The Bureaucratic Wastelands

This post is about bureaucracy. It will be a long, ponderous piece with little or no point. Bureaucracy, anywhere, is unpleasant. In Croatia though, it seems especially painful. This is because our fates are irrevocably intertwined with the mystery that lurks within the bureaucracy. We have no choice but to traverse those labyrinthian corridors and stand in the long lines, searching, waiting for answers. There is no escape.

In my experience, discussions over coffee can easily involve a friend’s bureaucratic problems. Ask how a friend is doing and you are very likely to get a story about how she is some kind of bureaucratic purgatory, waiting for someone, in some department somewhere to do something that will move her life along. Housing permits, working permits, being able to graduate, seeing a specialist, receiving a paycheck, all of these often hinge on the bureaucracy.

Who’s Driving This Thing?

In each case there is a cloud of uncertainty hovering over the fate of these friends. No one really knows what the problem is with their specific situation or who is actually responsible for resolving it. In a monarchy, I guess responsibility resides with the king. In a bureaucracy, the bureaucratic state, responsibility is so defuse it resides with no one. I have the feeling that under these conditions any bureaucrat that attempts to burden any of the responsibility for a decision, risks undermining the whole enterprise and the system’s wraith. Or maybe, they don’t
 know what to do.

You ask the impossible

I think one of the key negative traits of a bureaucracy is when it asks you to provide the impossible. I have the feeling that we can be asked to perform miracles (walk on water, raise the dead) just to get some vital document. One timeI waited four months for a paycheck because the accounting office demanded that I produce a JMBG (Unique Master Citizen Number). I have an OIB (a personal identification number), but that wasn’t good enough. I also needed a JMBG, which was kind of hard since I was born in Oklahoma, not Croatia or even Yugoslavia.

But apparently, I was more responsible for where I was born than the person, whose job was to pay people, was… for… figuring… out… how to pay people?  It was only after I inquired about getting a JMBG at the Ministry of the Interior, and at my bank, that the accounting office finally accepted what I had told them at the beginning: legally, metaphysically, logically, I cannot possibly have a JMBG.

Could it be easier?

Now, if we live in a modern state we have to have bureaucracy. We can aspire to the kind Max Weber advocated, a hierarchical system, governed by clearly defined rules. Or, we can get the kind Franz Kafka wrote about, opaque, formless, and well, eerie.

Some simple changes might make it nicer. Let’s remove the big glass barriers between the bureaucrats and us. What are those things even for? Sneeze guards? Not being able to clearly hear the person you are talking to certainly adds to the whole affair’s frustration. Or how about those doors that only open from the inside? I’ve never seen anything like that until I came to Croatia. If we can’t have real openness and accountability, let’s at least have its aesthetics. Give us the illusion of a light at the end of this maze. That, would be a start.

Free-riding or Dodging ZET Inspectors

One of the more peculiar things about living in Croatia is the distance between what is legally permissible and what is socially permissible. To a certain extent gaps between the law and following the law exist everywhere. In Oklahoma there is the “five over rule,” meaning most police allow you to exceed the posted speed limit by five miles. In Croatia such discrepancies between the law and following the law appear much more pervasive. They range from avoiding parking infractions to under-the-table employment and under reporting payment in order to avoid taxes. This topic will come up again and again, yet for the purposes of this post I focus on what is probably the most ubiquitous illegal activity in Zagreb: free riding on public transport.

I first have to say that Zagreb has a fantastic tram system. The trains are new, clean, and well maintained. They run frequently and travel extensively throughout the city. There is nothing comparable to this type of service in Oklahoma, or most of the US for that matter. In Tulsa the buses come once every hour, stop running at five p.m. and don’t really take you anywhere all that useful. One of the few time I rode a bus was in preschool as a class, and I think that was just so we would know what a bus was. Unlike in Tulsa where you can live most of your life without engaging in public transit, the tramway in Zagreb is an integral part of life.

Of course this makes the reality of the tramway all the more ironic: Zagreb has a great tram system, and yet most people ride it for free. Riding the tram depends mostly on the honor system. There is no fee for entering the tram, no turnstile, gate, nothing. You just hop on; however, you are supposed to buy a ticket in advance at a nearby kiosk or purchase one with a text message from you mobile phone. There is some level of enforcement. Uniformed inspectors come around from time to time and check your tickets. If you cannot show them one you are fined 200 kuna (roughly $40).

