13 Reader Views on Dysfunction

Plus: The one single thing that works perfectly, according to one reader

Two people standing on scaffolding in a construction site, in black-and-white silhouette
Sean Gallup / Getty; The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week, I asked readers to opine on the dysfunction that they see in the world, or to spotlight something that works well, even though, as John Gall writes in The Systems Bible, we owe sympathy to “anyone who struggles to take in this hard and humbling lesson––that error is our existential situation and that our successes are destined to be temporary and partial.”

Herb probably finds that too pessimistic. He writes:

I would submit that your perceptions of “dysfunction all around us” are somewhat skewed. We all live in a highly complex world, and each of our lives depends on so many things functioning more or less correctly, without much notice from us, that it is hard to know where to start when attempting to describe them all. Common perceptions of vast dysfunction are primarily caused by the following factors.

  • The global extent of our awareness, based on so many digital-media sources.
  • The natural tendency to focus attention on the anomalies: the dysfunctions, if you will.
  • The varied set of criteria that we use to measure function and dysfunction. As just one example, Amazon functions very well when it comes to delivering things that I want to my doorstep in a timely fashion, but do they function well as an employer? Perhaps not so much. But just because institutions have to achieve a delicate balance between competing priorities, that does not mean that they are “dysfunctional.”

Would it really be a highly complex undertaking to remedy Jake’s frustrations in the Garden State? He writes:

It’s probably trite to point out bureaucratic dysfunction, but what immediately comes to mind for me is the amount of time my partner and her sister have spent trying to contact New Jersey’s unemployment division to bring attention to missed checks for their dad.

There isn’t any online system to speak of, and the phones are almost always so overloaded that after spending several minutes winding their way through an automated decision tree to speak to a person, they are told to try again later and hung up on. On the rare occasions they can speak to someone, the information they get is contradictory and promises that the ticket has finally been pushed through and that “the check is in the mail” never come to fruition. The number of hours the highly educated, well-paid pair of them has spent calling unemployment is totally out of proportion to the amount of money they are seeking on their dad’s behalf, but they feel they owe it to their dad and that they can’t admit defeat and let the shitty bureaucracy win.

Merideth praises her favorite public institution:

I can think of a single thing that works almost perfectly: public libraries. The one within walking distance of our house when I was a little girl had comfortable cushions and a little loft space. Having access to a variety of materials helped instill my love of reading. I love libraries to this day. If I look for something but can’t find it, a librarian will either find it for me or help me find a resource that will help me find it. Anyone can access a public library’s riches for free, no matter their class, race, gender identity, or age. They provide information, entertainment, resources, and activities. People can access the materials in print, audio, video, and electronic media—and in multiple languages. While reading, researching, and perusing the internet (or not), a person can sit in the library for as long as they want and never have to buy anything! Where else can we do that?

D. has insights into the difficulty of getting new construction approved in a timely and cost-effective manner, and wins my prize for civic integrity by explaining how to put himself out of a job:

My job is preparing reports on historical resources in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, almost exclusively for transportation projects. It’s often forgotten that we’re supposed to be determining if a property could be on the National Register of Historic Places. There’s a lot of what I’d describe as “mission creep” and lack of a common mission. History departments in the field are entirely staffed with and run by people who are specialists in historic preservation. The effect is a fundamental orientation where the focus is preserving historic architecture first and facilitating road construction second. This isn’t inherently bad, but there’s no framework for evaluating the benefits of the project against the historic worth of the property.  Personal preference for certain types of buildings or properties gets into the mix.

My colleagues and I are currently pushing pretty hard for what should be minor changes that would really streamline our process, but the responses almost always end up at “but this is how we’ve always done it.” There’s also a Peter Principle element, where the folks in charge know more about the state’s history than they do about processes and management. There are statewide meetings with all the government and consultant historians with lots of talk about historic preservation, but nothing about how to actually better serve our end goal of building roads without bulldozing historically important properties. Another thing to consider would be actually having the government do my work instead of a web of consulting firms. It would put me out of a job, but if the [Department of Transportation] historians did the reporting instead of me, we would shave off a huge amount of time, as well as all the costs involved in the salaries and profits of consulting companies like mine. But DOT is funded in a project-based framework, which means that it’s easier for them to hire consulting companies on each project than to just hire more staff.

Alan is a developer who is stymied in his ability to build enough houses to meet the needs of Coloradans:

I used to be part of a team that built attached three-level townhome projects in Metro Denver. I’ve now transitioned myself into the position of “substantial investor” in those same projects—the difference being no current operational responsibilities. However, viewing our projects from a 30,000-foot perspective and the manner in which we interact with local government bureaucracies leaves me thoroughly discouraged that we will ever be permitted to meet the demands of the local market for anything approaching the numbers that would be required. The reasons are complex. They are tied into the lack of productivity of local “planning” agencies to approve adequate numbers of projects to build. They are tied into affordable-housing initiatives and how those initiatives affect the housing supply. They are tied into dramatic increases in permitting fees for developers, which place unreasonable cost pressures on the overall viability of projects.

Unless outside political pressure can be brought to bear on these cities and towns, inadequate supply will continue to be built, guaranteeing the perpetuation of the housing crisis.

Jaleelah recounts living through Canada’s trucker protests:

I live in Ottawa during the school year. The most interesting and insane dysfunction I witnessed was the trucker convoy. I have the privilege and misfortune of living near Parliament Hill. My street was one of the last pieces of trucker territory to be reclaimed by the police.

The media reported on the hate symbols brandished by some truckers and the QAnon supporters egging them on, but I don’t think anyone outside of the city’s downtown core truly understood the absurdity of the situation. People were [defecating] on the sidewalk. They were gleefully (and loudly) fantasizing about hanging various “pro-vaxxers.” The smell of diesel fumes was so strong that I couldn’t step outside without gagging. And what did the police do? They let the truckers use their cruisers as photo booths, and I encountered more street harassment from truckers in one month than I do in five months without them.

