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October 09, 2002
The Incompetence Tax

I've been thinking about something I call the Incompetence Tax. It's one of those taxes we often pay without realizing that we are doing so, like a gasoline tax, or a telephone usage tax. It seems that no good or service is exempt, though a handful of businesses have managed to secure exemption. Its rate as a percentage of your purchase varies; sometimes it can be less than five percent, but I've also paid it at a rate of 1,000 percent. It is levied at times in cash, though more often in labor and frustration, which an economist will tell you can be translated into cash terms.

My own informal research reveals that the Incompetence Tax is highest at government agencies and highly regulated companies (there's a whole organizational research literature that explains this -- don't make me beat you about the head and shoulders with it). When dealing with our credit union, for example, there is a probability approaching one (and they test the theoretical limits of the asymptote) that the teller will make some annoying little error -- funds deposited in the wrong account, a withdrawal amount wrong, etc. These errors are usually resolved after about an hour of my wife's labor, and one or two phone calls. Fortunately, we don't have to deal directly with the credit union much more than once a quarter. Factoring in the average hourly wage in the U.S. ($16.23 in 2001, as computed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics), we can thus derive a yearly Incompetence Tax levied on us by our credit union of $64.92. Given a membership of roughly 200,000, this amounts to a total annual Incompetence Tax of $12,984,000.

Other forms of the tax are smaller, but more frequent. All told my family eats out roughly 847 times a week. Okay, I exaggerate, but by less than I care to admit. The National Restaurant Association reports that Americans eat 54 billion meals out per year, or 187 meals per person. In my experience, all but the finest restaurants make a mistake about 15 or 20 percent of the time. You know, the fries are the wrong size, or your steak was cooked wrong, or the waiter forgets to refill your water until you ask, or you have to wipe off the table and chair yourself, and so on. Let's assume a 15 percent error rate, and an average amount of your time required to fix the problem equal to one minute. This yields a total U.S. Incompetence Tax on dining out equal to $2,191,050,000 per year.

Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Think about the Incompetence Tax levied on the country every year by dozens of Congressmen with no understanding of economics. Baltimore no doubt pays an Incompetence Tax in the form of lost merchandise and ticket sales as a result of Peter Angelos' overbearing management of the Orioles. Detroit paid a disastrously large Incompetence Tax for the twenty years Coleman Young was in charge, likewise D.C. and Marion Barry (which goes to show that in many cases, people pay the taxes they deserve).

A highly salient Incompetence Tax, at least right now, is levied daily on travelers by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who is to the Incompetence Tax what Alexander Hamilton was to the import tariff. And let's not forget U.S. auto companies, who still churn out over-gadgetized junk with a significantly lower average resale value than Toyota or Honda. The worst thing about all of these forms of the Incompetence Tax is that unlike our state and federal taxes, which go to pay for fine things like a Lawrence Welk Museum in North Dakota, the Incompetence Tax is the purest form of a deadweight loss.

It is important not to confuse incompetence with the occasional error, or with an inability to solve a difficult problem. Even Kobe Bryant misses an open 10-foot jumper from time to time, while Thomas Edison needed several hundred tries before he produced a light bulb that lasted more than 15 seconds. One problem with the Incompetence Tax, indeed, is that its ubiquity causes many of us to assume it is being levied whenever there is a gap between our expectations and the received outcome.

As is true of many taxes, repealing the Incompetence Tax is probably well-nigh impossible unless a large number of Americans prove willing to sacrifice time and money in pursuit of a noble cause. (I.e., it is impossible). Protests would have to be held not at IRS offices, but at school board meetings (indeed, schools themselves), a majority of churches, and a good many homes, because the Incompetence Tax is a consequence of poor education and inadequate upbringing (probably more the latter -- one doesn't need phonics to get a McDonald's order right, but one does need a modicum of self-respect and attention to detail).

In short, the Incompetence Tax is something we've passed on ourselves in a sort of slow-motion, decades-long referendum marked by near-universal willingness to cede responsibility for our children to government teachers and minimum wage daycare workers (responsibility, but not real authority -- we reserve the right to be the ones who don't discipline our little darlings). In this regard it is one of those nefarious levies the bulk of which falls on future generations, like Social Security, Medicare, and the various neighborhood improvement projects, usually advanced by busybody PTA moms (conservatives against women working outside the home haven't adequately considered the damage wrought by this breed), which work their way into your property tax bill in the form of special assessments.

