Magazine article Insight on the News

Bureaucrats: Mind Your Own Business

Magazine article Insight on the News

Bureaucrats: Mind Your Own Business

Article excerpt

My main job is working for a Washington-based think tank. But I also earn free-lance income from articles like this one, which means I file a Schedule C with my tax forms. Voila! In the government's eyes, I'm an independent businessperson.

A couple months ago an important-looking envelope arrived at my home: "U.S. Census Bureau Form Enclosed," it proclaimed, with "Your Response Is Required by Law" ominously highlighted in bold type. Enclosed was Form MB-1, the "survey of business owners and self-employed persons" as part of the 1992 (yes, 1992!) economic census. Believing my business to be my business, I tossed the package.

The bureau was not to be so easily put off, however. It sent another form a few weeks later. That, too, went into the appropriate receptacle. Alas, the federal government doesn't know the meaning of the word "no." It may have trouble delivering the mail; it may waste billions of dollars every day; but it does notice when its demands are ignored. So I soon received a third mailing, and the envelope contained the same threatening message in the same big, bold print. There was, however, an additional enclosure -- Form MB-1-92-L2 (1992), otherwise titled "Overdue Notice."

It seems that Thomas L. Mesenbourg, chief of the Economic Census and Surveys Division, was upset. "Our records indicate that you have not complied with the mandatory filing requirements for the 1992 Survey of Business Owners and Self-Employed Persons (Form MB-1)," his letter announced. Therefore, he demanded -- in bold print, naturally -- that I return the form within 10 days. My failure "to answer completely and correctly" to the best of my knowledge subjects me to a possible fine of $500. If I willfully give a false answer, the penalty is $10,000.

What is the information that the government thinks is important enough to threaten me with a fine and, if I refuse to pay, jail? Explains the Census Bureau: "The purpose this questionnaire is to collect information about the sex, race and ethnic background of business owners in the United States for the year 1992." Why is the bureau so anxious to learn my sex, ethnicity and race in 1992? Well, explains the Census Bureau, this survey is "to help provide valuable economic data" about minority-owned and nonminority-owned businesses. …

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