It’s forgivable that Ben Franklin didn’t include governmental bureaucracies with death and taxes as being the only certainties of life. After all, he died 143 years before that other Franklin – Roosevelt – laid the groundwork for the America’s administrative state.

This revelation came to me in early October, five days after my wife passed away, when a letter from the Social Security Administration notified me I was entitled to $255 in spousal survivor death benefits. The funeral home had reported the death a day after it happened, so I was surprised by how quickly the SSA sprang into action.

The letter told me to call a toll-free number about the benefit claim, which I promptly did. After going through an irritating introductory robo spiel (“What are you calling about?” etc.), the cheerful electronic voice promised to connect me to the right person. Instead, I got a recording telling me I had an estimated wait time of 45 minutes before I could talk to a human being.

I called twice more at different times over the next two days and got the same results. Then I realized how lucky I had been to get that far when the recording said, “All our lines are busy. Please try again later,” on my fourth call.

After several more fruitless phone calls during the following week, I checked the Social Security website for a solution. As I anticipated, there was no way to file a death benefit claim online, but it did mention that I could call my local SSA office instead of Washington.

I punched in a number, told the operator what I needed and was transferred to a phone that was picked up by a person. “Aha!” I thought. “I’m finally getting this done” No such luck.

The representative I spoke with offered his sincere condolences and took down my basic information. He then told me he was only a middle man – to actually file my claim, I still would have to talk to someone in Washington, but he could schedule a time for someone to call me. After doing some checking, he told me the earliest time I could receive a call would be mid-November, nearly six weeks away. I immediately agreed and wrote down the info on my calendar.

Before I hung up, I told the rep my wife and I had needed only short and simple phone calls to sign up for Social Security, so I couldn’t understand why there was such a convoluted process to collect a measly $255. He commiserated with me and said the rigmarole baffled him, too. “I’ve been here for 25 years and have never understood why it isn’t easier to get the death benefit,” he said.

Such are the ways of Rooseveltian bureaucracies.

When I finally received the phone call last Friday, it lasted about 10 minutes and was completely pointless. Instead of asking questions, the rep had me confirm information he obviously had in front of him. The only real question he asked was the city of my birth. When I gave the correct answer, I apparently proved I was not a lowlife trying to cheat Uncle Sam out of a small fortune.

A little background about the spousal death benefit is in order. It was included in the original Social Security Act of 1935, presumably to help grieving wives and husbands pay for their spouses’ burial expenses. The law capped the benefit at 3.5% of a person’s covered earnings, which would have been a maximum of about $315 when the law was adopted. Possibly nobody ever received such a large sum; in 1939, the average payment was $97 (roughly $1,709 in inflated-adjusted dollars).

Congress capped the lump-sum death benefit at $255 in 1954 ($2,388 today), and the limit was retained the last time the provision was overhauled in 1981 ($723 today).

In one respect, I’m glad the size of the benefit hasn’t changed in 63 years – it’s extremely rare when Congress puts on a display of frugality. On the other hand, I feel compassion for the poverty-stricken families who receive such a pittance when they have to bury a loved one. I know people who have spent more than $255 on a pet burial.

But despite the show of thriftiness, the Social Security death benefit – as it’s now constituted – wastes millions of taxpayers’ dollars a year.

It’s not the payouts that are wasteful, it’s the process. How many thousands of SSA employees spend millions of hours every year to take care of phone calls like mine? These are jobs that easily could be replaced by a web page (which probably would be more efficient, too).

Not only would streamlining the system save money, but it also would spare surviving spouses extra grief in their time of mourning.

All was well the day of my daughter’s surgery.  Despite waiting an additional two hours because of a higher priority case, the surgeon came out around 4 pm to tell me everything was finished and looked great.  He said someone would arrive in about 15 minutes to take me to my daughter’s recovery room.

Unfortunately, that person never came.  I sat in Yale’s Pediatric Surgery waiting room for another hour, and when the lights went dark, I realized I had been forgotten.  An hour after that, after speaking with various Yale officials and frantically scouring the hospital, I finally found my daughter on the 7th floor in recovery.  Right about that time, I received a Yale text message asking me for my opinion of today’s service.

After dashing off my response, I figured that was it.  Yale is a massive hospital, just the sort of place where little people like myself get ignored.  To my surprise, two days later a young man called me and wanted details.  We spent almost an hour going over what was great and finding where the breakdowns were.  By the time we were done, he told me the two very specifics things that Yale would work on to make sure that breakdown never happened again.  A few months later, when my daughter returned for surgery, I observed first-hand a smoother post-surgery process.

