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Death by Paperwork

The perils of an overcomplicated government, explained

January 2022


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It took just 4,543 words — about nine, single-spaced pages — to create our entire system of government. That’s the length of the U.S. Constitution.i

To declare independence and lay out the principles that would guide a new nation? Only 1,458 words.ii

To pump a bunch of stimulus money into the economy during the pandemic? 939,763 words.iii Longer than The Bible. Way longer.

But, I mean … every one of those words probably really mattered, right? Right?

OK, America: Consider this an intervention.


Americans have always believed that the future is synonymous with progress. Our forebearers were confident that we’d live in an age of incredible technology.

OK, sometimes too confident.

But something weird happened along the way. While we in many ways have gotten the sleek, sophisticated future earlier generations dreamed of, it’s somehow also … a future where seemingly simple tasks have become extraordinarily complicated.

For example, we simultaneously live in a world where you can beckon a stranger’s car with your phone in seconds, but where getting your own driver’s license in California’s Silicon Valley — the very place that invented that technology — requires spending an average of nearly three hours in line. iv

So what’s happening here? In large part, it’s a story about our public institutions. In recent years, government has gotten more complex. That sprawling stimulus legislation we mentioned earlier? It was the longest piece of legislation in the country’s history. v

Now, maybe a complicated society requires a complicated government, but that can come at a real cost: The more complicated government is, the harder it becomes for the average citizen to navigate. And in fact, the people who are hit the hardest … are probably the most disadvantaged Americans.

For instance, think about what it’s like to do your taxes — or maybe don’t, because it’s going to be hard to watch the rest of the video once you’ve put your hand through your monitor.

At nearly 4 million wordsvi long, it’s safe to say that no one understands the federal tax code. That’s one of the reasons that Americans spend nearly 40 hours every year on their tax preparation. vii

Now, if you’ve got enough money to pay someone else to do the work for you, maybe it’s nothing more than a hassle. But if you’re struggling to make ends meet, that confusion can come with real costs.

The Earned Income Tax Credit – the single largest tax benefit for low-income workers – goes unclaimed by more than 20% of the Americans who are eligible for it.viii Why? Because as even the IRS itself admits, it’s too complicated to figure out whether you’re eligible.ix

And everywhere the rules get complex, we see similar outcomes.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that America’s healthcare system wastes over $265 billion a year — billion — trying to comply with needlessly complex rules.x And, as a result, doctors spend nearly twice as much of their time on paperwork as they do with their patients.xi

All those rules, of course, are enacted in the name of making the healthcare system easier for consumers. But … about that. One study found that only 14% of patients understand even the most basic parts of their insurance plans.xii

The problem is that there are only two ways to navigate complicated rules: (1) Spend long hours trying to slog through complicated paperwork; or (2) Buy your way out of bureaucracy. And that’s particularly cruel to those of us who can’t afford that second option.

A study out of Princeton showed that the stress of severe financial hardship reduces people’s ability for mental concentration at about the same level as going an entire night without sleep.xiii

So imagine how hard that makes it to face a process like the one Michigan used until recently for people applying for public assistance. It was a 42-page questionnaire that included questions like “tell me the date of the conception of your child.”xiv

The application was so hard that even some of the politicians who were responsible for it couldn’t actually figure out how to complete it. Which is why the state eventually cut its length by half … at which point, the number of people who successfully completed it went up by over 30%. xv

And not only does complexity make life more difficult for individual Americans, it makes us less competitive as a country.

The U.S. has seen a significant decline in its number of startups in recent decades. One of the potential causes: the difficulty of starting a new business. The World Bank rates the U.S. as the 6th best economy in the world in which to do business … but the 55th best in which to start a business. xvi

The trend is even affecting science. A 2018 study found that federal grant recipients spent nearly 45% of their time complying with regulations rather than doing actual research.xvii

Yes, we live in a complicated society — but the more complicated we make our laws, the more they favor people with the time and money to navigate around them. And the harder they make society for everybody else.

Simplicity was good enough for the Founding Fathers. Which means it’s probably worth a try at the DMV.


  1. Constitution: Questions and Answers — National Archives
  2. What Is the Word Count of the Declaration of Independence? — Declaration Resources Project
  3. Text of the House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to H.R. 133,  Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 — U.S. House of Representatives
  4. San Jose DMV Customers Spend Nearly 3 Hours in Line on Average — KRON San Jose
  5. "Too Big to Read: Giant Bill a Leap of Faith for Congress" — Associated Press
  6. Tax Complexity 2021: Compliance Burdens Ease for Third Year Since Tax Reform — National Taxpayers Union
  7. Tax Day 2021: Despite Huge Paperwork Drop, Costs Stay Steady — American Action Forum
  8. Earned Income Tax Credit & Other Refundable Credits — Internal Revenue Service
  9. The EITC Is a Vital Anti-poverty Tool. Here’s How the IRS Preserves Its Integrity. — Internal Revenue Service
  10. Waste in the U.S. Health Care System Estimated Costs and Potential for Savings  Journal of the American Medical Association
  11. Allocation of Physician Time in Ambulatory Practice: A Time and Motion Study in 4 Specialties — Annals of Internal Medicine
  12. Consumers’ Misunderstanding of Health Insurance — Journal of Health Economics
  13. Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function (Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, Jiaying Zhao) — Science
  14. "The Time Tax: Why Is So Much American Bureaucracy Left to Average Citizens?" (Annie Lowrey) — The Atlantic
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ease of Doing Business in the United States — World Bank
  17. Fix Science, Don’t Just Fund It — Innovation Frontier Project


SOUND | Musicbed: “Traversing” (Steven Gutheinz) // PremiumBeat: “A Knight’s Tale” (Delicate Beats) / “Proper Solution” (Berry Deep) / “Logikal” (Tiny Music)

FOOTAGE | National Archives and Records Administration: Constitutional Convention // Annals of Internal Medicine // Doré’s English Bible: Gustav Doré // Internal Revenue Service // Journal of Health Economics // Journal of the American Medical Association // Library of Congress: Thomas Sully, Currier & Ives., Matteson, Neale, Sadd // The Metropolitan Museum of Art: John Trumbull // Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) // National Portrait Gallery: Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully, John Trumbull // NYC Public Design Commission: John Trumbull // Science // U.S. House of Representatives // Getty: Choja, Giuseppe Elio Cammarata / EyeEm, Robert Daly, CSA Images, Evans / Stringer, Andriy Onufriyenko, Roger Harris / Science Photo Library, Shomos uddin, GraphicaArts / Contributor, Justin Sullivan / Staff, Mark Boster / Contributor, Steven_Alfonso, Nora Carol Photography, Cavan Images LLC, Filo, Alexander Spatari, Di_Studio, Dowell, Acilo, Daniel Grill, Tetra Images, Urbancow, Alan Thornton, Paperkites, Mike Kemp, NickS, Hill Street Studios // Pexels: Anna Shvets, Gustavo Astete, Cordeiro Suekel, Mart Production, Andrea Piacquadio // Unsplash: Susan Q. Yin, Roger Starnes Sr, Gautam Krishnan, Adomas Aleno, Just Jack, Mario Sessions, René DeAnda, Adam Szuscik, Mackenzie Marco, Zach Vessels, Artem Gavrysh, Pawel Czerwinski, Aaron Burden, Jake Weirick, Alessio Soggetti, Dimitry Anikin, Samantha Gades, Antonio Janeski, Joshua Hoehne, Avel Chuklanov, Charles Denluvio, Dario, Ivan Gromov, Annie Spratt, Marjanblan, Benjamin Rascoe // Vecteezy: Gustav Mahler // YouTube // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION. 

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