Talking to residents of Zagreb you hear all kinds of stories about how people have attempted to get of out paying the fine. One of the more clever ones I’ve heard involved a friend who had already been riding on the tram when an inspector (called Kontrol in Croatian) entered. Once the tram started moving he ran up to her, pretending to be nervous and asked her if he still had time to purchase his ticket on his phone. The inspector a little shocked at being directly approached replied in a relaxing tone that of course there was still time.

When you’re caught inspectors exit the tram with you and write you a ticket on the side of the street. Another friend, an American married to a Croatian, related to me how once when he was caught he played dumb, acting like he didn’t speak Croatian, was only here for a conference, and couldn’t understand this “crazy” tram system. As he was on the cusp of success, having almost convinced the inspectors he was just a dumb tourist when a tram full of his former students stopped and they all yelled: “Hi Dave!” He ended up paying the fine. I’ve heard from other foreigners that they too act as foreign as possible. According to these stories the inspectors will get so frustrated trying to get you to understand them that they will eventually just let you go.

Usually, you just try to dodge the inspectors. When they enter, you exit. They are pretty easy to spot. They wear blue jackets with stripped blue button-down shirts, and have a way of parting the most densely packed crowds like Moses parted the Red Sea. The other alternative is to enter a text message into your phone and then only send it when you see an inspector.

Another preoccupation among free riders is trying to anticipate the inspectors’ behavior. It is assumed that inspectors don’t work after 8 or 9 p.m. or early on weekends, some assume they don’t work weekends at all. I’ve also been told that inspectors won’t work when its raining, snowy, or frigidly cold. I’m not sure if it is assumed that inspectors don’t want to stand in the rain, snow or cold when writing a ticket or if would it would be socially unacceptable to make a passenger stand in bad weather when getting a fine. In any case it assumed that fines for free riding are canceled due to inclement weather. I’m not sure if any of this is true.

Why all the free riding? Well, its logical. The economists tell us that few will pay for something if they can obtain it for free. Given the paltry system of enforcement its rational that few people pay for a tram ride. Since the fine is 200 kuna and a tram ride itself costs 15 kuna, if you can ride for free 13 or more times without paying, then its worth risking the fine. The times I do buy a ticket are when I’m either riding with my daughter or mother-in-law. And these are social inducements. I don’t want people to think that I’m a bad father when they see me holding my little girl and getting fined by the inspectors on the side of the street. (Also, since she speaks Croatian she would blow my cover as a dumb tourist.) My other friends have related similar reasons. One woman told me that since she was now over 35 (and on TV) she would be embarrassed if she was seen being fined.

But there is also another economic argument and this returns to the discrepancy between policy and practice. A tram ride costs 15 kuna, which is about three dollars. Now imagine if you had to ride the tram twice a day to get to work and back. That would be six dollars a day, $30 a week, $120 a month, $1,200 a year. In a country where the average monthly salary is between $800 and $1,000 a month, that’s 10 percent or more of your annual income, just to get to work. What’s more is that ZET (the tram operator) knows that most people do not or cannot pay this fare. Danas.hr reported that while 298 million people rode the tram (and buses) last year, revenue was only at 319 million kuna! That’s less than 1.5 kuna per person, roughly $0.25 a passenger.

I’d like to say that this is a case of an enduring status quo where the price was fixed and remains fixed given a set of circumstances, but its actually worse than that. The price just went up from 10 to 15 kuna via text message and from 8 to 12 kuna for tickets purchased from a kiosk. And since then revenue has stayed roughly the same. ZET is now earning less than it was before if you consider the price increase. Its as if Joseph Heller and Franz Kafka jointly designed this policy. ZET raises the price to make less money!! The politicians know no one is paying the price, the passengers know it, ZET knows it, and yet the price that no one pays endures.

Thats how life is here. We exist in a world where policy after policy, law after law attempt to impose an impossible standard on our reality. As a result, our daily life is learning how to dodge the rules, and to define the actual distance between the imaginary and the real, to discern the actual difference between what is demanded and what is permissible. For all that, Croatia pays a greater price; a fare-less ride on the tram only sounds free.
Here is an even more outrageous comparison. A ride on the NY subway costs $2.50 and the city's average income is $6,317.00 a month. In Zagreb a ride on the tram is $3.00 and the average monthly income is $1,356.00! Moreover, the income for Zagreb is from 2008. Since the financial crisis the average income has certainly declined while the tram price has been increased.