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2007-10-30 - 7:57 p.m.

...bureaucracy - theory and field experiments....

I’ve decided that life – in particular academic life – can be though of as just one big long field study in bureaucratic and administrative systems. In effect, you could consider me an applied scientist with extensive field experience of bureaucratic systems in the US, Sweden, Germany, Barbados, and Canada.

You might say that I specialize in academic bureaucracies, but I also have applied experience in taxation, border, immigration, and certain government agencies. K and I discuss this topic quite frequently. His applied experience covers Switzerland, USA, and Canada, but I find his approach and philosophy to bureaucracy tends to be much more ‘top-down’ – or rather, he’s started from a more theoretical stand-point. He’s looked at the bureaucratic MAP before trying to find his way from point A to point B. My experiences have been much more of an ‘in-the-trenches’ kind of bureaucratic warfare, I think.

Well, maybe not exactly. But as I’ve said, he and I discuss this topic quite frequently. We discuss how bureaucracies develop, how they evolve, how they advance effectively, and at which points they strangle themselves. K recently reminded me that historically, the concept of Prussian bureaucracy was developed to de-emphasize the privilege of nobility. In other words, the point was to make it so that all people were given equal treatment – with the same bureaucratic rules applied to every person regardless of their societal situation. Interestingly, the goal was to humanize a class-stratified system. But as bureaucracy has grown and become tightly entangled with rules and counter-rules, frequently the rules have done the opposite – they have acted to de-humanize the system in such a way that you can be completely LOST if you fall outside the rules, and can find yourself PLEADING with a bureaucrat to take a special look at your case and to act outside the letter of the law. To humanize the process, in other words.

I experienced this de-humanization while dealing with the Russian consulate and immigration back in 2000. I went through the arduous process of getting a visa to go to Russia. And I remember my then-(Russian)-partner asking me after I finally made it through – “And, did you notice how the border guard gives you the ‘look of a shark?’ These people are not humans.” An interesting comment on communist bureaucracy.

K and I discuss the cultural and philosophical approaches to bureaucracy, and how they differ between nations. In his experience, Germans create a rule for everything – they think of every contingency – every thing that COULD go wrong, and create a rule for it. And if, by chance, you happen to fall outside the rules your choice is to die. Well, no, actually, that’s a joke. If you happen to fall outside the rules, then the situation can become deeply problematic and confusing (I can share a little story about an improperly labeled rubbish bin - and how it got my German visa canceled - as an example). But the approach of a German bureaucrat is NOT to help you to solve your problem and accomplish your goal. The approach is not to help you find a way around the rules. The job of the German bureaucrat is to INFORM you of the rules and to tell you what you CANNOT DO.

American bureaucracy seems to be quite different, as there are NOT rules for everything. Thus, this tends to create lots of power for the bureaucrat. This can work in both ways –on the positive side of things, this allows for the development of a bureaucrat who is curious to find a way to help you solve your problem. These are (to me) the best bureaucrats to know by name, and if you know one, you should immediately go out and buy him/her flowers, dinner, and perhaps also a new car. You want this person on your good side. (Although, if we think about this philosophically, you can see that we’ve then just moved ourselves back to a society of privilege – bureaucrats who will help you if, for some reason, they LIKE you – thereby defeating the entire purpose of creating a bureaucracy in the first place…)

In contrast, flexibility and vagueness in bureaucrat rules can result in the development of power-hungry monsters (just think of the last time you tried to cross the US border). Because in essence, it leaves the person at the front line in a position of making a judgment call – it gives them the capability to make up the rules as they go along. Now I don’t believe that this is entirely true in every case in America - if you’ve ever called and dealt with the customer service telephone operators for a big American corporation, you’ve seen the truly powerless front line of service. In fact, K and I have reached the point where we call up and just say, “there really is no chance that you are going to be able to answer my question, so could you please just transfer me to your manager.” And more than half the time, usually with a little bit of coaxing, they do.

But it is rather interesting to assemble case studies of your experiences with bureaucrats. My experience with the bureaucracy of academic Canada has been, well, truly appalling. My experiences with the bureaucracy of Canadian immigration have been par for the course – which isn’t too flattering (they lost as much paperwork as the US did even though they deal with an order of magnitude fewer immigrants than the US does). In contrast, my experience with Canadian border patrol has been about 90% positive, and about 95% friendly (with a rather notable observation that Canadian bureaucrats excel at being friendly even when they fall into the remarkably inefficient and ineffective category, in stark contrast to US, Swedish, and German bureaucrats who can be extremely efficient and at the same time startlingly rude).

These are just a few odds and ends to sum up my personal experiences with bureaucracy. Interestingly, this past weekend, K and I had a truly astounding experience of being treated well by BOTH Canadian and US border bureaucrats. And trust me, he and I are getting REALLY good at coming up with new, fascinating and innovative tests for these guys.

This test involved getting our car imported to Canada. So what does this process normally involve?

