Adventures in Bureaucracy
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Uh oh. It turns out that when, in this post, I said that nobody ever wrote a musical about the Foreign Service, that was not, in the technical sense, true. As it happens there was a musical in 1950 called "The Consul", featuring, among other songs, "In Endless Waiting Rooms" and "All The Documents Must Be Signed". It doesn't sound exactly light-hearted (as no doubt was "The Yankee Consul" in 1904), so it may not be the ringing endorsement of la vie diplomatique.

Maybe this could be made into an essay question on this year's Foreign Service exam. After all, assignments are shifting into Bollywood territory, and it would pretty cool if the visa line in Mumbai burst into spontaneous choreographed song-and-dance numbers on special occasions.
Sunday, January 29, 2006
Just one more: Nihilist in Golf Pant posts an index of its song parodies. Now if they could string them together with some sort of plot...
And since I'm beating this musical theme completely into the ground, let me go on record as saying this does not strike me as a good idea: a musical version of "Lord of the Rings".
You know, if things go pear-shaped with federal employment, I could always make Broadway my second career. Look at this review of Elton John's latest: laborious, vague and bloated (presumably the musical "Lestat" and not Sir Elton himself).

Laborious, vague and bloated. I could totally do that. Just ask anyone who's read any of my memoranda.
I don't think this was ever an option for us, which is good, because no lyrics come to mind.
Consul-at-Arms talks up the foreign service. Sure, it may be an ancient and honorable profession, but has anyone ever written a musical about it? And no, "The King and I" doesn't count.
"(I Am) Nobody's Lunch" sounds like it's got potential. OK, so from reading the review, it sounds like it's every leftist critique of the Bush Administration set to music, but it's got "an eye-opening interview with an unhappy INS employee who was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security after September 11", which alone makes it intriguing. Well, to me, at least, but that's because every INS employee was unhappy, both after DHS and before, but I've never heard a one burst into song about it.

This could be the musical I was born to write! I mean, the thing practically writes itself. It starts off with an immigration inspector on the first day of the job at JFK because (a) all musicals have to take place in New York and (b) all the people who work at JFK have abrasive accents and great stories, and that makes for good theatre. The main character would start off in the personnel office singing "Temporary Job", since nobody actually plans to be an immigration inspector.

Six months I'll do this, a year at the most,
I'm biding my time here, until I can boast
Of a new job, a great job, or maybe grad school.
This won't be forever, it's no career jewel.
It's just temporary, I know I won't stay.
It's just for the paycheck, then I'm on my way!
Then he is escorted into the main hall of the International Arrivals Building in a big tap dance number with hundreds (or at least dozens) performing to "March of the Stamps":

B-2's, six months, Waivers, three.
No time limits if you're USC.
H's and L's to petition date.
You! See the red line? Go and wait!

We'll need some villains, and those would naturally be one, some or perhaps all (opinions vary) of the supervisors, along with maybe some truly evil people in the colorful procession of aliens from many lands. We'll also need a love interest or two, preferably one with some built-in conflict, so maybe one of the airline ground staff, or possibly one of the aliens.

Time passes (to a wistful rendition of "Temporary Job"), and we find our hero several years later still at the airport. The song here is "Going Nowhere Fast", a ballad of the mid-career government employee, and possibly "Six Hours", since once you start getting this much annual leave per pay period, you're probably going to be with the government for the rest of your natural life. Let's make it a medley.

Act One ends with the creation of Homeland Security, and the main character gets a new job - he's going to go to Washington as a policy maker for the new Department. Our hero parts with the love interest, which merges into a happy farewell send-off with the whole JFK cast belting out a rousing song of some sort I'm too lazy to think about at the moment while the hero sings about the wonderful new job he's going to have at Headquarters of the new department and how much better it's going to be.

Act Two opens in Washington, where our hero is sitting in a cube reading his e-mails. Here perhaps he could sing a love ballad to his Blackberry, and another song of some sort about all the ins and outs of federal work:

I've got meetings.
And I think that I shall never work again.
So many meetings
My time is wasted by another jerk again.
Time is passing. Too much gassing.
All the acronyms mean nothing any more.
I keep my face a mask, hope to avoid a task, wishing I had a flask.
Counting the minutes 'til I'm walking out that door!

