to sniff out bungling in high places. But all you really have to do is drive a car to quickly get a belly full of bureaucratic goof-ballism. I recently licensed two vehicles - both used. It was another great car adventure.

Aside: It might be helpful to know that I recently decided to add more physical activity to my daily regimen of sitting and writing, and sitting and driving. The most exercise I was getting was sidestepping my treadmill. In the belief that exercise would help control my weight and blood pressure, I took on the task of building a house for my daughter, from the ground up. It seemed better than taking more pills and risking other health complications.
(Note: this exercise is not a substitute for aerobic cardiovascular exercise - minimum 10 to 15 minutes rapid walking a day - or for proper diet. If you feel that building might be the right activity for you, first try small remodeling projects, and then try assisting Habit For Humanity.)

To build a house, I felt I needed a van in which to haul tools and material, so I found an old one that looked presentable and had some life left, expecting to make a few repairs to it.

In my State, there is still a "Safety Inspection" law. Most states have abandoned such laws because they found that safety inspections have no significant impact on accident rates. Those laws simply infuriate vehicle owners and place temptation within easy reach of "inspect and repair" facilities. I remember the old Indiana law that would flunk your car if it had rust on it. Rust might be an eyesore, but $ intended for accident prevention had gigantic targets compared to rust. Indiana, of course, abandoned their safety inspection law many years ago, as have most states.

My prescribed course for getting my new old vehicle on the road was, 1) State safety inspection, 2) Federal emission inspection, 3) Title transfer and licensing, and 4) City tag. To begin with, 4 steps to get a vehicle "legal" already smacked of bureaucratic goof-ballism. It turned out to be much more than 3 steps - something more akin to a 12 step program.

I have horrible experiences with new car dealer service departments. We seem to have very different agendas. Theirs is getting my money any way they can, and mine is keeping my money - they don't compromise. Unfortunately the horn wouldn't work on the van, and after my troubleshooting determined that no one who has Internet access can find the horn relay on that vehicle, and I isolated the problem to inside of the steering column, this meant "dealer repair."

For a horn? Aargh! Having driven over 100,000 miles in all kinds of traffic, for many years of my life, I know that I use a horn almost once a year, usually to no avail. If you do the best you can to avoid accident situations, you don't need a horn. I know many disagree, and when I lived in Morocco in the 1960s, I was told that you were unlikely to be blamed for an accident if you blew your horn when people threw themselves in front of your vehicle. Interesting times, interesting logic.

My usual reaction to others' horn blowing is to rip the horn out of their car and shove it... well, reactions aside, actually I drive with consideration of others and ignore horns, except at intersections when vehicles are skidding through. I like the bumper stickers that I used to see in the Atlanta area: "Honk and I'll drive slower." Some even threatened violence.

Horns have nothing to do with safety. They are simply a means of expression. "Who *!#$ do you think you are being in my way?" Drive down a New York City street, or most any large US or foreign city street, and everyone is expressing themselves. Loudly. Draw your own conclusions.

The State in which I now reside, to be near family, and happen to like, has wisely determined that all vehicles shall have this essential safety device. OK, perhaps some people need to blast to be safe. I wish the decision about whether or not this little used vehicle needed a little used horn, was left up to me.

Forced by the State, I took my vehicle to the dealer. I go to dealers with such high expectations. These are the experts on their brands of vehicles. They should be able to quickly find the problem, have the part in stock, and properly fix it.

I have always been so disappointed by dealer service.

I've been told:

  • "Your car can't be repaired. Buy a new one."
    Subsequently repaired for $150.00 at an independent and ran well for several more years.
  • $400.00 repair bills following oil changes.
  • Loose lug bolts on tires.
  • Loose bolts on repairs.
  • Identifying the wrong part as faulty, even when I demonstrated which part was actually faulty.
    (Purchased the part from another dealer and replaced it myself.)
  • Repeated failure to replace parts as requested, causing multiple stranding adventures.
  • See The Great Car Adventure for even more fun.
Definition from the mechanical field - Torqued: The tighteness of the jaw muscles after enduring dealer service.

