Cause Area Proposal: Paperwork Reduction

Published: 08/08/2022

Editors note: This is was written as a submission for Open Philanthropy Cause Exploration Prize. It's crossposted to the EA Forum where the formatting is a little better. I've long been anti-paperwork so hopefully this piece will affect some change. I wouldn't say I'm optimistic though.

Introduction

Over the past century the collection of paperwork has become more efficient due to the development and widespread use of computers. But thanks to Jevon's Paradox this increased efficiency has led not to a decrease in the amount of time spent on paperwork and administrative tasks but a vast increase [1]. Some of this is socially desirable as during this period search and storage of records have also become cheaper so collected information is more valuable. But I will argue that the scale of human time loss to record keeping is absolutely staggering and constitutes a morally pressing human tragedy. I will also give a few ideas to reduce the quantity of paperwork which will range from specific low hanging fruit to pie in the sky.

This problem is neglected because the proliferation of paperwork is a fundamentally unsexy problem. No one is obviously dying. The high agency people most capable of changing the system are also the people most likely to outsource paperwork or have enough executive function to not see it as a huge drag.

These are problems committed utilitarians would take more seriously. I would argue 100 million people spend an hour watching an ineffective diversity training video they don't want to watch is a moral tragedy on the order of 150 people dying, but this is likely a minority view.

Quantifying the Problem

I will give cost estimates in dollars or hours as opposed to DALYs. This is because the primary cost of paperwork is the opportunity cost. Everyone doing paperwork could have done useful work instead. Dollar estimates will allow the reader to easily compare the cost to other wastes.

There's also the question of how many DALYs are lost to a day of doing paperwork i.e. how painful is it to do paperwork? My sense is most people find even simple paperwork tasks quite painful. For myself I'd say a day spent doing paperwork and administrative tasks is less than half as valuable to me as a normal day. It seems people start complaining about filing taxes months in advance. It's possible I only hear the complainers and the median person is more ambivalent. But I think a day of paperwork equaling 0.5 DALYs is not a crazy starting point. However I won't use this for two reasons:

1. I don't have any data to back it up.

2. Most eliminated paperwork will likely be replaced with some other form of work so there won't necessarily be a DALY gain. But hopefully there is a productivity gain and those gains will produce DALYs down the line.

Scale of the Problem

I'll give three types of paperwork with a rough quantification of their dollar or time cost followed by a few more personal examples which sadden me.

Medical Paperwork

According to this summary of the Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2028 [2] 70% of physicians spend 10 hours or more on paperwork and administrative tasks in a given week and 32% spend 20 or more hours. If we make some conservative estimates, doctors make 200k a year, work 60 hours a week and there are one million doctors in America, then this costs $22 billion every year. For a more impassioned critique of the horror of this tragedy see this David Chapman Blog if you're lucky enough to not simply have your own memories of the system.

Taxes

Americans spend many hours every year filing taxes. Eleven hours is often quoted [3]. I believe this statistic only applies to filers of 1040A and 1040EZ forms and the average reported by the irs is 24.2. Roughly 110 million Americans file taxes every year and the average American makes $30 hourly [4]. So as a rough first estimate this costs Americans $60 billion every year [5]. This is roughly 3% of the total amount of taxes collected by the US government from private citizens.

And this doesn't even count the other half of the paperwork equation. This paperwork is administered and enforced by the IRS which employs 78,000 people and has annual expenditures of $13 billion. And there are countless companies which exist purely to assist the transaction between IRS and tax payer. For instance Intuit employs 14k people and has a revenue (I'm counting revenue here because all this revenue is a cost to taxpayers) of $9.6 billion and H&R block employs 2.7k and revenue of $3.4 billion.

Workplace Diversity Training

There is little evidence these trainings even work. This Matt Yglesias blog likely isn't the best source but good luck finding a source which does show they work with any given level of rigor or meaningful effect size. I'd estimate they consume two hours of most American worker and college students' lives every year for an annual cost of at least a 100 million hours.

Anecdotes/Miscellaneous

Can Philanthropy Help

In most instances of excessive paperwork (and I guess any other tragedy) there are two questions to consider before philanthropic giving:

1. Why hasn't the free market already handled this?

2. If this tragedy is caused by a more powerful agent e.g. a government, do we actually have any agency to stop it?

Why not the Free Market?