Yet the convoy was also an interesting example of an extremely well-functioning protest. Retired police officers and soldiers intimidated the authorities into inaction. Organizers worked hard to disavow any perpetrators of physical violence. The government couldn’t ignore it the way it ignores petitions and day-long marches. There were moments when I felt impressed by the protest—moments that always dissipated when I stepped outside and saw young children whose parents had pulled them out of school and forced them to sleep in their cars in the middle of winter.

Some Canadians believe that the truckers were treated unfairly. I truly wonder whether they would hold the same opinions if their neighborhoods were the ones being occupied. When a friend accused me of providing an un-nuanced take on the protest, all I could think was Gee, sorry, the train horn that’s been honking at my window for hours must be interrupting my thinking. All three levels of government stood by and allowed the trucker convoy to expose dysfunction. I wonder if the next convoy will be protesting in the name of a cause I support. I also wonder if the next convoy will be more violent.

John reminds us that not all news is bad news:

I’d like to present good news on the dysfunction front: There are a lot of people who really care about the work they do and how well they do it. I was a research scientist in the implantable-medical-device industry for 35 years. I consistently experienced a commitment to technical excellence that ensured the highest level of quality and reliability for products being created and manufactured for our patents. While your associate at The Atlantic, Tom Nichols, wrote an excellent book called The Death of Expertise, which cites a general attack on knowledge and expertise in this country, there are more pockets of people who really care how well things are done or made than we are led to believe by the media. My experience is but one small piece. If everyone had the attitude displayed at my former place of employment, where every problem had at least one solution and got successfully resolved, this country would be unstoppable.

Johanna lives in the nation’s capital. She writes:

This is so unsexy, it took me awhile to remember the recent circumstance in which I was pleasantly surprised: Prosaically, renewing my auto registration with the DMV in Washington, D.C., was a model of function. You completed a brief form online; you paid with a credit card and were advised that the new registration would take one to two weeks. Voila! It arrived in five days. I’m rather new here, but I’ve been told that dealing with the DMV used to be the stuff of nightmares. So there’s a bureaucrat out there with a future …

George writes: “The answer is: … LOCAL GOVERNMENT WORKS WELL.”

But Thomas disagrees, arguing:

Municipal building codes and land-use regulation, especially in Washington, D.C., make it difficult to do ANYTHING: repair a wall, put solar panels on the roof, develop housing near transit stops, keep schools open during the pandemic. Regulations are not made according to cost-benefit analysis!

Ed writes in praise of professionals who help to solve conflicts and ponders broadening their ambit:

Mediation works really well. It can be used in all kinds of situations when any two or more sides are in dispute (dysfunctional communication). Psychologically, a truly neutral third party can be a sounding board for each side’s gripes, a buffer against prejudice one side may hold against the other, a finder of fact by astute questioning, an authority on principles or law, and a provider of pragmatic wisdom. As a trial lawyer (now retired), I found a mediator could be the best voice of reason with a client, because they avoided or eased the inherent conflict between a lawyer’s duty to be a strong advocate for a client and the need to suggest possible compromises. Other forms of successful use of mediation is the classic shuttle diplomacy, as used by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Middle East. Or in domestic disputes with couples counseling. Of course some mediators are better than others. In legal cases, a retired judge can lend an aura of experience and authority to influence the parties toward resolution. A professional and trained mediator is often better than a volunteer, but costs of a professional can become a factor because a successful mediation may take time for resolution (I once had to explain to my wife why I got home at 4 a.m.—her only question to me was, did it settle? Fortunately my answer was yes.)

I would suggest we expand our use of mediation in more areas of conflict. The political arena would be my first choice. I would suggest a mediated debate or forum where the moderator is replaced by a mediator who has the authority and discretion to cross examine the participants aggressively in an attempt to find the true areas of political differences or agreement between candidates or parties. After all, our country was founded by people who knew how to find common ground and compromise for the common good.

Susan is feeling burdened by the world’s dysfunction:

I was born in 1941 and went to the VE Day parade on Broadway in NYC in 1945 atop my dad’s shoulders. Then at age 13, I watched the McCarthy hearings on TV and became politicized—a lifelong supporter of human rights. This is to say, I have lived a long life, done a lot, seen a lot, been an activist, a writer, editor, textile artist, and more.

Recently, I have felt overwhelmed by bad news everywhere about almost everything, on top of my ongoing repulsion for social media. There is explosive anger wherever you go and wherever you look. We are living in very difficult times—overpopulation, climate change, war again, refugees, killer viruses, etc. I think that journalism now has a serious problem facing off against misinformation, anger, bad acts and bad news constantly, lies told all the time throughout politics and in government. Thinking deeply about this, I believe journalism has a responsibility to look for and find some good news and tell us what that is because we need it so badly! In abundance. No gloss or glitter, no celebrity brouhaha, just some positive things happening that we might all like to know about.

You might like to know that Svetlana’s day-to-day life is working well:

Thank you for this opportunity to reflect on all the institutions that function. First, family: The 18-year-old got up on time for work to his own alarm and thanked his mother (me) for making him breakfast. Second, the city utilities provided showers and coffee. Third, the medical establishment furnished effective blood-pressure meds. Fourth, the train arrived on time to take me to work and is now taking me home. Last but not least, the institution of marriage: My husband is providing dinner. Of course, I am leaving a lot out and it sometimes takes effort to generate this list, BUT this exercise never fails to put wind back in my sails.

I hope most of your day-to-day lives are functioning well, too, dear readers. See you on Wednesday.