"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Paperwork Is The Bane Of Existence–Why Do We Put Up With It?

The most lasting and telling image I have of paperwork is that of the office of an Indian civil servant.  His office was cavernous but undecorated. Chairs were arranged around his desk in a semi-circle, and Mr. V.K.Subramanian, Under Secretary to the Government of India, attended to his guests quickly. He listened to petitions and personal requests and gave familiar and entirely predictable replies.  His comments were so familiar, in fact, that they can be found in the Universal Self Hindi Teacher under ‘Typical Examples of Phrases and Sentences Used in Government Offices’:

The matter is under consideration

A reply will be sent in due course

It is regretted that the information cannot be supplied

It is not in the public interest to disclose the information

The matter is being intensely studied

This does not pertain to our department

The matter is one requiring scrutiny before a reply is given

All 69 entries are non-committal responses, expressing reasons why actions cannot be taken, why delays are inevitable, and why responsibility must be deferred. It is the lexicon of the world’s most hellish bureaucracy.

India bureaucracy

It was summer, and the temperature that day was 115F.  All offices of senior Indian officials were cooled by a ‘desert cooler’ – a long straw tick hung over open windows through which water is circulated. An industrial exhaust fan sucked the now more humid and cooler air through the straw and blew it into the room.

The roar of the fan was deafening, and Mr. V.K. Subramanian had to shout his remarks to his petitioners. During the audience his personal assistant placed papers to be signed in front of him, held in place by glass paperweights.  As soon as the officer signed a document, the peon quickly snapped it out from under the florid glass weights and replaced it with another.  The piles of dog-eared papers, wrapped in red ribbons and marked ORDINARY, URGENT, and RUSH flipped and flapped in the wind.

Indian paperwork

Given the Under Secretary’s remarks, I was sure that the ragged and yellowish papers contained only written confirmation of delays and excuses.  His desk was surely only one stop among many, and that they would be further circulated to other departments before returning to him initialed and duly registered.

Paperwork is a necessary and inevitable feature of bureaucracy.  A paper trail which shows that no decision has been taken alone, that responsibility and guilt have been shared, and that no colleague has been left out of the decision-making process is the tried-and-true means of self-protection. Government civil servants are in the public’s employ not because they have ambition or particular talent, but because jobs there are reasonably remunerative, benefits are good, and above all, secure. While paperwork could be a ledger of innovative ideas, perceptive insights about efficiency or accounting, it rarely is.

Government is not the only sector awash in paperwork. Private contractors are bedeviled by regulations and the specified requirements to comply with them. Hundreds of conditions, codicils, and official reminders are included in each contract. Not only do height, weight, and volume come under scrutiny and public surveillance, but the race, gender, and ethnicity of employees; the adequacy and accessibility of ramps, elevators, and sliding doors; the placement of fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, and toilet paper; lighting, ventilation, and HIVAC.

Image result for images government forms

Doctors spend thousands of dollars on staff whose only job is to deal with government paperwork; and it is no surprise that more and more physicians turn down patients with Medicare or Medicaid. Patients cannot even see the doctor without signing away all rights to privacy and litigation.  Homeowners have to think twice about refinancing because of the reams of indecipherable paperwork required not only by lenders but by government.  Home improvements, even as simple as extending a deck or reconfiguring a garden walk, are subject to the scrutiny of local authorities. Every transaction is covered by conditions of liability.

I cannot be treated by my dentist unless I forgo all claims against him in advance. Whatever goes wrong – split teeth, damaged nerves, improperly fitted implants – are to be considered no-foul, accidental events. Before getting my hip replaced – in fact as I was lying on the gurney ready to be sedated – a hospital administrator read me the risks that I would incur. I might be paralyzed from the waist down from the epidural.  I might never wake up. I could suffer from night sweats, occasional palsy, and minor delirium tremens from the anesthetic. The surgeon’s knife could slip and cut an artery.

I signed and initialed over twenty forms.  When asked why all this paperwork could not have been handled earlier, the administrator said, “We want to give all patients a last opportunity to opt out.”

