The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It


This morning I happened to catch a segment on CNBC which Michelle Caruso-Carbrera reported from Athens, Greece.  It was the story of a woman who had decided to open a coffee shop – and the impediments which were placed in her way by government.

I had many Greek friends in Chicago.  Many were restaurateurs who had long-established businesses in “Greek Town” on Halsted Street.  They were good businessmen but at the same time were charming hosts.  Once they had gotten to know you it was impossible to leave their restaurant without receiving a complimentary ouzo or two or a few glasses of retsina.  I enjoyed so many meals in Greek Town that I even acquired a rudimentary knowledge of modern Greek – at least enough to be able to order my dinner in that language.

I also learned that Greeks who came to this country thought of the “coffee shops” in their native country as a sort of cultural and social center.  It was a place where you would meet your friends, drink coffee and smoke some cigarettes, discuss the affairs of the day and play a few games of tavli (backgammon).  Given that cultural view, it would seem that a person who wanted to open an inviting coffee shop would have the potential for having a thriving business.

As Ms. Caruso-Cabrera pointed out in her interview with this Greek female entrepreneur it is difficult to attempt to earn a living in the land that was the home for democracy.  I’m sorry that I didn’t hear this woman’s name – but the point that she made was that she had rented a space for her coffee shop and had been paying rent on it for four months.

She has fully equipped it with all that is necessary, doing the re-modeling and purchasing new fixtures and equipment and all the glassware and cups and saucers she needs.  But she has been unable to open this coffee shop because she has, for over three months, been dealing with eighteen different government agencies – each of which has a say in whether or when her store can open.  And she has no idea when she will finally receive approval from all of them.

Today Greek debt-holders agreed to a new arrangement for the payment of the sovereign debt they are holding.  Everyone in the EU breathed a sigh of relief – which blew across the Atlantic and inspired a modest rally on Wall Street.  Those of us who have followed this issue realize that while the Greeks avoided the bullet today, it is only a matter of time before the day of judgment is upon them.

The laws of math simply will not allow a country with a stagnant economy where over fifty percent of the population work for government to “grow” it’s way out of its financial difficulties.   Greece is a slightly more advanced case of a country which took the same path that we are going down in America.

Of course, inefficiency in government is nothing new.  Allow me to share an example that I observed personally nearly forty years ago.

In the two years that I worked for the State of Illinois I got to know people in various departments in the state’s main office building in Chicago on LaSalle Street.   Many of us had worked to re-elect Governor Richard B. Ogilvie – who lost his re-election bid by a mere two votes a precinct – losing to a populist Democrat by the name of Dan Walker.  (Later ex-governor Walker was sentenced to prison, joining the four other Illinois chief executives who were awarded that distinction in the past fifty years).

One of the benefits of being elected was having the right to appoint supporters to head the various departments in the state which fell under the governor’s purview.  One of those was a department called Registration and Education.  Among its many responsibilities, this department licensed morticians, barbers and beauticians among others.

When the Walker administration took over, the governor appointed a new head to the department of R & E.  Rather than use the old stock of licenses which had the name of then former Governor Ogilvie and the then head of the Director of the department printed on them, the new director decided that he wanted to send out licenses bearing Governor Walker’s and his name.  Of course, there was a delay in sending out new licenses until the new forms were printed and arrived at the department.

During this interim, the department sent out its inspectors to insure that their registrants’ licenses were current.  Over 400 beauty shops, 120 barber shops and nine funeral homes were closed down because, despite the fact that they had paid for their license renewal, they had not received their new license from the State of Illinois.

Well, the licenses finally did arrive – and with the backlog of mailing out renewal licenses the clerks who were in charge of this seemingly simple operation didn’t realize that when you mail out something in a window envelope – it’s best to make sure you insert the piece you’re mailing with the name and address visible through the window.   So Illinois mailed out hundreds of licenses which were dutifully returned to the department by the Post Office because the licenses had been inserted in them backwards.

As I mentioned, this was at a time when there wasn’t a Starbucks on every other corner – so I’m sure that the owners of these establishments wouldn’t have taken solace in a good strong cup of coffee to help them cope with this administrative nightmare.  But I do remember hearing from my Greek friends on Halsted Street that during the time of this fiasco, their sales of ouzo increased dramatically.  They said a lot of the new customers mentioned that they were hair stylists.


Comments on: "OH, FOR A CUP OF COFFEE" (11)

  1. Timing is everything. Have you read any Marshal McLuhan?

  2. Yes – and there certainly is a message in all this.

  3. I like the idea of a coffee shop being a place to huddle around and share ideas rather than tune everyone out while listening to your Ipod or typing on your laptop. That’s so unsocial!

  4. I like the idea of a coffee shop being a place to huddle around and share ideas rather than tune everyone out while listening to your Ipod or typing on your laptop. That’s so unsocial! But that’s what we’ve become really, I say as I ignore my husband and type to you. While he’s ignoring me on his own computer…

    • And as I respond I’m ignoring my three canine guests and Gracie. But then they already went to the dog park, had morning treats and were brushed. They are far more forgiving than people! (I think that may be because they aren’t computer oriented).

  5. Reminds me of a certain country I’m familiar with and a story commonly told there to illustrate the follys of an overstuffed governmental service. A request went up through the layers for permission to destroy files that were ancient in nature and after several reminders and a long pause the permission was granted, provided they made copies of the files they destroyed. Don’t laugh, it could happen in our countries too if we are not careful what kind of governments we elect.

  6. Yes, I think, and again, this reminds me of Habermas, and his notions of more bureaucratic monitoring and enforcement issues with people caring less about others. So, in this respect, in my opinion, it is a greater problem of society, rather simply than a problem of big government (i.e., such as Hayekian political philosophy).

  7. Thank you for your thoughtful comment – and yes there is a definite echo of Habermas in all this. Since governments are created by people, it is only reasonable to believe that the control they allow government to have over their lives will directly reflect their unwillingness to accept personal responsibility for managing their own affairs. It sounds good theoretically to have government do things for us – until we run into the real impediment where our political creation ends up doing things to us.

  8. “Greece is a slightly more advanced case of a country which took the same path that we are going down in America.”


  9. Of course it is scary – and should be. As an example let me cite the healthcare law. It creates a panel of fifteen bureaucrats (yet to be named) who will determine what medical procedures it will pay for, how much it will pay – and, most importantly – if it will pay for them. If we don’t have confidence in those we elect to office – how would a reasonable person have confidence in someone that they appoint to office and who have no accountability to the public?

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