Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Bureaucrats have the power to turn a tiny glitch into an insurmountable hurdle

...and in too many cases, they face no consequences when they do so...

As you know, I hate bureaucracy – and some very real and viscerally unpleasant experience with bureaucratic operations is a substantial part of my opposition to the ideals of the Big Government, or almost any government or a left-wing social construct, for that matter. In the U.S., I used to spend a month with the tax forms and immigration documents (not just the visas) during the average year.

It doesn't mean that I really needed 30 times 16 hours of hard work every year. The number of hours filled with some "substantial bureaucratic work" was much smaller. But the uncertainty, meaninglessness of this work, and other partly psychological aspects really depleted my energy for those 480 hours. For a decade, those things have been more tolerable – every year, a few days are partly occupied with some one-hour-long or two-hour-long work.

In the most recent week, I was facing a bureaucratic nightmare that I don't remember for a decade. The main villains was a female bureaucrat who was clearly acting to spite me – and a power of attorney ("plná moc", literally "full power", in Czech). I was recommended by someone to fulfill the task using a power of attorney. It had to be simple. Many others agreed.

OK, I got the task to change the status of A from B to C for the person D (whose mobility is reduced), using a power of attorney. Great. Within minutes at the city hall serving a suburb of Pilsen, I could find a pleasant male notary and negotiated the moment (two days later) when the power of attorney will be signed. Some hours had to be reserved for that but it has worked exactly as expected. The notary told me that it's enough to create a simple document (power of attorney).

Such a sheet of paper includes names, the purpose, signatures, the less is written over there, the better. Sounded nice. He had prepared a standardized simple document of that kind that had to work. He's using the same form for hundreds of purposes – pensioners are involved most of the time.

On the same day, I came to a semi-government organization E (which is, thank God, gradually going out of business as its activities are being privatized in a way) for the first time in order to change A from B to C for D. These semi-government organizations may be worse than the government itself, I soon realized. Before I came there, I made a telephone call with a woman at E, Ms Curly, who pleasantly confirmed the notary's assertion. It's enough if the power of attorney contains several basic facts, the others may be added later, in the office of her organization E. I may arrive to E within 30 minutes and it will be done, I was told (several times during the week).

When I came to E, I met a different woman, Ms Littlecross, whose primary job is to change A from B to C for various people, aside from two or three related tasks. Within seconds, I could see in her eyes that she was going to spite me and there was going to be a serious problem. My intuition turned out to be right. After some hopeless monologue, she basically said that she didn't like that the power of attorney didn't include a postal address. I suggested to simply write it there because this is what I had planned to do with possible missing pieces of the data – everyone before Ms Littlecross had agreed that it was kosher to do so.

Although I had both identity cards, she didn't want to allow it. She also didn't want to tell me exactly what was missing on the document or how I could fix it. And she didn't present any alternative solution. The work done on the previous day was threatened which is frustrating.

As you can see, some technical details started to play a disproportionately large role – and bureaucracy sometimes loves to inflate their impact. The laws are supposed to fulfill certain tasks and guarantee some justice that can be understood without a bureaucratic training, but some formalities are needed to do so and at some moments, the formalities may completely overshadow the essence of the problem. Is it mandatory for a power of attorney to contain some particular information or numbers? There are probably some rules for everything but the problem is that even the bureaucrats who work with this stuff don't know these things well. Aren't these bureaucrats obliged to know which power of attorney is acceptable? I don't know the answer to this question. She surely didn't know. Are the bureaucrats allowed to refuse a document just because they are not certain whether it is OK? I don't know but she surely refused it exactly with this justification.

(Let me omit another visit to E which was totally useless because it was not during office hours, in spite of the website that had claimed that they had some office hours on Friday, too.)

I added some postal address on that form because I was persuaded by the notary and by Ms Curly, not to mention an ordinary person, that this is possible to do after the document was signed. And I tried to change the status of A from B to C for D at E for the second time. Again, a telephone call (there was a dozen of calls throughout the week). Ms Curly promised me that I would interact with another woman, not with Ms Littlecross, which sounded promising. Ms Curly herself isn't serving the clients, I gradually learned, which is bad because Ms Curly couldn't possibly change her view on the required features of the power of attorney.