Thinking about it as I’m typing still makes me smile.  Yale took my feedback and acted on it, making their process better.  They took a negative interaction and ultimately made it a positive.  They didn’t pay me compensation, apologize profusely, or give me candy to make the problem go away.  Instead, they acted on the problem, solved it, and continued to provide great medical care.

I’m also part of the military’s medical system, and the difference is stark.  When a doctor at Eisenhower Army Medical Center messed up my wife’s surgery, instead of working to fix the problem, he told her to essentially shut up.  I was at work and got a sobbing phone call, which I acted on.  Our command’s medical team met her at the hospital to address the issue.  She filed an ICE complaint, and our patient advocate met with the hospital to try and resolve the issue.

And in the end, none of it mattered.  The doctor was never disciplined.  The hospital never corrected anything, nor allowed her to go out in town to see a civilian doctor.  Despite all the documentation, nothing was ever done.

This isn’t a one-off.  I’ve had movers break and steal items.  I’ve had an investigator negligently list false information on my security background check.  I’ve had big issues with the Navy’s handling of special needs children.  I’ve discovered yeomen throwing away submitted awards for my Sailors (if you ever wondered how a Medal of Honor could get “lost,” now you know).  And in almost all cases, despite filing complaints, documenting the issues and saving emails, nothing happens.  Nobody gets fired.  Nobody gets disciplined, especially DoD civilians.  I’ve had some great advocates get me compensation in some cases, but the process rarely gets fixed, meaning the Sailors after me probably got screwed too.  Worse, I’m often told that my claims are baseless and I should watch what I say.

Too many people think the military is some sort of wonderful organization that can get stuff done.  Maybe that’s why people are calling (foolishly) for a military coup.  News flash: there is a lot of inefficiency that you don’t see and don’t want.  All too often, uncaring people are allowed to make life miserable for the young men and women in uniform, with no repercussion.

Plenty of people freaked out when Congress approved rules that could zero-out a civil servants pay.  Are you surprised though?  There is plenty of frustration when organizations like the VA still aren’t cleaned up.  And I have to give Congress credit, because when nobody would fix a situation where almost 200 Air Medals for my Sailors “disappeared” (thrown in the trash), a letter to my Congresswoman actually got results.

For those of us who have been constantly screwed by the system, we’re a lot more hopeful that this might bring about real change.  Maybe as we’re improving the military we can truly make our bureaucracy great again.


This post does not represent the views of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other federal agency.  It only represents the views of the author.  But that should have been obvious from the start. 

Have you donated to DaTechGuy yet? You should!  Instead of buying that latte from Starbucks, drop him 5 dollars.  I guarantee he’ll put it to better use.

You can check out the author’s blog here.

For this post, I collected a whole lotta links on Education Expert Stupidity.  At the start, I was all geared up for apoplexy.  I’m talking outrage of the eye-twitching, blood vessel-bursting kind.

Writing is a journey, however, and the destination is often a surprise.  Certainly, idiocy is in no short supply.  But at the end of my research, the expected outrage is strangely absent.

Perhaps my own experiences, first as a student and then a parent, have already inured me to the shock.  As far back as I can remember, public education has stunk.  Why, I remember way back in nineteen-diggity-four, how my charming middle school social studies teacher defined political ideology for us young bowls of mush:

“Liberal – generous

Conservative – stingy”

Yep.  And she didn’t even have that handy-dandy Common Core standard to rely on.  She didn’t need it, because our public school curricula were already drained of actual content.  Just pop open your child’s social studies textbook, like this one, and you’ll see what I mean.

Common Core is bad stuff, but it’s not ruining education.  It’s just standardizing and accelerating the ongoing ruination.

The biggest change is in our sense of smell.  Our olfactory nerves have been activated, and we are finally noticing the stench.  And do you know what?  We have the Gun Control and Common Core crowds to thank for that.

So let me be the first to officially say, “thank you!” Thank you, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, for trying to defend your curricula by insulting the soccer moms that get Democrats elected.

Thank you, low-level bureaucrats, for continuing to act like bullies in the age of the iphone and citizen journalism.

Thank you, unicorn-riding totalitarians, for showing us how far you are willing to go in order to kick that stubborn gun culture into submission.

We frogs had been quietly simmering in our baths, but not so much anymore.  We are kind of done with you people.

