The Embassy in Bogotá: Into the Third World

I wonder whether Americans realize just how closely the United States is coming to resemble a country of the Third World, not just in its corruption and attributes of a police state, but in the incompetence of governmental bureaucracies. Federal agencies don’t work. They are rotted by affirmative action. The bureaucrats are inattentive, unaccountable,  anonymous, can’t be fired, and get paid whether they do their jobs or not. Congress is not interested.

A few examples, from my experience or that of people I know, mostly involving veterans, but typical.

Nightmare the First: Incompetence at State

Venerable

A few weeks ago my wife and I, traveling in Colombia, managed to lose our passports, so we went to the US Embassy to get a replacement.  I see very poorly thanks to an ancient federal war to enrich the arms manufacturers and a bungling naval eye surgeon–the feds, to put it mildly, do not get the best people in any field. Consequently Violeta had to fill out the forms for me to apply for an emergency passport.

In three separate places, she printed my name: Frederick Venable Reed. Venable. V-E-N-A-B-L-E.  In my hearing, Vi spelled it out for the woman, letter by letter. And of course my passport records in the State Department’s data base spelled it correctly.

So we get the passport, $135, take it to the Mexican Embassy to start getting my residency proved, and fly to Santa Marta for a week of beaches and huge shrimp, expecting to find everything done on our return.

No. Instead, we find that the passport has my middle name as “Venerable.” If you do not travel much, this may seem minor. It is not. No country will accept approximations on passports. Far worse, it can look like a fraudulent document, and then you are in big trouble. So back to the embassy, which charges me another $135 to correct their mistake and, for complex reasons I won’t bore you with, ten extra days in Colombia trying to unscrew the downstream results of incompetence. Airline change fees, hotels, meals. It was not fun.

Now–bear with me–Embassy people know that passports are  important. The change from “Venable” to “Venerable” is not a typo, but a deliberate substitution of a word for a name. Why? Was the woman too  lazy to check the spelling against many sources that had it correctly? Was she  talking to her boyfriend? Thinking about buying some new shoes? Just didn’t give a damn? Can’t be fired, and gets paid anyway? Or maybe that State consists notoriously of semi-pseudo-kinda-Ivy prisses, and Vi and I were traveling in jeans and sweats. Not their kind of people? I have encountered State ‘crats around the world. They are not the sort who much like aging vets with high-school diplomas and old jeans. Which we looked like.

Unaccountable. Anonymous. Inattentive. Federal. Third World.

Why does this happen? Hint: Bureaucracies want (1) to avoid responsibility, (2) to minimize work, and (3) to maximize pay and benefits. Do you see the word “service” in the foregoing?

Nightmare the Second: Casual Abandonment of Disabled Veterans

In Mexico where I live, there are a lot of mutilated vets, mostly aging men from Vietnam days, a fair number rated as 100% disabled: half crazy, blind, in wheel chairs, organs don’t work, or in constant pain. An RPG coming thorugh the deck of a Huey does things like that. So do lots of other things.

Now the DEA, like so many parts of our sorry government, is making it harder for vets to get pain medication. As usual, the technique is to multiply rules, regulations, requirements, and forms until it becomes almost impossible to comply. How is a veteran in Mexico, with a high-school education and no experience of federal bureaucracy, supposed to obey rules he probably hasn’t heard of, rules that just don’t work here? Monthly appointments to renew prescriptions? Appointments with whom? How does a vet in a small village in Mexico, where he lives because it is the only place he can afford, get to some remote appointment with no car?

DEA doesn’t care. Veterans? What?

Nightmare the Third: Throwing Away Money

By law, children of the one-hundred-percent-disabled combat vets can receive help, about $8500 a year, with the university expenses of their children. One such vet here, I’ll call him Dad, was accepted for such aid for his kid, whom I will call Kid.

Dad, reasonably enough, asked the VA to deposit the money directly into Kid’s account in Mexico. Direct deposit is instantaneous, secure, and verifiable. But T/VA (Treasury or VA, he isn’t sure which) won’t deposit money electronically to accounts in Mexico.

Well, said Dad, deposit it directly to my account in the US. No, said T/VA, we can deposit money only to an account in Kid’s name.

The government had thus ruled out the only secure means of transferring the taxpayer’s money.

Well, said Dad, send a check to my mail-forwarding service in Laredo. It is not perfectly secure, but far more so than the Mexican mails. No, said T/VA, they could not send the money of Kid in Mexico to a post-office box in Texas.

