I was in the process of selling my deceased mother’s home in Kansas City and had a list of utilities I needed to call to have service discontinued.
“I am not allowed to talk to you until I have documentation verifying that you are the trustee and have power of attorney,” said the robotic voice at the first utility I called.
“But here you are talking to me,” I said. Miss Robot was not amused. She repeated her mantra sternly. I didn’t want her to lose her job over this issue but I couldn’t resist making a game of it. Somehow I managed to keep the forbidden conversation going. At last I tricked her into divulging a shortcut: If the buyer called and put the service in his name, my non-existent mother would be off the hook.
My adventures in the bureaucratic hives continued. The next call was answered with a recorded message informing me that I was in for a 20-minute wait until a representative could speak to me. Meantime, I was treated to a celebration of the utility’s genius for customer service. At last I heard a voice that apparently belonged to an actual human being. But I hit a wall when I revealed that my mother was no longer among the living.
“We cannot continue service in the name of a deceased person,” said the voice.
“But my mother died five months ago,” I said. “You’ve been serving her since then, dead though she is.”
“We didn’t know she was dead,” replied the voice. I would have to supply documentation of her death and the service would have to be put in my name.
“But the house has been sold!” I cried. “Closing is in two weeks.”
“We cannot send a bill to a deceased person,” repeated the voice.
“If I hadn’t made this call, you’d still be sending the bill to her — is that right?”
“Can’t we just pretend that I never made this call?”
“No.” My protests as to the absurdity of this policy were of no avail. Finally, I caved, Policy won out. It always does.
I have no doubt that there are reasons for unreasonable rules and regulations, but so often they seem to be conceived for the express purpose of humiliating the customer and driving him mad. “Service” often turns out a synonym for “Persecution” or “Torture.” I don’t want to cast aspersions on the people who travail in the bureaucratic labyrinths. They are only doing their jobs, the first principal of which is to cover their rear ends. But no policy is so beneficial and virtuous that it can’t be carried too far.
A recent issue of The Economist devoted its cover to “Over-regulated America.” The issue referred to “chaotic environmental regulation,” the “confused, bloated” Dodd-Frank financial reform and our health care system’s “staggering and increasing complexity.” Every hour spent treating a patient creates 30 to 60 minutes of paperwork. This year, federally mandated categories of illness and injury will rise from 18,000 to 140,000, including nine codes relating to injuries cause by parrots and three relating to burns from flaming water skis.
Writer Roger Kimball recently reported on the damage to his home from Hurricane Sandy. Repairs would require getting a building permit, he was told. But before he could get a building permit, the repairs had to be approved by the Zoning Authority. The Zoning Authority cited FEMA regulations requiring that the house would have to be “brought up to code,” which would entail “elevating” it to avoid future water damage. Raising the house, however, would violate the zoning limit on height.
“Which means that you can’t raise the house that you must raise if you want to repair it,” wrote Kimball. He quoted Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning about a form of despotism peculiar to modern democracies: Enforcement of a “network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules” that reduces citizens “to being nothing more than a herd of timid…animals of which the government is the shepherd.”
The last phone call I made was answered by a lively, good-humored woman who handled my request for termination of service immediately. I told her about my adventures and she commiserated.
“That’s government,” she said. Apparently she was allowed to speak to customers and to make common sense decisions. Our business was easily transacted and ended on a happy note. Conclusion: We need rules and regulations, of course. But bureaucracies often churn them out without balancing their costs and benefits. Moreover, slavish adherence to rule and regulation is not only costly, but maddening. Footnote: Until further notice, take care when sticking your fingers into the parrot’s cage and always strap a fire extinguisher on your back when using your water skis.