The Atlantic Daily: How the Government Learned to Waste Your Time

Posted by on July 28, 2021 7:30 pm
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Artwork of the hands of a clock spinning on the back side of a quarter coin.
Getty; The Atlantic

Welcome to America, where bureaucratic headaches are as commonplace as hot dogs on the Fourth of July.

My colleague Annie Lowrey argues that all the collective hours wasted on, say, filling out overly complicated IRS forms are essentially a tax. The “time tax,” as she calls it, is a scourge, and the government needs to take responsibility for it.

Annie’s argument is worth reading in full. But if you’re, well, short on time, I’ve summarized a few key things to know below.

1. The time tax is everywhere.

“To make sure that the safety net catches us, to make sure that our social-insurance programs insure us, to make sure that we get what we pay Uncle Sam for, we work as our own health-care administrators. Our own tax professionals. Our own social workers. Our own disability-law experts. Our own child-support advocates, long-term-care reps, and public-housing officials.”

2. It’s regressive.

“Programs for the wealthy tend to be easy, automatic, and guaranteed. You do not need to prostrate yourself before a caseworker to get the benefits of a 529 college-savings plan. You do not need to urinate in a cup to get a tax write-off for your home, boat, or plane.”

3. It’s racist.

“Today, programs used disproportionately by Black Americans have more complicated enrollment criteria and more time-consuming application processes than programs used disproportionately by white Americans.”

4. It undermines confidence in government.

“People think that government cannot work, because government does not work. So what reasonable person would trust government to work?”

So how do we fix the time tax? To start, we should monitor it, Annie writes.

A crowd at one of the Woodstock '99 stages
Catherine Lash / HBO

The news in three sentences:

(1) Every week seems like infrastructure week, we know: The parties reached a compromise on the major new bill. (2) Google and Facebook mandated vaccines for their U.S. offices. (3) The Olympics continue, with the U.S. leading in medals overall, and Japan in gold medals.

What to read if … you’re looking for practical advice on how to manage your risk in light of Delta:

Tonight’s Atlantic-approved activity:

A new HBO documentary about the chaos at Woodstock ’99 is “so vivid as to instill dread at the thought of all the gatherings to come.”

A break from the news:

Don’t read this if you’re eating.


Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.

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