1. Get visa for Canada.
2. Move to Canada
3. Export car from USA, which involves sending (a) copy of bill of sale (b) copy of original title, and (c) paperwork describing month, year, make of car, and vehicle identification number, (d) proof that the vehicle has not been stolen. This documentation must be sent to your anticipated port of exit, more than 72 hours and less than one week before you plan to exit the USA.
4. You must have proof that the car has been IN the USA for at least three days prior to your anticipated exit.
5. You must present original documents at the border between 9:30-3:30pm, Monday through Friday, and have the original title stamped “EXPORTED” This means that the title is basically no good anymore.
6. Proceed to Canadian border and pay a fee, and fill out Form 1.
7. UNLESS you are NOT a permanent resident, in which case you fill out only the TOP part of Form 1 to avoid paying a fee.
8. Now you may register your vehicle in Canada, but you are not allowed to sell or otherwise dispose of this vehicle in any way shape or form.
9. Get Permanent Residence.
10. Show up with proof that you have EXPORTED the vehicle from the USA.

Okay – here’s where we reach the problem. Because somehow between steps 1 and 10, we lost the title. I don’t think K has ever lost anything before in his life. But he is so completely lackadaisical and uninterested in automobiles that this title has done a Jimmy Hoffa on us. I’ve watched him. He’s searched for a WEEK for this thing, but it’s not going to reappear.

So we went to the border to see if we could finagle a way to get our car into the country without the title. Are your hopes high about this one actually working? Just curious.

So we showed up at the US border. First shocking moment: everyone – I mean EVERYONE – was NICE to us. We walked in the door and the border guy behind the counter looked at my huge box of paperwork and asked me if I had donuts in there. Because if I did, they’d get me a place at the head of the line. It went on from there. They were friendly and courteous to K – a new one on us – and had him processed in less than ten minutes.

So we went to the front of the line and asked the guy behind the counter if they kept any records of exported cars from August, 2006. Nope. No records. Once a car is exported, it’s gone from the system. This particular port of exit deals with 600 applications per day – no way to keep such a paper trail.

But at this point, a manager-type guy came out from behind the counter and told us – if we could get another copy of the title from New York – and then if we emailed him to let him know we were coming back to the border – then he would allow us to forego the whole export process for a second time. And just give us a STAMP. Somewhere in the middle of that whole scavenger hunt list of tasks he said, “we can’t stamp a copy of a title, but you’ve clearly gone through this process in good faith, and we’ll work with you if we can.”

??? this is what I call a good bureaucrat. We’ll work with you!!!

So we left with our personal thoughts about how to proceed. My being American, I thought – No Problem. There will be a simple procedure outlined on the DMV webpage – we’ll get a new title and just go forward. K, the good German, thought, SHIT. Now what kind of long drawn out procedure is this going to involve in terms of paperwork, proof, doing it in person, and fees??? Interesting. But we both came away from the border feeling like these guys had listened to us, they had been polite, they had been respectful. This is the way I USED to think of the US border before going back and forth with K. And wow, what a difference respect makes in how you feel about entering a country. It actually made me want to visit again – something I haven’t felt in a while.

So – two days later – we came BACK across the Canadian border. We presented an EVEN MORE complex problem to the Canadian customs dudes. We want to import our car. We don’t have a title. The US doesn’t keep records of exported cars and can’t help us. But we had to have had a title in order to get the car registered with BC Insurance, so a government agency has indirectly verified that we have the car. We left our copy of the last form 1 at home. In fact we left all relevant paperwork at home. But really, is there anything we can do to get this car properly imported to Canada??

Pause from Officer Number 11467….Sure. fill out this form using the number from your customs form that you filled out when you became a permanent resident.

Pause from us. Umm.. We also left THAT form at home (we said, feeling pretty much downright foolish at this point – and to be honest, I was kind of pissed off at K, although I was pissed off in one of those I-know-that-this-is-irrational-because-anyone-could –make-this-kind-of-mistake –and-really-he’s-been-doing-all-the-work-on-this-one -and-I really-should-just-let-it-go –but-for-some-reason-I’m –just-mad-and-so-I’m-just-gonna-be-mad kind of way. And I tried to keep that whole thought pattern off the radar because I didn’t really think it was going to HELP our case..)

Oh. Says Officer Number 11467. Well. When did you “land?” (because you don’t immigrate to Canada. You “Land.”). We gave him the exact date from two weeks before.

So he got on the phone, called the guy at the OTHER border crossing, told him the date and the name – they looked up the form, got the numbers they needed and proceeded to finish filling out the bottom half of Form 1.

HURRAH! Can you believe it??

So – this is our SECOND experience with a listening and thinking bureaucrat this weekend. Is that amazing??? Is that WEIRD?? Were we somehow lost in some weird vortex of the space-time continuum, or WHAT??

And so now our mission – next bureaucratic scavenger hunt – is to go through the steps outlined on the next paperwork so that we can proceed to FORM 2. Which K (remember the guy I was irrationally angry at? ) has ALREADY done. It is possible, my friends, that we will ultimately be able to get rid of our vehicle – in Canada – during this lifetime.

So that – my friends – was a long and rambling tale of bureaucracy. A fairy tale no less, because it ends happily, with us driving off together into the sunset. (well, actually into Vancouver rain – but there’s no need to get picky about details.)

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