Saturday, April 09, 2011

No Lifers

Watching the Ivory Coast tear itself apart because a long-time president refuses to accept defeat in a UN-certified election, reinforces all the more my conviction that all public officials are should be regarded as dispensable. Leaders claiming their indispensability to the nation (substitute or add: national security/economy/Party/Revolution) are invariably dangerous because they ultimately substitute the their own interest for the broader popular will. That they may begin as popularly elected leaders makes them no less dangerous. After years in office, they will conflate their own interests with the public interest, often at some detriment to the latter. Their combination of self/party with state authority and institutions can sustain their control.

Sometimes for a great while. Stalin dominated the Soviet Union in life for 26 years and almost four decades after his death. The Castros are only ten years shy of Stalin's mark and the military dictatorship in ruled Burma is not far behind them. Our Man in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, had 30 years and even now his party and institutions are largely intact. The recalcitrant Ivorian president has only been in for 10 years. Hugo Chavez has been in office maybe 15, well beyond the constitutional limit that he circumvented. None of these extended autocracies are good for their nations. Sooner or later extended incumbency isolates a leader from the daily reality of the nation. That's never good.

The best advice on political change I've seen was a letter to the Arizona Republic from Edward Abbey about the 1982 Arizona governor's race, a three-way contest which he described as a "choice between Tweedledum, Tweedledee and Tweedledo. In such cases I always vote against the incumbent. Keep the rascals rotating. The only thing worse than an incumbent is an entrenched incumbent."(*)

Especially executive incumbents. Legislative incumbents may be equally removed from reality but they are far less dangerous. The Framers of the Constitution knew this. That is why the Constitution vests all real authority in the legislative branch.

(*) I won't claim this to be the word-for-word quote but it's close enough to cite. The 1982 election was my first in Arizona--I moved there in the spring of the year. Abbey's letter was fiendishly accurate and is well remembered from that time.


Sunday, April 03, 2011

Adventures in Electronic Bureaucracy

After volunteering as a veterans' advocate for almost nine months, I have four claims in process and still much to learn. I'm pretty sure that I know how to fill out forms and file appeals. What baffles me yet is how to find out what happens to that paperwork once it's delivered to the Veterans Affairs regional office.

When I filed my first FOIA records request, I received a form letter acknowledgment which informed me that meeting my request would take additional time (three months to be exact; the file is four inches thick). I've made three additional FOIA requests and filed an appeal of a disability decision since then with no acknowledgment from the regional office.

Friday morning just after 9:00 am, I called VA's 1-800 claims information number to see what information I could obtain. I was about to head for Coffee Strong for a volunteer shift. I thought it would be good to have current information if any of the veterans whose claims I've filed came in to ask.

Of course, my call went to an automated menu. The first option was for a veteran checking the status of a claim. That wasn't me. I listened carefully to the remaining options but never heard an option that sounded like access for a third party. I pressed "0" to see if I could contact an operator. Not an option, I was told.

So I went back to option one to see where that would take me. All of the sub menu options were for veterans seeking claims information but the system did offer an option to speak to a representative. I chose that option which took me to a recorded message telling me that VA "cannot answer your call at this time. Please call back later." Dead end.

When I came home after my shift, lo and behold, was an envelope from the VA Regional office. I opened it and found VA's acknowledgment of my appointment as a claimant representative for a veteran. The letter directed me to for general information on benefits and to contact VA. That took me to an external redirect page which took me to the VA Inquiry Routing & Information System support page. A link there for checking claim status took me to the 800 number where I started earlier in the day. I already knew where that would end.

The page offered the alternative of using the Contact Us link to ask a question. That took me back to the IRIS support page, which is when I began this post. In the process of writing about the run around, I found a somewhat more prominent ask a question link on the support page that actually led to a question form. I filled it out, which in some cases required selecting options from drop-down menus that were not exactly descriptive of my inquiry. The form did allow me to ask my question as a claimant representative, though. Upon submitting my question, I was promised an answer in five days and, indeed, I have already received an email to that effect.

The process is somewhat frustrating but I have going on 40 years experience dealing with bureaucracies and administrative procedures. It's nothing new. If I were a veteran with PTSD and traumatic brain injury or a family member, I might find all this more than somewhat frustrating.