Now, let's talk about someone who is seriously funny most of the time, Peter Gilliam of Monty Python fame. He can make almost anything seem funny. Almost, but not quite when he tried to make bureaucracy seem funny in Brazil, a 1985 film about a retro futuristic technocrat who becomes a public enemy while attempting to correct a bureaucratic mistake. (You were wondering how I was going to connect this to the subject of “Brazil”, weren't you? Don't worry, I wander off in the next paragraph.)
What could possibly be funny about bureaucracy? Nothing. That's probably why the film bombed – less than $10 million earned on a film that cost $15 million to make. I know. I once was a bureaucrat. I worked for the Social Security Administration as a Post Entitlement Adjudicator – you have to love that job title – while attending law school at night. I was sucked into civil service by John Kennedy's inspiring “Ask not...” speech. What could I do for my country? Little, actually, while working as a civil servant.
I worked at the Baltimore Payment Center on the sprawling Social Security campus at Woodlawn, Maryland. Sprawling? Teeming might be a better word. More than seventeen thousand bureaucrats worked at that one facility at that time. My job encompassed changes in disability benefit payments after the initial award had been made.
During my tenure at this post the Administration made the change from manual to automated processing of disability benefit checks. The project went south quickly and after six months, many of the disability beneficiaries and their families stopped receiving their monthly stipends because of a failure to encode benefit changes in a manner that the computer understood. Sometime during the third month of this circus I had the temerity to suggest that we get together with the computer programmers to discuss what was going wrong and how we might correct the problem. Unfortunately, bureaucrats are more concerned with doing things according to fixed regulations rather than accomplishing anything. If there is an error in a regulation, the bureaucrats must wait until Congress fixes it, and we all know how efficient that process is. Thus, this problem persisted until I escaped to the relative sanity of the Army and the war in Vietnam more than six months later. I don't know when they ever got it fixed.
I am reminded of this experience every time I listen to my more socially conscious friends advocating another government entitlement program or to expand an existing one, all efforts to make it more intrusive into our lives. I am sorry that life has fashioned me into such a curmudgeon that I rail against every attempt to grow our government. Every visit to the U.S. Debt Clock makes me even more curmudgeony.
Incidentally, Peter Gilliam's film had no more to do with Brazil than does this posting. The hero of the story, Sam, hums the song Brazil by Geoff Muldaur, at the end of the film as he is being diagnosed catatonic. I can relate. I almost became catatonic – an alcoholic at the very least – working as a bureaucrat.