The market does create innovative reductions in paperwork. In an earlier draft I proposed phones as ez passes but that's already happening. Subways are beginning to accept apple/google/etc. pay and AI powered automatic checkout is maybe beginning to actually happen, 20 years late. All these changes may have happened faster if the externality if time in checkout was priced in. But to compete with faster or more convenient options like other roads, taxis or internet shopping there is incentive to eventually develop these technologies.

But the market can also proliferate paperwork in some contexts. For instance by allowing online sign up but requiring a phone call to cancel. Or with mail in rebates or store specific credit cards. Companies will often use paperwork as a form of friction to prevent consumers from doing what the company doesn't want them to do, while making the desired action as close to one click as possible. Luckily some progress is being made on this front as California has made it illegal to offer online sign up but not cancellation. Somewhat amazingly the NYT offers their online cancellation through chat instead of just offering a button.

The market doesn't fully price in time wasting externalities. If a store found some way to reduce checkout times in half they'd save many customer hours. But the store would capture very little of this huge savings. Customers would appreciate this but things like store proximity and product preference would still be much larger factors in consumer choice so on the margin this innovation would likely only increase revenue slightly.

The Government

Perhaps the largest source of paperwork is the government. Medical paperwork is often complicated because of schizophrenic and countless laws and regulations. Taxes are a huge source of paperwork. There seems to be little desire to change this state of affairs. Values like security, privacy and equity all seem to win out against an unbounded amount of convenience.

I have basically no mental model of how to change policy or how effective lobbying is. The most valuable policies from a paperwork perspective, universal healthcare and switching our tax base from income [6] to land (Georgism) both seem politically impossible. There are some marginal policies, like automatic W-2 filing and requiring one click cancellation to be offered for services with one click subscription, which seem possible.

Cultural Change

This is likely my most pie in the sky proposal but it seems many of these tragedies happen because when people making decisions for other people trade one value off for convenience they choose the other value even when the total value of the convenience amounts to many lifetimes. I appreciated Bryan Caplan's impassioned blog on the subject. Changing the culture so that people value convenience higher may be impossible but it could be worth brainstorming ideas.

The real tragedy seems to be other people making up values that in practice you can see people value little but rhetorically win out against convenience. We're in the middle of a decades long media attack campaign on tech. They accuse them of things like:

1. Violating our privacy by collecting data.

2. Being monopolies

To be clear I don't want to say there is no merit to these critiques or that large tech organizations couldn't be better. But at the end of the day I can get any product to my door in 2 days likely for less (inflation adjusted) than I could have two decades ago and I can talk to anyone I've ever met with just a few clicks. The time savings of these services vastly outweighs their externalities. I don't think it's impossible to design regulations which prevent the externalities without damaging the convenience. But historical regulations should make us skeptical of our government's ability to do this.

Specific proposals

Saying we should reduce paperwork is sort of like saying we should improve health. Obviously yes, but are the marginal ideas any good? In this section I have some concrete proposals. Unfortunately I don't have any good and tractable ideas for medical paperwork which seems like the most dire source. My most concrete proposals have to do with adding features to browsers. This may not sound exciting but I think there are millions of hours that could be saved annually with even small modifications.

Conclusion

Thank you for considering my proposal. Paperwork is one of those things that too often we accept as inevitable or necessary. Often we think of these costs as trivial but in my own life I hear people complaining more about medical paperwork than health and more about having to fill out their taxes than their taxes taking away more than a fifth of their income [7]. There is an incredible amount of avoidable psychic pain that is inflicted on people by these vast bureaucracies. Unfortunately the small solutions I suggest don't even come close to eliminating 10% of the problem but I believe on the margin their return is well worth it. Hopefully considering these problems will encourage people to think of more ambitious complete solutions.

[1] Note I'm not going to defend carefully the claim that things have gotten worse on this front over the past century. Just that the present scale of the problem is large enough that philanthropic work would be justified.

[2] The full document is unfortunately paywalled

[3] Note this Washington post article links to a nerd wallet page which has no citation.

[4] Note the link only counts private nonfarm employees so this is rough

[5] Note there is likely a correlation between how much someone is paid and how complicated their taxes are. There's probably also a truncation effect where the most highly paid people are the most likely to hire someone to take care of it.

[6] All transactions are someone's income so taxing income has the effect of making all transactions taxable events. I can't think of a worse tax policy from a paperwork perspective.

[7] I think this is mostly due to me being a rather fortunate person and paperwork being a less personal problem than health and finances so people talk about it more. But I think it's at least a little suggestive.