Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

The bad registry. And the other bad registry

Shutterstock/Africa Studio

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Say no to registries: Part 1

June is the peak of the wedding season, which means it’s also the time of year when more people than ever are seduced by that awful excrescence of the wedding-industrial complex, the bridal registry.

From the first time I encountered the concept, registering for presents always struck me as terrible manners. What is a gift registry if not formalized greed, crass and grubby? It is one thing to humor small children in writing letters to Santa listing the gifts they crave for Christmas, but there’s nothing cute or charming about encouraging adults to indulge in naked displays of avarice. Most of us wouldn’t dream of drawing up a list of pricy goodies we would love to own, then handing out copies of the list to friends before a birthday or graduation. How did it ever become acceptable to compile such a list for people invited to a wedding reception?

As I say, this unpopular opinion is one I’ve had forever, including when I got engaged. I had braced for an argument when my better half agreed to marry me and we began planning a wedding. But there was no argument. Her view, it turned out, was the same as mine. Neither of us had to convince the other that we wouldn’t register for gifts.

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Of course we knew all the rationalizations people use to justify wedding registries. They make it easy for guests to choose a gift. They spare newlyweds the time and bother of returning unwanted presents. They solve the mystery of what to get for not-so-young couples who already have well-furnished kitchens and plenty of household goods. They’re convenient for far-flung friends and relatives who wish to have a gift shipped.

All of which may be true, but none of which change the bottom line: Bridal registries are impersonal and mercenary, and the message they enshrine is that the gift matters more than the giver. I wrote about this once in a column:

Registries strip all the thoughtfulness from gift-giving. They are hardly more than glorified shopping lists, with other people paying the tab. What a shabby way to treat other people’s generous impulses. It’s not your thought that counts; it’s your money. Use it to buy us this stuff.

It can be hard to see this for the blatant greed it amounts to when the wedding-industrial complex blows so much smoke to argue that it doesn’t. TheKnot.com, a major wedding-planning website, assures readers that they can safely ignore the “wedding registry myths” that give some people qualms. For example, “Myth 7: Never register for items that are too pricey. You’ll look tacky.” (“Nothing should be off limits,” comes the response — remember that people may “chip in together so they can buy a more expensive present.”)

Gift registries began in the 1920s as a way to let wedding guests discreetly find out a couple’s preferred china or silver patterns. By now, however, they have metastasized into over-the-top piggishness. Many millennial couples have moved beyond registering for copper cookware, down comforters, and flat-screen TVs; instead they baldly ask for cash with which to pay for their honeymoon. Or to fund a down payment on a house. Or simply to pad their bank account.

I’m not sure which is more distasteful — the undisguised expectation that anyone invited to a couple’s celebration will pay for the privilege, or the shamelessness of vendors in facilitating such cupidity. Here’s the sales pitch one registry website uses to coax couples to sign up for money:

Welcome to Tendr, the easiest, most elegant way to give and receive the gift of money for life’s most important celebrations.

Money has always been the most desired gift for weddings, graduations, religious rites of passage, and many other celebrations. Which makes sense. After all, the real gift of money is that it empowers the people you care about to create lifelong memories, follow new paths, and make meaningful decisions about their lives.

Tendr lets you give in a way you’ve never done it before. It’s beautiful, simple, and surprisingly personal.

“Surprisingly personal.” Because nothing says I chose this gift especially for you like forking over a fee to attend your wedding.

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Not even social conservatives, who might once have been constrained by an instinctive sense that unmasked avarice ought to be avoided, can resist the temptation to say “Gimme.” Kelsey Harkness is a young conservative writer and podcaster at the Heritage Foundation whose work I have often admired. She recently produced a beautiful short documentary about the extraordinary love involved in a birth mother’s decision to place a baby for adoption; it’s a video I have urged many people to watch.