But he's not the only one working in the new department - the villainous supervisor from JFK has become his new boss. Meanwhile, the old girlfriend from New York gets a new job with some advocacy group in Washington, or maybe with someone in Congress - either one has the potential to screw up his life. There's got to be a happy ending of some sort, which means the evil supervisor comes to a bad yet humorous end (like a transfer to Nigeria), but the jury's still out as to whether that involves the hero climbing the career ladder to become an assistant for an Undersecretary or the hero bailing out of Washington entirely to open a diner in Queens. It could be the ending that lots of other ex-INS people are trying for, where the hero retires, then gets hired back as a consultant making three times his former salary, which is certainly a happy ending by Washington standards.

If I don't post for a while, it's because I'll be busy looking for an agent.
Saturday, January 28, 2006
The Post has a piece on art forgery in Russia. Note that it's mostly 19th century landscapes, so presumably the forgers had to have some artistic talent of their own. I mean, I could probably fake some of the more modern stuff. How tough can be it to put a red circle on a white canvas?
The political lines over the coming show-down with Iran are slowly coming into focus. Here are the first ones I've seen from the isolationist right:

"[W]hy would a non-democratic Iranian ruling class want to "commit hara-kiri" either? If you and your friends and family enjoyed the good fortune of owning a fairly big country like Iran and were looking forward to passing it on to your heirs unto the seventh generation, why would you turn your valuable property into a radioactive crater by "launching a nuclear first strike against Israel," which is a Certified Tough Customer?

Gregory Cochran brings up another relevant question. When was the last time Iran started a war?"

Don't both of these arguments essentially ignore the nature of post-revolutionary Iran? It's true that modern Iran didn't start any full-scale wars (it was, after all, Saddam Hussein who launched the massive blood-letting between Iran and Iraq during the 1980's) and doesn't appear to be too keen on redrawing the borders in the region. Still, its own actions show that it's not exactly content to keep to itself. Supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon? All those rumors of Iranian meddling in Iraq? The Iranian regime may not be interested in acquiring new territories, but it has certainly shown that it wants to expand its influence and export its ideology beyond its own borders.

As for the first argument, it's kind of a reduction of the current reporting of the situation, and that shorthand appears to be that Ahmedinejad is a raving nutter. That may be true of his own ideology, but it doesn't necessarily mean that he's not a rational actor willing to take calculated risks. So let's say he's trying to decide whether to follow through on his threats and wipe Israel off the map. The considerations he faces are whether that act will indeed be "hara-kiri" for him and his regime, or whether the worst threat he faces is a severe frowning-upon from the United Nations after the fact.

First there's Israel itself, which is widely thought to have nuclear weapons of its own. It's also a very small country, while Iran is a very large one. Could Iran survive a retaliatory nuclear barrage from Israel? It might mean a lot of casualties, but then, Iran is the country that went for human wave attacks during the war with Iraq. All that glorification of martyrdom shows that the regime at least may be willing to take a lot of casualties. But even with horrific numbers of his own population killed, would the regime itself be able to stay in power? Having the glory of slaying the bete-noire of the Middle East - along with the Iranian internal security apparatus - might be enough to forestall a popular revolt.

Then there's the "international community". Russia and China probably wouldn't do anything at all, and may quietly support Iran in the United Nations, as they do now. India doesn't really have any bearing, and Pakistan and the Arab world would probably stand up and cheer. Europe's record of constant admonishment towards Israel and its demonstrated lack of stomach for anything stronger than than verbal argument mean that Iran probably wouldn't face any real penalties from most of the E.U. countries - plus there's the issue of Iranian oil, which Europe needs.

So that leaves the United States. How does a more-or-less rational actor calculate whether the United States would pull the nuclear trigger over Israel? On the one hand there's President Bush, who has shown he's not afraid to use the military of the United States, but the other hand holds the vocal opposition to staying in Iraq, which may be enough to constrain the President from any further foreign engagements. Sure, current polls show the American people support military action against Iran now... but didn't they also show similar sentiment for action against Iraq in 2003? It's one thing to talk tough about some vague possible action in the future, but quite another

If I were a betting Iranian, I might think I could get away with it too under current circumstances.
Thursday, January 26, 2006
Up to fourteen million illegal immigrants ... in Russia.
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
Odd that I don't remember this from the Immigration Officer Basic Training course.
Better to curse the darkness than light a candle.
I don't like the sound of this:

"Queenslanders need to sniff bureaucrat corpses".
Monday, January 23, 2006
Paraguay is at the forefront of the fight against tomato smuggling. But it turns out there's a tomato shortage in the United States, thanks to last year's hurricanes in Florida. Luckily that may be at an end, before we see an influx of contraband vegetables (or are they fruits?) flowing in from South America.
Yes, I know it's a joke, but it still sounds better than most of the movies that are actually in the cinema.
Because sometimes a continuing resolution just isn't possible.
Saturday, January 21, 2006
Random comment overheard on the Mall:

"I've been hit in the head with a basketball, a soccer ball, and a football!"
The Post had an on-line discussion on Africa yesterday, and it makes for interesting reading.

