- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2000

I'll propose a rule of thumb: A hassle is worth 10 times your usual pay rate. Suppose your pay is $30 an hour. Then a hassle causes you $300 an hour of grief. It's not just a waste of time. It's a painful waste of time.Waiting in line at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Listening to a telemarketer's idiotic pitch. Trying to reason with the Claims Department. Ugh.But what if those who are giving us the hassles had to pay …Rrringgggg."Hello. You have reached the home of Bartholemew Buzzsaw. Mr. Buzzsaw's Caller ID has determined that you are a telemarketer. Since this is a hassle you will have to pay for his time at $300 per hour. That is $5 per minute. Your meter has already started. Please use your touch tone pad to key in your company's credit card number now."If the telemarketers don't pay what they owe us, maybe some jury would convict them of fraud. Then they could be put in a cell with loud phones and receive telemarketing calls 24-hours a day until they paid off their fines. The Supreme Court might disallow this as "cruel and unusual punishment." But then maybe not. The justices must have gotten telemarketing calls in the middle of dinner just like the rest of us.
Telemarketing hassles are bad enough, but the worst hassles have always come from government. Some of us are old enough to remember the Mother of All Hassles the gasoline lines of the 1970s. President Richard Nixon in his infinite wisdom put in price controls, including price controls on gasoline. President Jimmy Carter with bipartisan blindness continued them. The Arab oil embargo made things worse. So what happened? Suppliers weren't too eager to provide gas at unrealistically low prices and we got shortages. Surprise. Surprise. We all wound up spending an hour in line $300 in hassle time to save the temporary $3 extra on a tank of gas that the government wouldn't let us pay. When President Ronald Reagan lifted the price controls, the problem went away and gas prices went down.
For four years now we Washingtonians have endured another government-induced hassle. Pennsylvania Avenue has been closed off in front of the White House. This has resulted in rerouting 26,000 cars per day every day. Suppose the delay is 10 minutes and the hassle time cost $300/hr. That means the 10-minute delay costs $50 in hassle time per person per day. With 1 person per car, the annual total hassle cost is $50 X 26,000 X 365 days per year = $475 million. For that kind of money, there's got to be a better solution. Until Pennsylvania Avenue is reopened, the hassle continues, day after day and year after year, losing half a billion a year in hassle time.
For unrelenting long-term hassles, the world record is still held by the old Soviet Union. That's 70 years with two or three hours per day in line every day. At that rate the cost of their hassle time made their Gross Domestic Product look like pocket change. Lines for bread. Lines for potatoes. Lines for shoes. You say you don't need any more shoes. You might as well take them anyway since you spent all that time in line. "We have no complaints. Maybe you would like to go to Siberia, Comrade."
Finally, enough people had enough hassles, and they said good-bye to the old USSR.
Slowly but surely people around the world are getting smarter. We're choosing other ways to do things, with less hassle. At 10 times our pay rate, we have lots of opportunities for other choices.

Robert L. Hershey was a consulting engineer in "How to Think With Numbers."

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