But when Harkness got engaged, she not only succumbed to the lure of registering for gifts, but wrote an article celebrating it: “17 Timeless Must-Haves To Include In Your Wedding Registry.” She even supplied a “pro tip” for dunning guests for honeymoon cash. “The strategy for registering for a honeymoon fund is to break it up by activity. Ask for a ‘snorkel trip’ or a ‘beach dinner for two,’ so people don’t just feel like they’re writing checks.”

Well, here’s my pro tip: Don’t ask for gifts when you invite loved ones to a wedding. Their presence ought to be its own reward, untarnished by any expectation that they will pay for their attendance with an expensive gift or a wad of cash. Here’s my other pro tip: Instead of buying something off a couple’s registry, put some thought into the gift you give them. What my bride and I discovered long ago is as true as ever: The gifts a couple will delight most in receiving are apt to be the ones that were chosen just for them — gifts it might never have occurred to them to ask for, but that were selected with love and with only their happiness in mind.

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Say no to registries: Part 2

A new driver’s licensing system took effect in Massachusetts in March, and for the past three months motorists trying to renew their license have found themselves waiting for three, four, even five hours at the Registry of Motor Vehicles to complete a transaction that should require no more than 20 minutes.

Under the terms of a post-9/11 federal law, drivers needing a new license must first meet the requirements for a “Real ID.” In most cases, that means that they have to show up in person, bring hard-copy evidence of their Social Security number, plus proof of their citizenship or lawful presence in the United States and two documents confirming their residence in the state. The rollout of the new system has generated infuriatingly long lines, and unkept promise after unkept promise by Registry officials that the kinks will soon be worked out.

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My Boston Globe colleague Shirley Leung found herself at the Registry office in Braintree last week (on her birthday, no less), and wrote about the experience:

When you go to the RMV, you expect to wait. But the problem now is no one has any idea about how long it might be.

“Don’t even ask” is the response [one driver] overheard from a Watertown RMV worker when someone inquired about wait times. I got a similar answer from a Braintree staffer.

Sorry to be a bother, RMV employees, but some of us have work to return to, kids to pick up, places to be. In my case, I had a 3 p.m. physical therapy appointment, which means I needed to be out of there in two hours. At 1:20, I had already been there for 30 minutes, and by my count, there were about 50 people ahead of me. I decided to cancel my PT appointment — a wise move, because I didn’t get out until close to 4:30 pm.

I met others who waited four or more hours for a license renewal. For Colleen Blanchard, it was even worse — seven hours over two visits.

When Leung’s number was finally called — after a 3½-hour wait — the transaction itself was completed in 10 minutes. What accounted for the insanely long line? Erin Deveney, the Bay State’s registrar of motor vehicles, had no good answer.

Deveney proceeded to spend about half an hour trying to diagnose what went wrong in my case. I’m not sure if she got any insights, because I filled out my forms online before I arrived and the Braintree staff appeared to do their jobs. The only mistake, she pointed out, was not being upfront with me about the wait time, since the RMV has that information and even posts it online.

Since installing the software, the agency has been experimenting with different ways to speed up service, such as adding extra greeters at the door and moving knotty cases out of the regular queue. The RMV has also been sending out a checklist of documents with renewal notices, and it has enlisted all 34 AAA locations to handle Registry transactions. . . .

The new Real ID requirements introduced complications for RMV workers, who now have to vet a dizzying array of documents — from a foreign birth certificate to a W-2 form. I might have gotten stuck behind a customer who required more than an hour to process.

This isn’t happening only in Massachusetts. Similar problems have been reported in Hawaii, California, and Texas. As more states implement the Real ID rules, more drivers can expect to be kept waiting — and waiting — and waiting — when they try to renew their licenses.

Registries of motor vehicles have for decades been the classic symbol of government disorganization at its most maddening. Getting a license renewed should be an all-but-effortless assignment. Why do government employees have so much trouble carrying out such a simple job?

