“If you want to know why Americans remain leery of government, it’s because of this combination of power and incompetence.”
— Andrew Sullivan
I recently received papers in the mail notifying me that I was being sued (again). This new case was completely unrelated to the prior debacle, so it is clear that in a past life I was an evil lawyer and in this life I’m getting my comeuppance. The timeline of events for this latest comedy of errors went something like the following:
- Mail arrived stating that in thirty days I would be served papers for a lawsuit filed by LA County against me over failure to pay child support. To be clear: unless I was lied to during those awkward classes in junior high, there is absolutely zero possibility of any Ryan Juniors being out there. The letter attached to the legal documents offered the helpful option of being able to come into their office to pick up the court papers should I wish to avoid the potential embarrassment of being served in public.
- I called the contact number provided to try to figure out what was going on, and was sent to an automated number asking me if I was the parent of a child. Upon answering “no” I was transferred to the line for lawyers. Upon stating that I wasn’t a lawyer I was transferred to the line for parents and asked for my support number (which I didn’t have). After five minutes of this I was eventually transferred to the LA County call center where an actual human picked up.
- The woman on the other end of the line asked me for my support number (which I still didn’t have), and then asked why I was calling if I didn’t have a support number. I told her I did have a stack of papers telling me that LA County was suing me; she put me on hold.
- When she picked up again she asked for my social security number, entered it into her system, told me it wasn’t on file, and then paused as if waiting for me to respond. I was a bit confused – I didn’t really care that my social security number wasn’t on file, nor did I really know what it meant to have the number on file or not, so I assured her that this really was my social security number and always had been.
- With a failure to get anywhere based on social security number, I told her that there was a court case number on the legal documents I had received and read that to her. Doing so apparently opened up some magic on her end, and she then asked me to repeat my name. After more confusion she suggested that “this might be a case of mistaken identity” and that she would note this in the file. Since I had no access to the file, but I did have a massive pile of documents letting me know that I would be found guilty and be forced to pay monthly child support if I didn’t appear in court, I asked what this meant. She said that it meant someone would look at the file.
- After I noted that the legal papers stated that I had thirty days to resolve the situation, she assured me that someone would be in touch soon; it was fairly clear that there was no more that she was going to do. I ended the call by asking if there was a way to call directly without having to navigate the convoluted automated menus; she assured me that there was not.
- Twenty-five days later I hadn’t heard from anyone, so I called again, spent five minutes navigating the horrible phone system, and finally got to talk to a real person. She asked me for my support number (which I still didn’t have). I politely let her know that when I had called before I was told this was a case of mistaken identity and that I had a court case number that she could use; she then put me on hold and hung up.
- Five minutes, no support number, and a different person later, and I started off by saying that I didn’t have a support number but that LA County was suing me, and gave her the court case number. She told me that the file was flagged for review and asked if there was anything else she could help with. I let her know that the legal papers I had been given indicated that I had thirty days to resolve the situation, and that the thirty days was nearly up; she let me know that the file was flagged for review, there was nothing more that anyone could do, and that “sometimes they don’t begin court action at exactly thirty days”. I was not reassured.
- A week later I got a call from an unrecognized number, which resulted in a voicemail letting me know that my case was being reviewed and that I should call them back. I called back immediately, and the phone then rang for two minutes with neither a human nor voicemail picking up.
- Two hours later I received another call from an unrecognized number and I picked up immediately. The guy on the line indicated that I was being given three days to resolve the situation, cited the court case number, and then asked me for every bit of personal information I have – social security number, mother’s maiden name, driver’s license number, etc. Immediately after getting off the call I checked all of my bank accounts and credit cards, just in case I was the victim of an elaborate con.
- Shockingly, four days later a two-sentence letter arrived stating that the case in question appeared to be a case of mistaken identity, and ominously that I should keep a copy of the letter should it be needed as proof in future cases.
While this case was resolved, it could have easily gone much, much worse – an immensely powerful bureaucratic apparatus was randomly pointed at me, and I had basically no means available to do anything about it. I heard a much more extreme example of this on the radio the other day where a woman was sent to jail for seventeen years for a crime she didn’t commit, and even after being exonerated she remained in jail for an additional four and a half months while paperwork made its way through the system. Luckily I didn’t face anything even remotely comparable, but both stories illustrate how this powerful and impersonal behemoth can so easily go horribly wrong.
One final caveat: government does many things, and it does a surprising number of them very well – millions of people get their social security checks on time, the national parks are fairly well run, elections almost always go off smoothly, and the FAA directs thousands of planes from point A to point B each day without incident. However, given the nearly limitless ability of the bureaucracy to disrupt our lives, and the fact that often no individual piece of it really seems to care about much else besides passing you on to someone else, it is very easy to understand why so many of us wish the whole apparatus was stripped down to bare bones. I have spent long periods of time going from desk to desk at City Hall to obtain a “business license” so that I could work from home. We’ve all stood in line for hours at the DMV just to be told that some form was filled out wrong. And the theater of the TSA at airports, where one can’t even wear shoes anymore, is enough to make you want to scream out at the idiocy of it all. One can only hope that some day we’ll figure out how to run things better, or at least figure out a way to allow people to call LA County child services without first spending five mind-numbing minutes navigating an automated phone tree only to eventually be sent to an agent who is incredulous at the idea of anyone calling them without being able to provide a support number.