Sadly enough, this information about "another woman" was also wrong. Yesterday (on Monday), I collided with the same Ms Littlecross again. Now, she saw that the postal address was there. She couldn't care whether I had added it but I said that I had prepared two powers of attorney and this was the second one. OK, she invented some new incoherent complaints – some possible missing birthday-based ID was the only complaint I could understand (and she didn't allow me to simply write it there, again). The most spectacular complaint – my understanding was that it was her main argument why she couldn't accept the power of attorney – was that "by looking at the power of attorney, she couldn't connect the authorized person with my face, the person who came to her". In plain English, and I am convinced that I understood her perfectly, she has complained that my power of attorney wasn't a full-fledged photo ID! ;-)

That was a pretty shocking demand for me. You know, I have never had anything to do with jobs where "powers of attorney" are being used. But I am qualified enough, like most laymen, to know that a power of attorney isn't supposed to be – and never is – an identity card, let alone a photo ID. It is being used along with the identity cards. They can be linked because the power of attorney contains the names and signatures and/or some other identifications. I guess that a majority of the 15-year-old kids understand these basic rules. Why a woman employed to accept powers of attorney doesn't?

Yesterday I scheduled another meeting that would include a lawyer of the organization E for today, Tuesday, 2 pm. But I decided that the risk of another failure was so high that I had to find another solution. That lady, Ms Littlecross, was obviously creating ludicrous extra problems just because her job apparently allows her to abuse her powers. If she is ready to claim that a power of attorney must include photographs, it's very likely that even if you fix any particular ludicrous complaint by her, she is going to invent another one. It is this uncertainty about the extra time you will have to waste – and the prospect that it is an unsolvable, runaway, indefinite problem – that is most frustrating about such situations.

So I canceled another iteration of that incredible waste of time – and I picked a solution that turned out to be much simpler although it had looked almost impossible before. But these evaluations are relative. King Herod asked Jesus Christ to "heal cripples, raise them from the dead". I emulated that maneuver from my colleague Jesus Christ – D came to E, after all. It was rather straightforward afterwards – healing cripples was vastly easier than to submit a straightforward power of attorney.

Well, I found out it was an excellent decision because the nightmares with Ms Littlecross could have easily continued for a very long time, maybe indefinitely. Yesterday, she told me that my power of attorney was unacceptable because it wasn't a full-fledged photo ID. That complaint sounded like a quote from a comedy film but that's nothing compared to one thing she said today.

She was reviewing our tense interactions from the recent week. At the very end, she mentioned the scheduled appointment including the lawyer of E at 2 pm today. She said something about that appointment at 2 pm, about me and the lawyer, and somewhat incomprehensibly, she said "...who sadly failed to arrive". So I thought she was saying that their lawyer failed to arrive – which would be rather typical for this dysfunctional bureaucratic organization.

But she corrected that sentence and assured me that what I originally heard was correct – I just didn't want to believe my ears. It wasn't the lawyer, it was I who failed to arrive for the appointment at 2 pm. I was sitting in front of her at 2:01 pm – I was there in the building from 1:45 pm – and she was looking into my eyes, yet she very seriously claimed that I didn't exist. ;-) How can you solve anything with a bureaucrat who tells you, directly into your face, that you are not there in the room at the moment when she is telling you that you are not there? It's just impossible. It's unreasonable to try to struggle in such a situation. You simply have to find another solution.

Just to be accurate, I must say that the lawyer's office was at another floor of the building, and only today, she suggested that it was supposed to be a meeting just of me with the lawyer, not with her. But I could only find out the rough location of the lawyer yesterday because I had asked about it – without that question, she didn't really tell me that I was supposed to be in another room or what the name or location of that lawyer was. At any rate, I was surely in the right room because D was present, after all, and the power of attorney became unnecessary. But even if I had to be in the lawyer's room, she could simply tell me where the room is again. It was just 2:01 pm. I wouldn't even be "materially late". But she prefers to say, in front of me at 2 pm, that I "failed to arrive".