Understandably I approach dealerships with some trepidation. Add to this my 20-year experience with cooling system problems on an entire series of vehicles that were sisters to this van. Mercifully that entire line was put out of business by their foreign buyer. Any time I approach a dealer service, my brow breaks out in a sweat and I begin berating myself for purchasing any car even remotely related to that particular series of models, even if I only expected 6 months service from it.

"Perhaps," I thought, "this dealer would be different."

I asked the dealer to fix the horn, and, shudder, do a safety inspection. Safety inspections open up a can of worms, but I needed the vehicle quickly so I could work. Winter was approaching, and building is no fun in winter.

As I waited, the next visitor to the payment counter was shown his bill. He clutched the counter and gasped. "I called ahead and got the figure: $500.00," he declared emphatically. "This bill is almost twice that!"

The clerk wasn't the least apologetic. "The figures we gave you were for parts. This bill includes the labor."

I'll spare you the remainder of the bloodletting, but needless to say, the man paid the ransom to get his vehicle back. I had no doubt I was in for trouble.

When my turn finally came, the mechanic met with me, and said, "I tightened up your steering some."

"Ahhhh," I sighed in relief at the freebie, my faith in dealers restored. "So how did the safety inspection go?"

He opened a paper with a long list of items. Gulp! The total came to $500.00, and I knew it didn't include labor - the figure was just the beginning. Later they would decide that even more needed to be done once they began working on it.

I quickly reviewed the list. Unusual item: "Repack the wheel bearings?" We used to do that on vehicles back when bearings had high failure rates. Maybe today I would give it a thought just to doubly guard against being stranded on the road. But as a safety item? I knew no vehicle fleet overseer would agree to anything like that. I routinely drive good vehicles over 200,000 miles and never repack bearings... or even tighten them. Never have I seen them on a safety inspection. Besides, a new set of wheel bearings for both wheels costs $30.00 - if you're in doubt, just replace them.

I asked skeptically, "How much of this work has to be done to pass inspection?"

"All of it."

The horn wasn't fixed - a part had to be ordered. I paid the $25.00 inspection fee and fled.

I try very hard never to have work done by the same service that does the inspection. I firmly believe that places that both inspect and repair have a clear conflict of interest. Dealers can hardly even bear to repair a car - their real interest, as demonstrated to me, is to get you to purchase a new car. Similarly, specialized national chains, unfortunately, can only think in terms of selling you marketing packages - don't replace just the bad parts, argue until the you can replace the entire braking system. But putting in bad parts that fail in place of perfectly good used ones is another story.

I had most of the work done at independent specialists. $300.00. But the horn. The horn! I called the dealer service and told them to order the part.

I returned the vehicle to the dealer to fix the horn. Regrettably the independents couldn't get the bearings repacked in time for my appointment at the dealer service. I thought, "Well the dealer will charge me twice as much, but how could they mess up repacking a wheel bearing?" I asked them to do that also.

When I returned to pick up the van, the manager said, "We couldn't fix the horn. The parts have to be ordered."

My usual smile vanished. I replied, "I reminded you to order the parts when I made the appointment."

For some reason that I haven't figured out, the manager uncharacteristically decided to humor me, and scurried away in search of the parts. Moments later he returned. "Sorry for the mix-up," he apologized. "We'll have your vehicle ready in 15 minutes."

"Good," I thought. "If it only takes 15 minutes, the labor charge should be small."

An hour later the manager pointed me to the bill payers window. "Does that clock spring happen to be on the recall list?" I asked, knowing that there were many recalls for clock springs on this manufacturer's vehicles. Unlike other manufacturers, this one can't seem to make a good clock spring - just as their sister "make" could not make a good cooling system. Of course the part wasn't on the recall list, it just has a high failure rate, causing countless people to look for the well-hidden or nonexistent horn relay, and then seek dealer service. I paid my $300.00 and left, stung by the high charges.