Here are some more reasons why we are done:

Category One:  Public School Curricula a.k.a. The Dog’s Dinner

  1. Creepy Uncle Sam wants you to know that the government is just like one big happy family!
  2. Don’t tell your parents about this assignment because it is guaranteed to anger at least half of them!
  3. A new 4th grade primer explains why only racists wouldn’t vote for Barry.
  4. This 8th grade definition of conservatism makes less sense than “stingy.”
  5. IKEA furniture assembly instructions are easier than Common Core math.
  6. Seriously.
  7. The book 1984 is too enlightening, and not nearly disturbing enough for our young impressionables.
  8. Stuffy parents have a problem with reading assignments that include the F bomb.
  9. Also pornographic material.  Parents just don’t like it.
  10. Constitution, schmonstitution!
  11. With the child already indoctrinated in 4th grade to throw out the Constitution for his safety, he should be ready for this assignment in 6th grade.
  12. When you know that the left loves deconstructionism, it makes perfect sense to discuss the Gettysburg Address without mentioning the Civil War.
  13. This article is pro-Common Core, but notice how understanding and restating a story’s plot is out-of-fashion.  In fashion:  making up an email from a character’s point of view!  This nonsense is hailed as “critical thinking,” but it is actually another fine example of deconstruction because the reader’s interpretation and creativity is more important than the author’s meaning and intent.

Category Two:  Tyrants R Us

  1. First off, many anti-gun links are above.  They are myriad, but Mr. Mitchell collected many of them in this post.  From key chains to NRA t-shirts to toys to breakfast pastries, educators are coming after them like a Terminator hunting Sarah Connor.
  2. This anti-gun incident deserves its very own spot:  you have a concealed-carry permit, Mom?  You are banned!
  3. Who can forget the infamous lunch that Wasn’t Good Enough?
  4. What happens when the paperwork is more important than people.
  5. What happens when caloric math is more important than people.
  6. You can’t have your kid.
  7. You can’t either.
  8. No kid for you!
  9. Also, stop visiting the school so much, parents.  You are not wanted.
  10. Just drop the kids off in a timely manner, so we won’t have to fine you.
  11. And make sure all their absences are approved, so we won’t have to jail you.

No doubt, this represents only the tip of the iceberg.  Kind readers, please add your own links or personal stories of Education Expert Stupidity to my humble list.  And have a great week!

…had an article (via Glenn) that is a scathing critique of the City and how it is run, two things jumped out at me, neither of which were a surprise:

#1 The Rush was Right moment.

If you actually Listen to Limbaugh show, you will note that for years he’s said that liberals are all about intentions and not about actual results. It doesn’t matter what you actually DO as long as you believe the right thing and mean well. From the article:

In 2007, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) held a seminar for the nonprofits vying for a piece of $78 million in funding. Grant seekers were told that in the next funding cycle, they would be required — for the first time — to provide quantifiable proof their programs were accomplishing something.

The room exploded with outrage. This wasn’t fair. “What if we can bring in a family we’ve helped?” one nonprofit asked. Another offered: “We can tell you stories about the good work we do!” Not every organization is capable of demonstrating results, a nonprofit CEO complained. He suggested the city’s funding process should actually penalize nonprofits able to measure results, so as to put everyone on an even footing. Heads nodded: This was a popular idea. emphasis mine

How dare you prove that you are actually accomplishing something, or providing measurable peer reviewed results! What do you think, we have the entire Climate change industry to help manage data?

#2 Yomi Agunbiade.

The story of Yomi Agunbiade is the story of a man whose incredible fiscal and organizational incompetence was not enough to remove him, but the following was:

Rec and Park spokeswoman Rose Dennis claimed that Agunbiade had been sexually and religiously harassing her for years, and produced letters he’d sent to her home as evidence. She confirmed to SF Weekly that Agunbiade’s letters urged her to stop wearing revealing clothes so that she could get right with Jesus.

Don’t get me wrong, this guy belonged out. If the fiscal stuff wasn’t enough he has no business pressuring a subordinate on religion, but the irony is delicious. What type of harassment can actually get someone fired in SF? Not sleeping with an employee (like the Mayor) but urging them to dress modestly. That’s crossing the sexual line! If only he had promoted fisting to youngsters, he could have gotten a federal job and Media Matters could have backed him up.

Considering the reputation and demographics of the City, what were the odds that the poster child for bad bureaucracy in a San Francisco Paper would be a zealous Christian? Then again you have to sell the papers IN San Francisco.

The really sad thing about this is the taxpayers really mean well. They want to do good but they are betrayed by their own principles.