"[T]he principal cause of Africa's demise is the failure of its leaders to provide effective government. In one country after another, ruling elites have been preoccupied with holding power for the purpose of self-enrichment, not for the advancement of their own people."

"The greatest hope for Africa is its people. They have shown remarkable resilience and fortitude in the face of decades of misrule and natural disasters. There is nothing wrong with Africa's people, only with their leaders. Given effective leadership, they thrive."

This comes back to the whole issue of migration. Do the immigration policies of the United States and other Western countries take away the very people that African countries need in order to thrive? Or do the overseas Africans develop skills that they can bring back home to help their countries?

In many places, Africans are voting with their feet. Somalis are leaving the country in boatloads for... Yemen? Apparently Yemen is signatory to the refugee convention, so once Somalis reach the country, they can stay. Sixteen Somalis (and four Ethiopians) recently died on one voyage across the sea, although more than twelve hundred others reached Yemeni shores in the preceding week.

Other Africans are also on the move. Up to sixty Zimbabweans may have drowned trying to cross the Limpopo River into South Africa. 541 Burundians were recently denied asylum in Tanzania - nearly 400,000 Burundians are thought to be in Tanzania. Sudanese in Egypt.

Here's a good summary of African immigration to the United States.

Hope for the future can bring people back home. The election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, a sign of the return of the rule of law, has prompted about 100 Liberians in Nigeria to return home. Indeed, it appears that over half the number of Liberians who fled the country have voluntarily repatriated since the peace agreement of 2003, so they've got to have some hope for a stable future.

Hope can be ephemeral, and without concrete progress, migrants will not return. African countries with large populations overseas can have a prickly relationship with those who have left. This piece on the Ethiopian diaspora shows some of the issues. The skills of the overseas Ethiopians are needed, but the overseas Ethiopians aren't likely to leave comfortable lives for uncertainty back at home.

So what's the answer? There's no easy one, unfortunately. The Western world by and large doesn't think much about Africa, and African governments often seem more concerned with staying in power than in building their countries. Many of the so-called "African success stories" twenty years ago have come apart - look at Ivory Coast, which used to be the most stable and prosperous country in West Africa. Or Uganda. And as if civil strife and civil wars weren't bad enough, HIV and AIDS are ravaging the continent to demography-changing results.

Will there ever be an African Singapore or South Korea? South Africa started off with the advantages of resources, infrastructure and a developed economy, but will it maintain democratic government? Botswana and Ghana are pretty stable. Some basket cases, like Mozambique, look like they're making some progress. Open government and some transparency to rule of law are needed, and so is an effort to combat corruption.

Africa needs its people to create and maintain stability, but without stability its people will look elsewhere for improving their own lives. How's that for a Catch-22?
Competitive tiddlywinks. Who knew? I thought that was one of those games driven into oblivion once Atari came around, like jacks, hopscotch and chasing a hoop around with a stick.
Friday, January 20, 2006
Wait a minute, wasn't this a John Hughes film in the eighties?
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
A friendlier greeting at the border? Well, only if you fly into Dulles or Houston. Still, I hadn't realized how big a hit the U.S. tourism industry had taken:

"The institute reported in September that travel volume to the United States from Canada and Mexico fell 20 percent between 2000 and 2004. Non-immigrant visa applications fell 35 percent between 2001 and 2003, international enrollment in U.S. schools for the 2003-04 year dropped for the first time in three decades, and the number of tourists to the United States fell by 10 million people between 2000 and 2003."

Apparently it's on the rebound, but based on anecdotal evidence, the view of "Fortress America" has scared off some people who might otherwise have come. I was on a day tour in some country and met a European couple - he was German, I think, and she was British - and both said they had a distinctly bad impression of U.S. entry procedures. They mentioned the then-new fingerprint requirement for visitors from Visa Waiver countries and vehemently insisted that they would not go to a country that presumed they were criminals when trying to get in. I never tell strangers I work for the government, but I did try to explain where some of this came from. Still, rolling out the red carpet is going to be a difficult job.
I'd be remiss if I neglected this slur on my bureaucratic brethren in India:

Spooked officers are crying off night duty at an Indian police station they say is haunted by ghosts - but their superiors say they are just too lazy to work at night.