I'm a knowledgeable consumer, and I know that I always get stung at dealers. I get the feeling that most people just hand over their wallet and let the service manager take whatever he wants. Consumers know that service groups plan to make an average of $xxx.00 per vehicle (call it $400 to 500.) The primary goal is to find enough service to justify the money, not to fix the vehicle.

This is an important point: Those high charges represent a captive audience and a corporate bureaucracy devoid of responsibility and accountability, with clear conflicts of interest.

Down the highway a mile, I noticed that the vehicle was now handling incredibly poorly, and when I braked it pulled sharply to the right. When I arrived home, there was a burning smell. I not only wouldn't make it to the emission inspection, I wouldn't make it to the license office, so the vehicle would be out of service all weekend and then Monday I would have to miss another day to get this completed. I had already spent parts of four days - very disruptive to work and income - ushering this vehicle around to pass inspection.

I called the dealer service and explained the situation, and that I couldn't safely drive the vehicle back. The vehicle was a major obstacle to getting work done. "OK, he said, "call us Monday morning and we'll have it towed. But if it is your problem, you will have to pay all charges, and that steering problem is because of the steering box - it was already loose."

Steering box? No one had ever mentioned a steering box. "Hmmm," I mused to myself - a little linguistic analysis of the information; a little semiotic analysis of the symbols used in the communication; a little comparison to past patterns. Steering box? Mystery item, which threatened to be a cause of any problem, and would justify any repair costs. I could see where this was heading. You could never get a dealership or national chain to take responsibility for anything - "deny, deny, deny," must be the message they get from their lawyers.

Even if they leave off the radiator cap and you run dry, which has happened, you would have to prove responsibility in court. I knew full well that the dealer service would pull the vehicle in, fix whatever was wrong, and then claim that, what must be an enormously costly "steering box" had failed. I was not going to be led down that path.

I weighed my alternatives. On one hand, miss more income and pay more expensive and unnecessary repairs? On the other hand, look at it myself. I hate working on cars.

I knew what the most likely cause was: over-tightened wheel bearings. I pulled the cap off the right wheel bearing and checked it. Tight. Too tight.

Wheel bearings are easy to adjust. You tighten the nut until firm, and then back off 1/8 turn until you can align the holes and insert the locking pin. End of problem. The van still didn't handle as well as when I took it in.

My state mandated repair odyssey for vehicle one was complete. I now had a vehicle that was less safe on the road, didn't have the repair work done that I would have done, and now I had no money left in the vehicle budget to do the work that I felt needed done.

A month later, I had service work done that I and an independent repair group felt the vehicle needed. A fractured steering control arm was replaced, upper steering bushings were replaced, and a wheel alignment was done. Steering control of the vehicle returned to the safe range - it didn't handle like a sports car, but it handled well. No sign of a mysterious "steering box" problem surfaced.

Vehicle 2. We had the option of buying a well cared for - dealer serviced - vehicle, from an individual we trusted, at a very good price. Since we were retiring the comfortable vehicle we took trips in, and the van was for specific work, not general transportation, this vehicle sounded like the ideal replacement.

The vehicle passed the state safety inspection without a fault. Two weeks later, my wife tried to stop at the end of a parking lot. A brake hose ruptured. Safe? Dealer safe? State inspection safe? She got the car stopped thanks to the dual master cylinder required for safety on all vehicles. The independent service that I use, found that the other brake hose was cracked and close to rupturing. Vehicle brake safety, thankfully, is not left to state inspections, dealerships with other interests, nor to national chains full of marketing hype. Brake safety is built into all vehicles in the form of dual master cylinders and wear indicators.

Two vehicles, two mechanical odysseys that point up problems in the system, and surely the odds of me having these uninvited experiences are well beyond chance occurrence. If they happened to me with both vehicles, then they are surely happening in high percentages to others.

Licensing. What about the licensing process itself? This process was also fraught with problems. First we found that having a title signed off by the lien holder (a company) was insufficient. A notarized letter from the lien holder was also required.

