Saturday, October 29, 2011

How bureaucracy poisons an economy

We all know government paperwork costs businesses money. But the government can print more money. It's not always the best yardstick by which to measure cost and value. As the government prints more, it becomes less valuable. A more consistent and meaningful approach is to use the measure that gives money its ultimate value. Time.

You may be familiar with the term "opportunity cost" as it's used in economics. If not, in a nutshell, it means that every dollar you spend on something is a dollar that is no longer available for something else. For example if a vendor is selling apples and pears for $1 each, and you only have $1, if you buy the apple, it cost you the opportunity to buy a pear.

It works the same for time. You only have 24 hours in a day. Less than that in a work day. Every hour you spend on one task is an hour that is no longer available for any other task.

According to the US Census Bureau, in 2007 there were 7.7 million firms with employees in the United States. Forcing one employee at each firm to spend 10 minutes on non-productive paperwork or procedures costs the economy 1.28 million man hours. That's 617 man-work years. Put another way, an unproductive 10 minute mandate on business costs the equivalent of hiring a crew of 617 people, full time, for a full year. What could you accomplish with that kind of manpower? And that's 10 minutes a year. Ten minutes a week and you've got a good sized army at your disposal. Ten minutes a day and you're rivaling economies of entire cities.

What is the average number of minutes spent at your business, filling out paperwork that you would not do if it were not mandated by some level of government? Multiply that by 7.7 million. We're already slowing ourselves down enough and some politicians want to add more dead-weight to the system.

When you hear of a new regulation or requirement and it's sold as something that only takes a few minutes, or the cost is negligible, think of it in terms of the cumulative waste of productive activity across the board. The free market is an expression of the cumulative effect of countless individual decisions and the productive moments of millions and millions of individuals. Taking man-hours out of the system removes value from the economy. Who do you think is a better judge of what an employee should be working on from 2pm to 3pm? The employer or the employee, or some a group of government bureaucrats?

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