My Recent Kafkaesque Experience

Tibor R. Machan

It may not be the kind of experience many others have had other than at the Department of Motor Vehicles but I recently went through one that brought to mind Franz Kafka.

I have been trying to refinance my house for months but my bank, Wells Fargo, refused to even talk about it. I had there one of the brusquest bankers, as bad as any bureaucrat I’ve dealt with from the feds. But in time my tenacity won out and I divorced Wells Fargo but not before I went through a pretty wild bureaucratic side trip.

To get refinanced I was told I had to come up with my social security card. I received that back in 1956 and haven’t seen it since so I didn’t even try to find it but went straight to trying to get a replacement copy. To do this I had to send Social Security my passport to prove that I am a citizen. (I am a naturalized one of those and having been smuggled out of Hungary, I have no birth certificate.)

I filled out the needed forms and sent in the passport but never heard back from them with the new card I needed. Well, since I was planning a trip abroad, I had to have a passport but social security played deaf and dumb. Finally I went to Los Angeles, a 100 mile round trip, and got a brand new passport (after spending hours on the phone about it all), which cost me a couple of 100 mile road trips to the federal building there, plus some $200 and price of passport pictures, etc., etc. I was to pick up the new passport at 1 PM one day but of course they didn’t get it ready until 2 plus. And dealing with these folks is a pain since they all treat you like you are some subject, never mind being a citizen of a supposedly free country by whom they are supposedly employed.

So in time I did get the new passport into my hands and was ready to board my plane. Since where I was to go requires a visa, that added another small bureaucratic step to the proceedings. (My private sector travel agent was very helpful with this, also very pleasant, in contrast to the public servant federal agents I encountered.)

Of course all the steps I needed to take were routine but no less drab and annoying for that. The federal building in Los Angeles reminded me of that monstrosity in Bucharest that the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşesco built over several acres, an architectural obscenity if there ever was one. This American version was just a little bit more tolerable and no more user friendly.

Mind you, thousands go through the experience of dealing with the feds and paying for their ineptitude. I was told that the reason I needed to come up with the social security card is that Homeland Security now requires it when one refinances or buys a home but then just after I did my best to comply with this, I was informed that it wasn’t really needed, after all. But by then I had mailed my passport off and the loss of it was pretty much guaranteed. (It’ll probably turn up somewhere “in the system” over the next year and I will be able to stick it away as a souvenir.)

One element of these relatively petty experiences is that one just has no leverage with the several functionaries one must deal with. Since any one of them can put a monkey wrench in the proceedings, standing there and looking intimidating in their uniforms, even I refrain from arguing with them. (Why do they say 1 PM when it is actually 2 PM? Why do they say they needed the Social Security card but then it turns out they do not?)

Not that these are earth shaking matters but if one multiplies them by several hundred thousands, even millions, one begins to grasp just how inefficient governments are and how readily they muck things up in society. The functionaries certainly do not treat you as citizen-customers to whom they need to show some deference! They all comport themselves with the attitude that they have the upper hand and you should be grateful that they do their jobs for you. Or something.

And I am actually somewhat prepared for this kind of an experience, having been acclimated to it from my early years in “communist” Hungary and over the years as I moved through various layers of officialdom as a refugee, in the military, at state universities, etc., etc. And all along I was actually trying to pay attention since I was also a student of the system!

I thus feel for all those folks who are required to submit to the system! What a nightmare! Kafkaesque, indeed.