Second, we had to purchase (fee) a letter of proof of personal property tax payment from a previous county. One county couldn't contact the other and find out if personal property taxes had been paid, or even look it up on a computer. We had to contact the old county and pay them to fax a letter over stating that we had paid the taxes.

Third, the city required that a sticker be placed on the vehicle, which meant going to yet another location. I asked why the sticker. "Proof that you have paid your taxes." I have to pay both the city and county to provide proof that I have paid taxes, and of course if you haven't paid, no license plates.

Questioning democracy

Many aspects of my recent journey are disturbing. This country (US) and our laws were formed around the principles of individual freedom and the minimal interference of government.

Also present in our Constitution are the ideas of what we can collectively accomplish together through our government, and of maintaining order.

There is a balance we must maintain between all of these goals, to make democracy work for us. The goals pull in different directions, but don't conflict. Their focus is on making the nation better for all of us.

How much government interference in our lives is necessary to maintain order? At what point do government mandates create an uncaring bureaucracy that rides roughshod over individuals and acts like it is here to be served rather than to serve?

Problems in our current vehicle licensing system

  • The police are saddled with the heavy burden of enforcing administrative related laws: license, inspection, insurance.
  • Individuals may have to visit or contact several different places to get the paperwork necessary to license the vehicle: safety inspection, one or more repair facilities, emission inspection, the lien holder, a county tax office, a city tax office, and a license bureau. (We dealt with 8.) This is very disruptive and an expensive burden on individuals and car dealers.
  • A safety inspection has little to do with safety and accident prevention; and its use exchanges individual responsibility and choice, for blind laws and repair abuse.
  • Non-licensing because of delinquent taxes can become an impediment to people making a living. In doing so, the State places its interests not only above the individuals' interests (which can be justified if in the alternative the State is unfairly burdened), but as an unfairly and disproportionately restrictive impediment in the individual's life.

Potential solutions

Surely states can work out a better system for licensing vehicles. Following are some suggestions:

Create a national auto registry for vehicles. A vehicle would roll off the assembly line displaying a permanent unique license number. The number would also indicate the make and model of the vehicle. At time of sale, the plate would be registered to an owner. The database would link all relevant car, driver, location, insurance, and state tax information to the plate number. This information would be open to all states and law enforcement, although participation would be voluntary for the states.

Vehicle identification would be much more theft resistant, and law enforcement would have an easier and faster time accessing car registration information. Change of location information for the driver and the county would be easily accomplished through the database.

Insurance coverage. Insurance coverage is considerably more important than tax payments. The insurance company of the driver's choice would be required to issue a 1 year, non-cancelable policy (unless the vehicle is sold or retired). This information would instantly be provided by computer to the national database by the insurance company. The insurance company would be responsible for collecting the money, but could not cancel for non-payment, and renewal would be guaranteed (evergreen - unless the person cancels in writing or transfers to another company).

Lack of insurance would become much less of a problem in the court system, would no longer be a police enforcement action, would be quickly validated through the database, and would no longer require updated insurance cards in the vehicle. The license plate number would be all that was necessary to file an insurance claim. Insurance companies would have fewer uninsured motorist claims, and would have a better annual guarantee on income.

Tax information. Tax information would be gathered through the States through the national registry, which would have such information as purchase and sales dates, address (location/tax jurisdiction). Tax bills would be evergreen - that is, taxes accrue until the title is transferred to another owner. Payment of taxes would cease to be a licensing and police enforcement action, but an administrative activity. Personal property taxes could be collected through employment taxes through the Federal and State IRS and their forms, using database information, just as are interest taxes which are filed by financial institutions.

State identification. Visible State identification of vehicles would be accomplished by a clear lens that overlaps the permanent plate, and displays relevant information. This could include personal customizing.


It's the money, stu... Half of the hoops that the public goes through to please the license bureau is about paying taxes that support the roads and other needs. But is it justified? For me, on the van, it cost me around $30.00 in "proof" fees and gasoline to convince the State that I had paid $25.00 in taxes. It cost me hours/days of work. It costs the police even more in enforcement expenses.

At this point, the balance is clearly weighted toward burdening the public for minimal justification. This is bureaucratic goof-ballism. It has to be effectively addressed because policies that disrupt and prevent people from making an income (or even having housing in some State and Federal tax instances), are the types of government interference that is unjustified and turns people against their own government.

Obviously the State must collect revenue. This isn't an issue. Businesses also have to collect revenue to stay profitable and remain in business. They have to remain profitable despite losses. But business isn't allowed to turn to such interfering and oppressive methods to collect revenue.

Businesses remain profitable despite losses that happen because some people can't pay, some pay slowly, and a few simply won't pay. The entire public doesn't have to jump through hoops because of losses caused by a few. It is up to the State to find effective ways to collect taxes without excessively burdening all individuals and oppressing those having difficulties.

This all boils down to what kind of world we want to live in.

Do we want a world in which all people are burdened, in order to keep a few in line? Or do we want a world in which the use of oppressive methods by the government are not permitted, while personal responsibility is encouraged? It's up to us. People decide on issues, and inform their leaders or elect candidates who shape how we are governed.

I favor citizen oversight of political bodies. Congressmen create omnibus legislation at the end of the year, and then blame the sheer size of it for their inability to catch the things like laws to let legislative leaders peek at individual tax records. They allow pork barrel legislation that squanders millions of tax dollars on frivolous spending.

Note that I'm not against States getting their fair share of tax dollars, nor am I against setting aside a few dollars for items that are important and worthwhile but never raise high enough in priority to get done. I am against irresponsible legislation.

This omnibus fiasco goes on year after year after year. Every year people publicly scoff at this mess, and then the next year business continues as usual. If Congress creates omnibus legislation packages that exceed 3000 pages, then they have the responsibility to be knowledgeable about what is in them and vote responsibly. If not, then they need people looking over their shoulder and pointing out problems and responsibilities.

Similarly, States need citizen oversight of their systems and legislation to prevent licensing and other systems from becoming an unnecessary and unwieldy burden on the public. A senior official in a company came to me once and asked me what I thought about a harsh penalty to be placed on everyone because a few people were creating a problem. I replied, "The cure is worse than the disease."

In a similar way, the Federal and State governments get carried away with measures intended to correct a problem, and they create a worse hardship on everyone. People need to ask if the cure is worse than the disease. In the checks and balances of government, citizens need to have a more timely and influential input than simply 4 year elections. Citizen oversight committees that can make recommendations are one such way of accomplishing this.

This big challenge for democracy is to avoid becoming bungling bureaucracies. The example from the business world is in car dealership service departments, which have conflicts of interest and no accountability. The business would prefer the customer to be encouraged to purchase a new car, and for the service department to rake in a minimum $ figure per vehicle. The focus is on the system interests, not the consumers.

In the US government, an omnibus bill composed of ham salad and errant legislation, is a debacle. It is symbolic of bureaucratic goof-ballism. These bills are simply too big to manage, and legislators need to find a better way of creating legislation, or let those who can handle responsibility watch over them.

In State governments, less invasive and less burdensome ways need to be devised to accomplish necessary tasks like vehicle licensing and tax collection. At least bring it into the late 20th. Century, if not the 21st.

Fairness Statements

Typically car sales personnel take care of the licensing and inspection issues. Vehicles purchased from individuals require the purchasing individual to do the tasks. However, the same issues face dealers as individuals - they just pay a department to do these things.

Vehicle repairs are often not clear cut issues, and mechanics do make justifiable mistakes in identifying problems. No one is expected to be perfect.

My experience with car dealership repairs over a 35+ year period on a variety of makes and models, has been consistently (80%) bad. My experience has been better (80% good) with independents.

This nation can't run on benefactor contributions. We all have to pay our share of taxes and abide by rules to maintain order and financial solvency. We just don't need to be draconian about it.

- Scott

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