There had to be some non-professional reason why she found it so necessary to spite me – to turn every marginal opportunity to some verdict of the kind "I have failed". I don't want to speculate what that reason exactly was (although I am thinking about the possibilities, of course) but I am rather certain that some extra non-professional drivers behind her behavior had to exist. At any rate, bureaucrats like Ms Littlecross can easily turn people's days into hell, they can easily turn small, easy-to-fix technical glitches into insurmountable barriers.

Such bureaucrats may abuse their power just in order to harm others, because they think it's fun to harm others, or because they want to harm "some kind of people" whom they had previously decided to harm, or because they have a crush on other people, or they can abuse their powers to help themselves. That's why the power given to bureaucrats is a very subtle thing and a civilized society must be very careful about such an authorization. Bureaucrats may abuse the power easily, they may often get away with it easily, they tend to defend their colleagues, and the powerless people may easily be in trouble – and if the bureaucrats are powerful enough, in existential trouble.

Not only civilized societies are careful not to give too much power to bureaucrats. They have to verify them, there have to be checks and balances. And on top of that, every nation or another environment develops a "culture" which may differ from the cultures of other nations or environments. This "culture" includes the typical habits about all the technical details above – whether the absence of one number or another on a document is a problem, whether the number may be written down after the form was signed, what to do if someone is uncertain about something, and other details.

Even if two nations have the same laws, their "cultures" describing how they actually apply these laws may be dramatically different. And that's why different nations may be incompatible. For example, Latin American countries have largely copied the U.S. Constitution and some other laws. But the societies still don't resemble the U.S. They're not only poorer, they're also worse at the rule of law and other things. It's because the written laws don't actually everything about the behavior of a society. The people's, peoples', and nations' temperaments, talents, morality, habits, and instincts always matter, too.

Incidentally, I think that Ms Littlecross was the only person I had to deal with in the building E who made it into an unsolvable problem. At the end, I did meet the (female) lawyer as well. She did say that she also wanted some extra sequence of numbers associated with a postal address to be added there and the problem was whether there was enough room on the power of attorney. But even if there weren't enough room, she would surely provide me with an alternative prospect how to fix it. Maybe I would need to invite the mobile notary again – but there would be a chance that the future time spent on these activities is convergent. With Ms Littlecross, the mean value of the time wasted in the future was probably divergent.

(Ms Curly and Littlecross are some translations of their surnames. I lived in Mr Littlecross' Street when I was a kid.)

In societies where the rule of law isn't really a part of the "culture", bureaucrats not only have the ability to harm people, they also have the "opposite" power to protect the criminals. We're seeing it with PM Babiš again. The EU legal service (400 lawyers employed to do it right) writes a common sense analysis proving that Babiš has a conflict of interests which contradicts the subsidy rules. The analysis is almost a comical undergraduate term paper – they have to defend the proposition that the prime minister of a country may influence financial decisions related to subsidies; and that the person who may rearrange all the bosses of a trust "has an influence or benefits from subsidies from that company". It's common sense, trivially true, and explicitly forbidden in the laws.

Nevertheless, Babiš ordered his own lawyers (from his party and his movement, including two ministers) to write a document – completely bogus document – that he is not in a conflict of interests. Now, these are self-evident lies. Every person with the IQ above 90 must see they are self-evident lies. But do the employees who write these lies have to be afraid of any consequences of their lying? In a country where the prime minister faces no consequences for his illegal devouring of billions of crowns in subsidies?

Now, the whole system is corrupt – too many pensioners want their pensions to go up and they will support any liar, perhaps any murderer or any kind of scum, as long as it will increase their expectation value of their pension. What are the prospects of a nation where democracy turns into this corruption where liars increasingly steal the money from the productive part of the nation and they are defending of their increasingly self-evident lies? As Benjamin Franklin said, once the people find out they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic. And we are seeing it in Czechia. When "democracy" wins over some totally self-evident and demonstrable facts and truths, it's too bad.

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