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Whenever I try to solve a political or economic problem, I find that government usually provide a good solution. But many times, as a practical matter, I find that a governmental solution leads to a bureaucratic mess. Which is unfortunate. In fact, many times when I deal with private enterprise (insurance companies, hospitals, large corporations of all kinds) I run into bureaucracy. Bureaucracy must be a human failing. We need to find a solution for it.

Government Bureaucracy

I'm for Government, Not Bureaucracy—Michael Hertz

My latest run-in with bureaucracy has been with the U.S. State Department and its Passport Office. I should say, first off, that I have held a U.S. Passport since I was about 17 years old. I cannot remember when I didn't have one. So basically when I needed to renew my passport in I just sent the old one in. No problem.

Not so this time. This is because about five years ago I accidentally washed my passport along with my trousers. The passport came out – umm – wrinkled.

There are thousands of rules and rulings that make life difficult for our citizens, and there should be a place where the citizens can go and get informal assistance in dealing with such problems.

My passport expires in about five months. I looked up the requirements for getting a new passport. The regulations stated that if the passport were lost, stolen, mutilated or damaged, then I could not automatically renew it, but must start the entire application process over, which means that I have to get my certified proof of birth.

I went down to the post office, and the staff there confirmed that my passport was indeed damaged, and therefore I needed to get my certified proof of birth (I have a birth certificate, but it is so old that it is basically illegible. I never needed a birth certificate before because I always had a passport!)

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Furthermore, the post office staff told me, my current passport could no longer be used for international travel because it was less than six months from expiration (the passport itself says nothing of the kind. You just cannot travel by plane outside the U.S. with a passport that is less than 6 months from expiration). This has created another problem for me, because my mother (age 97) lives in Mexico, and I might need to visit her at a moment's notice.

Both of these are bureaucratic rules. The six month rule is particularly bad because it means that your ten year passport is really only a 9.5 year passport and no one warns you about that. The damaged passport rule makes no sense at all.

Just remember, I've had a passport for over 50 years. The passport office has willingly renewed my passport by giving me a new one every ten years or so. But now because my latest passport has suffered water damage, I have to get a birth certificate. Does that make any sense? Why does water damage to a passport make a birth certificate necessary? The passport is perfectly legible, and border guards over the last five years have allowed me to use it without even raising an eyebrow. If there were something wrong with it, shouldn't they at least have said something?

Rules like these should, at a minimum, be written into the passport. The only thing contained in the passport is this: “Alteration or mutilation of passport. This passport must not be altered or mutilated in any way. Alteration may make it INVALID and, if wilful, may subject you to prosecution (Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 1543). Only authorized officials of the United States or of foreign countries, in connection official matters, may place stamps or make statements, notations or additions to this passport.” Clearly, this language seems directed at intentional changes to the passport, not something happening in a washing machine. But even if unintentional changes are meant to be covered, there is a big difference between mutilation and mere wrinkling from water. Furthermore, where no one who has officially inspected it has even suggested that the passport is invalid, why should it suddenly be rendered invalid for renewal at the last moment?

Bureaucracy marches on. Is there a solution to it?

There is. We should have an ombudsman with substantial power to cut through red tape like this. There are thousands of rules and rulings that make life difficult for our citizens, and there should be a place where the citizens can go and get informal assistance in dealing with such problems. The government should be friendly to its citizens, not blocking to their welfare and happiness.


Michael T. Hertz