“He fancied he had seen the festering truth that lies at the heart of all bureaucracies: his report, he decided like all reports and all decisions could probably wait until next week. Bureaucracy, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Walking into an unlit, dank, dirt floored cellar brings with it an irrational foreboding. When my face runs into several spider webs, the distasteful sensation of clinging suffocation comes with an urge to panic, to abandon my exploration and frantically rub off the sticky filaments. My imagination jumps unbidden to a twitching in unseen regions of the webs, movement with weight and purpose, significant arachnids – fetid with predatory fangs, and my eyes feel vulnerable.
Walking into the Department of Motor Vehicles for a simple transaction like registering a vehicle and picking up license plates brings with it a sense of foreboding as well. How long will this take? How much will it cost? How unpleasant will the experience be? Can I wipe away the clinging after effects without getting bitten? This week, an experience reinforced the dread, emblematic of what entrenched bureaucracy can inflict upon the innocent. Well, pretty much innocent.
The first step was positive: five minute wait to the check in desk, then the unraveling began. A pleasant woman looked over my prepared paperwork and declared it complete and ready to get in line for a take a number wait. Then she checked her DMV records and discovered a tax block on new or renewed registrations from my old hometown–speed bump. I went back to my truck and unsheathed my trusty smartphone. A quick search got me the phone number for the City of Providence Tax Collector’s Office; I called it four times. Each time it rang fifteen times or so with no capacity for voicemail and hung up on me. Undaunted, I went on their website. Found my records, and they showed back excise taxes due on my old car from 2015 and 2016. Apparently when I changed my address for the registration, the DMV hadn’t notified the City of Providence. They had done so for Rita’s car, but not mine. The Post Office had stopped forwarding my mail, and I was unaware of the problem.
Since I had lived in Middletown for those years, I didn’t owe the taxes, but if I was to get my plates that day, which I needed to do, the easier course was to pay them, release the block and fight it out another day. Back on my phone on the website, I was maneuvering to pay the bill with a credit card on my phone. I entered my address as asked, but it would not accept the payment because it wanted my old Providence address. Joseph Heller wrote about this bureaucratic predisposition and named it for our times: Catch 22. My old address would qualify me to pay, but my credit card required my current address. Tried calling them again-same result. Put my smartphone away and started my truck to drive the forty five minutes to Providence. One must maintain commitment to the task.
Three visits to two offices and a trip to my bank to get a certified check later (the City of Providence accepts credit cards on their website, but has no machines in the collector’s office), I was able to pay the bill. I was told there was one more line to endure, so I brought the paid receipt ten feet to another caged station, waited again and begged for the release from the tax block at the DMV—actually I sang a couple of lines from the old Engelbert Humperdinck recording, “Please Release Me.” The clerk laughed, indulged me and worked her magic on their operating system. Dunkin Donuts drive through for sustenance fortified me for the forty five minutes back to the DMV in Middletown.
I stood in the line this time for ten minutes at the check in booth. A new clerk stamped her imprimatur on my paperwork, found no tax block and issued my number: A342. With a heart full of hope, I consigned myself to the oak benches cleverly designed for discomfort with fifty others, heard them announce A328 and judged myself nearing the finish line. As it turned out there were “C” and “E” numbers too. Two hours later, my number was called. With hat in hand and with bated breath, I went to yet another stand up booth with a barrier and presented myself with a clean slate. It took another fifteen minutes or so while she left to search for the right plates, took my sales tax and fees and printed out my new registration. I dragged myself home six hours after I ran to the registry to get my plates. Talked to my daughter and her beautiful girls out in the yard under the old sugar maple tree and began my recovery.
“The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency.” Eugene McCarthy
My brother has been trying to help my ninety five year old mother obtain some help with her ever increasing need for nursing care from Mass Health (the model for Obamacare). He had to fill out a thirty eight page form. I called him, thinking that in his email he had to be exaggerating for effect. Nope. Greg tried three times over two days to fax it to them. He got receipts certifying thirty eight pages had gone through without error each time. When he called them time after time, they said they never got it. He persisted (necessary family trait dealing with government agencies) and held someone on the phone while he faxed it again, and they acknowledged that they had it. Over eighty years of paying taxes (her Social Security benefits are taxed), and she would need thirty eight pages to get some help. Without assistance from her family, she would not have a chance.
All the functionaries in my tale were courteous, most with smiles and wanting to help. No doubt the various managers and government agencies spent hugely on mandatory customer service training for their clerks after years of bad press about arrogant and unresponsive bureaucrats. Not the people anymore, but the fault is in the nature of the institution. Bureaucracies are terribly good at a few things: self perpetuation and clothing themselves in myriad rules that once set are holy; making new rules, arcane and impossible to understand; propagate like lab mice the detailed, redundant forms with jot and tittle pitfalls; and metastasizing like a malignancy.
The failures and flaws of Obamacare[i] reveal themselves as it settles in: one third of the country with only one or no ACA exchange options in 2017; 16 to 23% increases in premiums in many regions this year; doctors retiring or cutting back due to the bureaucracy and rules to see more patients for whom they can possibly give quality care. I lost my doctor of over fifteen years because he ended his PCP practice to limit his work to cardiology. Joe told us he couldn’t see as many patients as the enforced standards mandated and still personalize, make more human and competently care for them without fear of making a terrible error. He is a superb care provider. I told him I would see him again when my heart gives out. Of course, not to worry, the government solution is what will invariably be the progressive government solution: more government bureaucracy and a single payer system. To be assured medical care will be less responsive, will engender multiple lines of the vacant-eyed disconsolate, and deliver poorer care with stacks of forms. Picture the DMV with physician assistants, computer diagnosis of our symptoms and clerks—lots of clerks with smiley faces and customer service certificates of training in their booths.
“If you’re going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t. Hyman Rickover
[i] Experts Predict Sharp Decline in Competition across the ACA Exchanges. Avalere, Health care analysis and think tank.