How to wake up America's sleep-walking services?

Amy Wu says even as its government shutdown ends, America still has to fix the larger problem of its lethargic services and stifling bureaucracy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 October, 2013, 6:06pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 October, 2013, 12:01am

First, the good news: the furlough season is over. Being based a stone's throw from the nation's capital, the topic hits home. A friend, who'd been on furlough since the government shutdown began on October 1, e-mailed me on day 10 and said she was suffering from cabin fever. "Feels good to be back at work," she now e-mails.

In the pool locker room, I overheard another victim tell her furloughed friend that "the only thing good about this is there's a lot less traffic … It is very depressing."

Well, now we Americans can exhale, sort of - the commuting nightmare is back. But at least everyone can get back to work.

Interestingly, some Chinese media pegged the shutdown as inspiring. The Southern Metropolis Daily praised US society for continuing to function without the government.

How the world views the US can be baffling, curious and vastly different from the reality of day-to-day living as an American citizen. Shutdowns, red tape, big government and furloughs are hardly inspiring at a time when the economy continues to struggle. Many of my fellow Americans were angered by the shutdown and viewed it as an embarrassment. For many of us, it was proof of how inefficient the US has become in many aspects of life.

And having lived in Hong Kong and recently returned to my homeland, I can attest to how painfully inefficient things often are here. The postal system is one example of first-class inefficiency. Little wonder that it suffered a US$740 million loss in the third quarter, increasing the year-to-date net loss to US$3.9 billion.

There was also the unpleasant experience of waiting nearly an hour to open a bank account as a woman in her late 50s yawned and went sluggishly about her business, reminding me of many a stewardess from US airlines. In the end, I went to another bank down the street.

Lastly, there are the trips to stores and supermarkets, where a wait in line can take on average around 25 minutes. And let's not even start with the health care system.

This isn't to say that there aren't pockets of innovation and efficiency in the US. Things are going well in Silicon Valley for my friends at Facebook and Twitter. The country's wealthiest and brainiest are keeping the rest of the country chugging along.

Maybe I've been spoiled by Hong Kong - the lightning speed, the low-cost public transport, the youthful workforce that is fast, accurate and efficient. A friend theorised that maybe getting things done in Asia was simpler faster because, to put it bluntly, the people are in better shape.

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of good things about the US, but efficiency isn't one of them. The saying that, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" - popularised by Bert Lance, the budget director under president Jimmy Carter - has defined the US government mindset for a while, but the mindset seems to have morphed to "if it's broke, don't fix it" or maybe "pretend it's not broke so you don't have to fix it".

Bureaucracy and red tape abound in all kinds of government, but there is a point where it ends up being a hurdle to advancement.

Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator