Someone is working to find out how long it takes to fill out a form, and someone’s watching them to see how long that takes.

“Too damn many regulations these days!” a neighbor told me last week. That opinion was based on experience: his grocery delivery business is being investigated by four federal and three state agencies, the Green Lake Water Department, the Better Business Bureau and the San Diego Chicken. (“Damn chicken,” he says. “He’s had a grudge against me since ’68, when I busted his sidekick, Eggzilla, for deliberately cracking himself in half to scare a three year-old.”)

While few of us are so hapless to be investigated by a mascot, the point is well taken- we spend too much time making sure all our t’s are crossed. Government, the public and business all watch each other, everybody watches “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” and the press watches everything and everyone. (No wonder journalists have egos; they think they have the same job as God…)

The silliest example I’ve seen came while reading instructions to a seemingly self-explanatory form. I found this sentence: “Paperwork Reduction Act: We estimate that this form takes 8.5 to 9 minutes to complete.”

Huh? A regulating agency, regulating the time it takes to fill out a form… in the name of regulating paperwork? To figure out that some people take 30 seconds longer than others to fill out a form?
About now, any other column would rant about how this instance of bureaucracy is the worst thing ever. But in Green Lake tradition, I decided to get to the bottom of the issue and tracked down the author. Ironically, he’s a Green Laker too.

His name is Bert Gobley. He wrote the infamous line in 1992, but, growing tired of all the regulations, he formed a watchdog group that watches other watchdog groups to make sure they’re not doing too much watching. With me so far?

Bert insisted that our interview take place over the phone, even though he lives across the street from me. I asked him about the 8.5 to 9 minute estimation: “Timing form completion is actually the government’s #3 spending priority. #1 is the Post Office; #2 is storing surplus bread dough in the Washington Monument.” So what’s the longest timeframe? “We had an ‘Earliest Childhood Memory’ form for Social Security, and there’s a 90 year old guy they’re timing who’s been working since 1986.”

After leaving regulation-ing in 1995, he lobbied his friends in Congress, who wrote up an Ink Reduction Act to stop all the extra writing required by the Paperwork Reduction Act. The bill passed, but was rendered moot by the 1996 Reduction Reduction Act, which sharply limited the government’s ability to reduce paper, ink or anything else. Frustrated, Gobley reduced his group’s activities, hoping to declutter the nation’s already frazzled palate. He’s since taken a job as a paralegal for the San Diego Chicken.

In short, reduction is apparently a big waste of time. This is obviously a paradox- using less stuff should take LESS time- but it’s a paradox lost on Green Lakers, who take an obsessive delight in tossing mountains of trash out their windows, on my lawn, anywhere but where it goes. Losers.

(This report was completed in part due to a grant from the Alliance for Regulator Regulation. It is currently under investigation by the Federal Regulation Watchdog Reduction Commission in Great Falls, Montana.)

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