In my last post, on the backstory to my recent traffic stop, I mentioned that I didn’t think I’d get stopped for my not-suspended license and registration, but prepared for it anyway, and did get stopped. What happened next? In a certain sense, not much. I was stopped by Connor F. Gallagher of the Raritan Township Police Department. Gallagher asked for my license, registration, and proof of insurance, asked me whose car I was driving, and asked whether I had canceled my insurance policy recently.
I gave him the documents, answered that the car was validly registered, admitted that I had canceled my insurance policy, but told him that I’d worked the issue out with NJMVC, and had the documentation to prove it. I handed over the documentation, which he read aloud for his body cam; he then took the documents back to his car, processed the information for awhile, came back, gave me his card, and gave me a CAD incident number I could use if I was stopped in the future. By entering the number, the next officer could verify that I had cooperated with Officer Gallagher. After maybe fifteen minutes, I was on my way.
This interaction seems like the essence of simplicity, but it isn’t: simplicity isn’t so simple. In the next few posts, I’ll spell out what I take to be the lessons of this apparently simple and problem-free encounter. Here’s the first one of either four or five.
Lesson 1: Every victory against bureaucracy is a matter of luck
It’s possible in principle to stay one step ahead of a bureaucracy that’s out to get you, but only if you treat dealing with it as an unpaid part-time job, have good legal advice (and ideally, good legal representation), keep good records, have a computer with good Internet connection and a reliable printer, and have the luxury to stay calm and be patient throughout the entire process. Otherwise–meaning: subtract just one element from the preceding list–and you’re fixing to get your ass kicked. Poor, harried, uneducated people are sitting ducks for bureaucratic annihilation.
Is “annihilation” too strong a word? Not really. Once you lose your driver’s license, especially in a place like New Jersey, you lose your mobility. Once you lose that, you lose the capacity to get from where you live to where you work. Once you lose that, you’re lost. It’s practically an axiom that the cheaper the housing, the farther from employment opportunities it’s likely to be.* The greater the distance between home and work, the less likely that you can reliably commute there by mass transit, especially in New Jersey.** The less reliably you get to work on time, the more likely you’ll be terminated from your job. Once terminated from one job, the less likely it is you’ll get another. It’s hard enough to get one as it is, but try getting a job through an interview in which you explain why you “left” your last job– either by invoking the preceding explanation about what happened, or doing an end-run around the facts that explain what happened. Those are your only two options, and neither will work. Good luck.
Losing your job is bad enough, but what about unemployment? Don’t unemployment benefits make for a soft, easy landing? Isn’t everyone on unemployment sitting around, collecting checks, sipping mint juleps, foregoing job opportunities through the generosity of the Department of Labor?
Sorry, no. Let me just deal with one part of the preceding mythology.*** If you’re terminated for cause, as per the preceding scenario, it’s unlikely you’ll get unemployment benefits. And since most workers work at-will, any worker can, paradoxically, be terminated for cause and without cause at the same time.
In other words, if you work at will, as most people do, you can be terminated without cause or notice. You can be fired at any time for any reason or no reason at all. But that doesn’t prevent your employer from retrospectively (or even prospectively) making up a cause for his own purposes, especially in response to some pro forma inquiry from the Department of Labor.
Who’s going to check the employer’s story? And how? Bosses enjoy a presumption of veracity in these situations–they’re believed simply because they open their mouths–in just the way and for just the reasons that cops do in a court of law. That’s the way things have always been, time out of mind, so why change now? And bosses have the luxury of relying on Departments of HR whose job it is to track what you do at work so as to make it easier to justify firing you, whatever the validity of the reason for doing so. Most workers decidedly do not have the resources (time, energy, saavy) to document every workplace interaction that might (or might not) bear on their future hypothetical termination and future hypothetical fight for unemployment benefits. So this is a battle you’ve probably lost before you gotten to the battlefield, or even imagined being on it.
If I’m your boss and fire you because I dislike the color of your nail polish, or because you won’t give me a blowjob, I’m not going to say that to someone who inquires, much less a fact-finder from the Department of Labor. I’m going to say something more “professional,” like, “Her behavior was consistently unprofessional. She was consistently late.” “Consistently late” could very well mean “consistently late in my expectations that she would go down on me.” Again, who will know? An accusation of “unprofessional behavior” covers everything without meaning anything, but it’s more than enough to fuck someone’s life up for a good, long time. No one will question it. No one will look into the details. No one will even read the details if they’re presented. If the boss tells an internally consistent and semi-plausible story, the boss will be believed, and the employer will not get benefits. It’s that simple.
Once you lose your paycheck, and fail to qualify for unemployment, you lose your means of paying for housing (and every other necessity, e.g., health care). What now? Fight eviction by hiring a landlord-tenant attorney with the money you don’t have? Once your options run out as far as housing is concerned, as they eventually will, you’re homeless. Homelessness leads to poor mental and physical health, and is caused by poor health in turn. What happens after a few months of that is anybody’s guess.
So, for want of a printer and a phone with a personal hotspot, or the time to use them, or the saavy to deal with the MVC, you’re jobless, homeless, sick, and/or injured. Of course, one reason why you might have lacked a computer, a printer, Internet access, or time was that you were too busy working to make the rent, or pay for any of the rest. Not that any of that matters, or anyone cares.
If any of that sounds outlandish to you, you need to get out more. It happens all the time.****
The lesson here is that my stop looked simple, and went well, because the background conditions were in place for all that to happen. But those background conditions are highly contingent. Subtract one, or a few, or all of them, and you get a totally different outcome–a completely fucked up outcome. The line between “minor inconvenience” and “total disaster” is a very fine one. Most people are oblivious to it, but they shouldn’t be. It also goes essentially undiscussed in our educational system. It shouldn’t.
How do you fight a bureaucracy, then, without dropping dead? First you get lucky. Then you prepare. Then you fight. Then you hope or pray that your strategy and tactics work, with a plan in place in case they don’t.
Stay tuned over the next few days for a couple of more lessons in positive thinking.
**Exercise for the reader: Find a random town in one of New Jersey’s western counties (e.g., Lambertville), and calculate the fastest way to get to a work address in a city in one of New Jersey’s eastern counties by mass transit (e.g., Newark, Edison, Jersey City). Then imagine having to get to work by 8 am. What time would you have to wake up? How would you get there? How would your commute be affected by the weather or other contingencies? How much of your budget would get eaten up? What plan would you adopt for the days when New Jersey Transit craps out on you? Obviously, for a lot of people this is a practical reality, not an intellectual exercise.
***On the so-called “incentive effect” from unemployment (i.e., benefits dampen the incentive to work), read this column by Paul Krugman. Unfortunately, the link to the “multiple studies” he mentions no longer works (it worked when I first read the column). For now, this will do.
****For details, see Alexandra Natapoff’s Punishment without Crime. Natapoff’s book focuses on the misdemeanor system while deliberately doing an end-run around moving violations (which generally aren’t misdemeanors), but much of what she says about misdemeanors applies equally to moving and other vehicle-related violations.