Perhaps the hardest hit are those who impose the tax, the legions of slovenly, poorly trained people who man our grocery stores and shopping malls, our post offices and security posts. What an unpleasant life it must be to labor without the basic ability to produce value on a consistent basis. But perhaps value is an alien concept to many of them, there is simply a set of procedures to follow in order to receive one's paycheck, and numerous customers who have to be endured -- and what's their deal, anyway, getting all bent because they didn't get the pizza topping they wanted, or because I brought out the wrong size shoes twice? Customers. What a pain.

So to those who inflict the tax, like many of us who pay it, the cost is hidden. It comes in the form of an absence of dignity and social value the worth of which they are unable to conceive.

But not all is hopeless. While we probably can't reverse the Incompetence Tax on a global scale, each of us who cares might be able to do so on a personal scale, i.e., among the businesses we frequent. I'm thinking of a university psychology experiment in which several students who sat in the front of a certain professor's class agreed to smile whenever he evinced a particular facial expression. By the end of the semester they had trained him, via positive reinforcement, to produce the expression every few seconds.

So, when you encounter excellent customer service, do you provide positive reinforcement? Do you ask to speak to the person's supervisor in order to commend him, or better yet, write a letter to the owner? Do you look him in the eye and give him genuine thanks? You might be surprised how far this sort of thing can go. We might not be able to convert the crusty university cashier to the cause of creating value, but we can certainly encourage the excellent service providers when we encounter them.

So be especially kind to the people who do great work, should you be fortunate enough to cross paths with any of them today. And if all you get today are the duds, have a little pity. There, but for the grace of God, some good upbringing, and Sand in the Gears, go you.

Posted by Woodlief on October 09, 2002 at 08:04 AM


Putting words into action: Bravo!!

Posted by: Joe at October 9, 2002 12:40 PM

That is a very humanitarian sentiment from a misanthrope. A very good one too. I talk to people a lot on the phone at work, especially federal bureaucrats, and whenever I get an opportunity to compliment a worker to his/her supervisor, I do. And in other contexts too. Had never thought about it as a way to roll back taxes, though. Aren't you clever!

And just FYI, thought I'd let you know that I'm still installing Sand in the Gears link buttons on any public computers I get my hands on.

Posted by: susanna at October 9, 2002 5:54 PM

Tony Woodlief: Running for president so you don't have to!

Posted by: amy at October 9, 2002 7:21 PM

Yes, how dare those "customer service representatives" at Mcdonalds screw up our order. They should be working hard with a smile on their face, taking order after order or cooking fries, happy that they're creating value and making their customers happy.

Perhaps we should be concentrating more on removing those mind-numbing, satisfy-the-idiot customer-no-matter-what, remove-last-shred-of dignity-left jobs that we seem to have everywhere around us, if we're really intent on "creating value". Hey, and guess who comes up with those jobs (or at least their mind-numbingness), and quality assurance, and marketing and sales quotas? Why, all those "creating value" managers.

What really got me going was you focusing on customer service. You should have stuck with government or international politics/economics, etc. Lots of bad things are going on there due to incompetence and all you can think about is the topping on your pizza and baseball teams?

And NO, I don't work at McDonalds.

Posted by: Jack at October 10, 2002 2:16 AM

Jack -- the people who can't get your order right at McDonald's are often the same people who go on to mess up in other spheres of business as they "move up" in the world. The attitude doesn't change, only the job.

Besides, *someone*'s got to fill my Chicken McNuggets order. :-)

Posted by: Sandra at October 10, 2002 2:56 AM

Jack, was this a bad day for you or do you usually carry a chip on your shoulder for "the little people"?

If you look at jobs in sheer numbers, the majority in this world are going to be grunt labor. One hopes they are entry level, but they should be a source of dignity rather than robbing it. Working at McDonald's ostensibly trains someone in work ethic - arriving on time, working the whole shift, dealing with crises, etc. I would say that your looking down on those workers with pity is more negative than my admiring their competence and praising it when it happens. And, as Sandra says, how do we get our Chicken McNuggets if no one does that job?

Incompetence is a widespread problem, even in blog comment sections. I say using positive reinforcement in a behavioral conditioning manner is a force for good in our country, regardless of the work context it is done.

(Tony, cue "Battle Hymn of the Republic" here.)

Posted by: susanna at October 10, 2002 4:48 AM

Sandra and susanna (and Tony I guess),

I think a good way to reduce incompetence would be to reduce the robotic, Henry Ford factor of those everyday jobs. Yes, I'm certain it can be done. I'm also certain it will never happen.