For a long road trip to Brittany many years ago, my wife and rented a Deux Chevaux.  When we went to return it and found that we had lost the paperwork, the rental agent said that without the documents, “La voiture n’existe pas”. Without the paperwork, the car did not exist.

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Nowadays no one denies that the car does in fact exist; but unless the smallest ding is registered and recorded in an on-lot inspection, the liability for any minor damage is severe. Only a fool will sign and scribble initials up and down the multiple copies of rental agreements without reading every word.

Image result for image deux chevaux 1965

Electronic paperwork does not mean less paperwork, only a cyber-version of it. Because of the speed and immediacy of electronic surfing, we have even less patience for the disclaimers, online conditions of use, and complex agreements that appear.  We click so that they will disappear. Who ever reads those things anyway?

Personal relationships are now certified by paperwork. Prenuptial agreements are not only acceptable but signs of  hipness and social savvy. By signing the papers we admit that not only is divorce a possibility but a probability. ‘Till death do us part’ is only a romantic fiction anyway.

Image result for image prenup agreement

A number of years ago a friend of mine had been a victim of credit card fraud.  A very savvy Nigerian criminal gang had lassoed him along with thousand of others and charged thousands of dollars of cheap furniture, airline tickets, and fancy meals on his account.  By the time he found out about it, his credit rating was near zero.

He thought that it would be easy to clear up the misunderstanding, and he called his credit bureau.  We can’t simply expunge the charges, they said. How do we know that you didn’t make them? The existential crises only grew when he contacted each of the merchants listed on his credit record.  They too refused to acknowledge that the purchases had been made fraudulently.  After all, they said, a man with his name had legitimately purchased the bedroom set and matching Italian lamps and had the paperwork to prove it.

The final Kafka-esque blow fell when he found out that a black Nigerian man also called Donald Douglas, properly registered with the Virginia DMV and holder of a valid driver’s license in that name, was at that very moment driving around Falls Church, Vienna, and Arlington.

Image result for images franz kafka metamorphosis

It took him two years and reams of paperwork (certified letters, notarizations, official affidavits, birth certificates, passport registry, etc.) to restore his credit and his identity.

For a while, because of faulty and fraudulent paperwork he had ceased to exist.

In this electronic age, such identity theft is far easier than it was when the Nigerians were on the loose. At any moment, one’s electronic paperwork can be hacked, stolen, or destroyed.  In the movie Enemy of the State, the Will Smith character wakes up one day to find that government operatives have ruined him.  He is no longer who he thought he was until he is rescued by a hacker even more insidious and canny than the government.

Image result for images film enemy of the state

In Biblical days everyone knew everyone else.  Communities were small, outsiders easily recognized, and it was enough that you were the son of Jacob or Isaac. Personal integrity and identification was a matter of flesh and blood.  Transactions were done in person, by hand, and remembered, not recorded.

The ‘Information Age’ is less about the transfer of information than the ownership of it. Increasingly we are defined by paperwork and our identity is derived from it. We use paperwork to protect and defend our personal and professional integrity and our rights. Everything in the Information Age is contractual, recorded, and indelible – or at least until records are hacked and disappear.

Our world, then, is a far cry from one of ‘elemental morality’; one in which there was little mediation between one individual and another. Perhaps the Law of the Six-Gun was arbitrary and primitive, but so was every other accusation, defense, or dispensation of justice. ‘An eye for an eye’ was harshly and uncompromisingly retributive; and the ancient Hebrews lived in the universe of a vengeful and punitive God.  Jesus Christ was no less demanding; and although he offered salvation, he insisted upon moral probity and rectitude.

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       Gunfight At The OK Corral, Bookofdaystales.com

This elementalism cannot possibly exist today.  Although paperwork is meant to be conclusive, it never is; and reams of documents only make ethical distribution of responsibility even more diffuse. 

As one gets older, concerns about identity and personal integrity matter less and less. ‘Let ‘em have it”, is what I hear more and more as my friends turn more towards spiritual matters.  No point now in divestment of assets, cleaning closets, and streamlining belongings, they say. Still, I miss the palpability of old-fashioned identity and an unmediated, un-paperworked life.

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