Nobody ever stands in line — not for 10 minutes, never mind three hours — to renew a credit card. Even before the old one expires, the new one arrives. From airline boarding passes to retirement fund investments, from podcast downloads to Starbucks mobile orders, most private vendors and service providers make it amazingly easy for consumers to get what they need without having to cool their heels in Soviet-style queues. Why is it so hard for the Registry of Motor Vehicles to do what the private sector does routinely?

This is why: Because customers who are fed up with Starbucks can go to Caffè Nero or Dunkin Donuts. Because Hulu is an option if you’re not happy with Netflix. Because if Visa gives you the runaround, you can switch to Discover or MasterCard. In the private sector, competition, the profit motive, and the fear of losing customers force providers to make transactions as efficient and painless as possible. But the Registry of Motor Vehicles is a government monopoly. If you want your driver’s license renewed, you have no other option — and the registry has no competition. Which means it has little incentive to give motorists what they want — cheap, fast, and accurate license renewals.

It has never been clear to me why licensing cars and drivers have to be government functions in the first place. You don’t need a license to operate a computer, carry a cellphone, purchase a chainsaw, or have a child. It’s hardly self-evident that driving must be treated differently.

But if driver’s licenses do have to be renewed, let’s at least turn the job over to the private sector, where comparable functions are performed, glitch-free, billions of times a year. No one should have to sit around for hours, waiting for bureaucrats to renew a driver’s license. For government clerks, who face no competition and worry about no bottom line, getting you in and out quickly will never be a priority. Put private vendors in charge, and those long lines will vanish.

Site to see

Amid the internet’s vast ocean of drivel, some websites are alluring islands of knowledge and discovery. Each week, in “Site to See,” I call attention to one of these online treasures.

This week’s site is Ask the Past [URL: http://askthepast.blogspot.com/], a quirky weblog that intermittently posts advice gleaned from antique books and offers it helpfully for readers in the present. The proprietress of the site is Elizabeth Archibald, a professor of English at Durham University who specializes in medieval romance and the classical literature of the Middle Ages.

The recommendations and counsel Archibald harvests from old texts are extremely entertaining and eclectic. A few examples: “How to Choose Tinted Glasses” is drawn from a 1653 work called “Mathematicall Recreations.” “How to Dress Warmly” comes from a letter written in 1315 by a physician in Valencia to his sons. Martino da Como’s 1465 work “Liber de arte coquinaria” details “How to Serve a Flaming Bird” (the bird in question being a peacock). And from Jacques Guillemeau, writing in “Child-birth, or, the Happy Deliverie of Women” in 1612, practical advice for new parents: “How to Change A Diaper.”

One very short entry, from 1651, is titled “How to Interpret Small Hands.” It is taken from “The Book of Palmistrie and Physiognomy” by Johannes ab Indagine. It reads, in its entirety:

The hands very short, doth signifie a gross and rude person: fat and fleshie, with the finger likewise, inclined to theft. Small hands, crafty men.

Apparently there were short-fingered vulgarians in olden times, too.

Recommend a website for this feature! Send me the link and a short description (jeff.jacoby@globe.com), and put “Site to See” in the subject line.

ICYMI

My column last Wednesday was about the Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision in favor of Jack Phillips, the wedding-cake baker in Colorado. The justices — in an opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, author of the landmark Obergefell opinion legalizing same-sex marriage — held that the state of Colorado had treated Phillips unjustly, since the officials who adjudicated the baker’s case were plainly hostile to his religious convictions. Though the decision was reached on narrow grounds, it nevertheless delivered an important message: Just as the court will not let government abuse gay couples, neither will it permit the state to mistreat religious believers.

The last line

“Bury me in the sea; it has been my home, and I love it. But will not someone set up a stone for my memory at Fort Adams or at Orleans, that my disgrace may not be more than I ought to bear? Say on it:

‘In Memory of

PHILIP NOLAN,

Lieutenant in the Army of the United States.

He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands.’”

— Edward Everett Hale, “The Man Without a Country” (1863)

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.