This ruled out even the reasonably secure methods. T/VA was going to send a large check through the mails of a notoriously corrupt country. This insistence embodied the normal governmental qualities of stupidity, irresponsibility, lack of realism, and unconcern with results. They get paid anyway, nobody knows who they are, and they can’t be fired.

Now, if you are going to send a large check through extremely corrupt mails, the wise thing to do is to send it in a plain envelope, the way banks send replacement credit cards. No. Treasury sends checks in distinctive brown envelopes with a celophane winow, making the check visible. This is stupid even by federal standards, and federal standards are very high. The envelope does not actually say, “Check! Check! Steal me!” It comes close.

If you insist on sending a large check of someone else’s money in an obvious envelope through crooked mails, would it not make sense to endorse the check, “For deposit to account of payee only. Require passport”? Yes, it would. But we are talking about the government. It’s not their money. They don’t care.

The check was stolen and cashed illegally in California by agents unknown.  Exactly the same thing happened to Kid’s second check sent as arepacement, and then to a third check. That is, the feds, who are anonymous, unaccountable, don’t care, can’t be fired, and get paid anyway, threw away $25,000 of the taxpayer’s money. Might the Treasury notice this, and perhaps do something different? No. Why should they? Federal workers get paid anyway.

Why does this happen? Hint: Nobody goes through college thinking, “Gee, I can’t wait to get on with IRS or HUD or TSA and  spend the best thirty years of my life in a boring and meaningless job.” The government gets (1) people who value security over all else, (2) sociology majors with no ambition who need, well, some kind of job, (3) people who are not good enough at what they do–lawyers, accountants, programmers– to get on with real companies, and (4) affirmative-action hires.

Nightmare the Fourth: Technological Primitivism

Further stupidity: The government doesn’t use email, making  it almost impossible to deal with any federal entity reliably from outside the country. Thirty-five years into the age of the internet, this is insane, but governmental employees have no incentive to behave sanely. Nothing can happen to them.

For example, if the VA or, probably, any branch of the government, wants a vet to fill out Form VA-4-3455/GH3599 (I made that up, but it probably exists), it does not email him with an attachment or a link to the form online. No. This would be instantaneous, secure, and verifiable. It is not the governmental way.

Instead it sends a paper form, which in Mexico may arrive in five days, three months, or not at all. He then has to fill it out and send it back in physical mail, squaring the probability of loss. Just as, if the form doesn’t get to him he has no way of knowing it was sent, if  the reply doesn’t get to the government, he has no way of knowing that it didn’t. Symmetry.

It is not unusual to receive a federal letter two months after it was sent, threatening dire consequences if not answered within one month.

Incompetence of this sort occurs all through the bureaucracy. IRS ignores 60% of calls from taxpayers. When undercover agents try to smuggle weapons and explosives past TSA, they succeed 95% of the time. Nothing works.

You might expect it in Haiti. You get it in the United States.

Nightmare the Fifth: Lost Hearing Aid

Suppose that a vet, deafened in some stupid war, has his hearing aid fail. He applies to the Houston VA to have it replaced. It takes over a year for the request to bubble up and be considered–not filled, just noticed. Washington doesn’t care. The real money is in military pork and the feds can’t be bothered about deaf cripples, probably high-school graduates from Tennessee, who never go to the better cocktail parties in Washington.

Third World.

Nightmare the Sixth: More Technological Primitivism

To deal with the VA, a vet usually needs his military records. Good freaking luck. They do not exist in electronic form, but only as paper in boxes somewhere. When I needed mine recently I was told that they were in Pittsburg, no, St. Louis, no, Austin, no, Portland. It took six months and I never would have gotten them without the help of a friend, an aggressive retired attorney and blown-up Explosive Ordnance Demolition guy out of Nam, who threatens litigation when vets are stonewalled.

Which brings us to an important point: A veteran on his own cannot deal with the government. Almost nobody can. The incompetence, stupidity, inattention, lack of incentive, ignorance of their own regulations, and so on make it impossible. For the price of one useless fighter plane VA records could be scanned and keyed to social-security numbers, thus making them available in ten seconds. The government just doesn’t care. If it did, it would scan.

A Comparison

Compare the foregoing with a company in the real world–Amazon, say. It has my fairly complex records instantly available, answers emails usually within a day, and its telephone staff, who answer quickly, actually want to solve problems,  and always do–courteously. If I order something, they calculate the Mexican tax, tell me when it will arrive, and it does.

Do you suppose that if Amazon’s employees threw away $25,000 of the company’s money through sheer stupidity and unconcern, they would long be Amazon’s employees? If the company ignored 60% of calls from customers, or if 95% of shipments failed to reach their destinations, do you suppose the company would survive? This is exactly the federal standard. Bush world.

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