Reinforcing positive behavior with smiles is great but this only addresses the issue of how you'll feel about yourself (if you feel your smile and thanks have such a great impact, well then I encourage you to go stand near the register at Albertsons for about 20 minutes, listen to how many "thank you"s you hear, and then maybe think about how much this matters exactly). The fact that the person next in line will whine about his coffee being too hot, and him calling the manager and dressing down the employee in front of everyone there, and the fact that this behavior is *encouraged* by the company itself, this obviously is of little importance.

I also have a problem agreeing with the concept that work at McDonalds reinforces dignity and builds a work ethic.

All this kind of relates to the concept of "gumption" as related by Mr. Pirsig in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. If you've read that book you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, go read it. A person will only do something well if his work is a source of passion and satisfaction for him. Unfortunately, this little fact is well known to HR depts. and is the source of many of the bad things I see around everyday. You can't fake passion, I guess. And how many people are passionate about making hamburgers?

What I'm saying is, just smiling at those people strikes me as fake and self-serving.

Posted by: Jack at October 10, 2002 5:21 PM

"What I'm saying is, just smiling at those people strikes me as fake and self-serving."

Jesus H. Christ, boy, do you wake up every day screaming? For God's sake, purge yourself of this hateful paranoia before it's too late.

Trust me on this one. I mean, sure, raging paranoia made me a good fighter, but it tore my love life to shreds.

Posted by: hbchrist at October 10, 2002 10:45 PM

You know, Jack, I worked at McDonald's for a little while, many years ago. I had the soul-crushing burden of putting burgers and fries on a plastic tray and handing them to someone else. Oh, the humanity! I still bear the scars...

Seriously, no one forced me to get a job at Mickey D's, and nobody whipped my hide in the back room. There was no reason for me to throw down attitude like St. Anthony among the heathens. I was getting paid real money for the dumb little job I did. That's better than mooching off what little money my dad made. (He was a teacher, and therefore underpaid.) But then you don't sound like you've ever had to worry about a paycheck in your life, so you can afford to sit around moaning about the pain of mundane existence. It must be nice.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at October 11, 2002 1:14 AM

What's with all the strawman arguments and ad hominem attacks? I read carefully through what I wrote earlier and I really don't understand where you get this. Granted, I could have worded it differently but the general line of reasoning seems pretty clear to me. I'm certainly not going to reiterate my arguments just for the sake of somebody's poor reading comprehension.

One clue is that I didn't mean McDonalds restaurants specifically.

Posted by: Jack at October 11, 2002 2:42 AM

Jack, read the last line of your first comment.

You *were* the one who brought McDonald's into the argument.

And the vast majority of the jobs at fast-food places are held by teenagers who need to learn the rudiments of pleasing the customer. As one moves up the pay scale, the actions change, but the underlying motive remains the same. Perhaps more of the customer-disservice reps out there need more time at a job that destroys their self-esteem, if they learn a little bit about doing-unto-others in the process.

Posted by: timekeeper at October 11, 2002 11:53 AM

"Perhaps more of the customer-disservice reps out there need more time at a job that destroys their self-esteem, if they learn a little bit about doing-unto-others in the process."

I was going not to reply to this but it just occurred to me that this is exactly what I was talking about. To be extra clear, I mean the line of reasoning presented in this little message.

It's the wrong way to go about things.

Posted by: Jack at October 12, 2002 3:11 AM

I was employing a bit of hyperbole in my previous comment, but I stand by what I said.

Americans, especially the under 30 crowd and those protected by labor laws that make them virtually unfirable (like governmental employees), have no problems with self-esteem (as a whole; there are exceptions). A study of schoolchildren discovered an inverse relationship between self-esteem and competence, with Americans having the highest self-esteem and the lowest performance. South Koreans had the reverse. While the study to which I refer concerned math, the general concept can be extended to many fields. Self-confidence is a good thing; arrogance is not. Too many people involved in customer-service oreinted fields confuse the latter with the former, which is why this whole topic came up for discussion.

Posted by: timekeeper at October 12, 2002 5:06 AM

I think it was Toni Morrison or Alice Walker or someone like that who said that it was remarkable how misanthropes tend to drift into customer service jobs. Too bad they can't get jobs better suited to their natures, like Florence King, late of National Review, did.

Posted by: The Sanity Inspector at October 13, 2002 3:39 PM

I got off the serfdom mass transit several years ago...and I have never looked back."Look ma, my bootstraps ain't so low anymore" I certainly appreciate good service and I know all too well how much it means to genuinely express that when applicable. Tony, well said ! I believe I recently read on this very site (Stupidity:It might account for more than you think!) By the way, does anyone know the drag coefficient of polyester to formica. A few well placed resins and those "days without a work related accident" numbers are going through the roof.

Posted by: Rob at October 13, 2002 10:10 PM