I've heard a lot of excuses for not showing up for work in my time, but to the best of my knowledge, none of my colleagues have ever used ghost sightings as a reason for taking off. Granted I have seen some ghouls in my time, but then, you see a lot of lawyers when you work for the government.

One of the fun things about globalization is getting international news on broadcast television - channel 56 to be exact. It's a good way to hear about more stories that aren't covered by the American media (which are apparently too busy with taking "A Closer Look" or some similar thing on some feature that's not really news, but is a way for a reporter to get more face time). My favorite is DW TV's Journal, which has the added bonus of not conflicting with "The Simpsons" at 6:30 and 7:00 on channel 5.

Tonight's edition featured a story about striking doctors in Germany, which doesn't seem to have the same kind of state-run system as Britain or Canada, but it sounds like there's some sort of statutory control over what doctors can get. Another reason for Germans to emigrate to America, I guess (see several posts down). Here they'll get paid much more money... only to find that they have to spend it on exhorbitant malpractice insurance rates. The grass isn't always greener. I believe it was Emily Litella who said, "It's always something".
Interesting article on the southern border. Mexico's southern border, that is.
Since Consul-at-Arms has been kind enough to link to me again, I'll toss him some red meat here with this title:

E-Passports from the Department of Homeland Security

I didn't realize we had started issuing passports too - that's one bit of the bureaucracy we missed gobbling up when the Department was created. Anyway, the e-passports with embedded chips look like the next big thing in passports, but ours are still issued by the Department of State as far as I know. DHS does the inspections at airports (and sea ports and land borders), so what State makes, DHS has to be able to read.

Still, it's this kind of basic error that makes me skeptical of what I read in the papers.
Speaking of Iranians on the doorstep, it looks like the one who appeared in Columbus, New Mexico, wasn't exactly blazing a new trail. One Iranian immigrant in Arizona was arrested last year on charges of assisting other Iranians to get to the United States. The m.o. is kind of interesting: charging up to $12,000 for a fake Mexican visa, then bringing them across the border into Arizona. More details here. According to the press release, the man had successfully brought in about sixty other Iranians.

Looks like a variation on an established theme. A Mexican national from Mexicali was arrested in 2003 on charges of smuggling people across the border into California. So I guess it's just moving further east over time. Next stop, El Paso.
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
This is too much:

As for Oprah ... fame and wealth has lulled her into believing that she possesses something akin to papal infallibility.

That reminded me of one of my favorite sketches ever on Mad TV, with Debra Wilson as Oprah (she was hands down the best Oprah impersonator ever, and her Whitney Houston was even better). And thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can pull up entire script with just a few clicks:

Audience Member 1: (standing) Yes Oprah, with all due respect, I feel maybe cutting coupons or car pooling would be a better way to save money.

Oprah: But, um, surely you think I'm giving good advice.

Audience Member 1: Um, no. (The audience gasps and the camera zooms in to Oprah's eyes as red lights flash around the studio and a siren goes off. Audience members start to leave their seats and hide)

Dr. Phil: (standing) Lord, no one's ever said no to Oprah before.(Dr. Phil runs to hide as Oprah stands up slowly)

Audience Member 2: (hiding in a corner as Dr. Phil appears next to her) Dr. Phil, what's happening?

Dr. Phil: It's the end of the world, and you are in my hiding spot. (he pushes her away and takes her spot)

Audience Member 1: (nervously, as Oprah stares at her) I, I, I don't have a research facility but I see what you mean. And I would, I would cut my staff in half but I live in an apartment.(Oprah is now perched on her chair, shaking her head. She looks up and has turned into a vampire with wild hair. She flies across the stage to Audience Member 1 and eats her neck)

Oprah: (in a demonic voice) You've all seen too much girlfriends. No one must ever know what happened here.(She makes a screeching noise as she flies to where Audience Member 3 is standing and kills him as blood splatters onto her)

Oprah: You will all die the same way my book club did!

That, my friends, is entertainment.
Monday, January 16, 2006
Can I have what's behind door number two instead?
Sunday, January 15, 2006
Driving along the other day, switching through the radio stations, I came across this song. Kind of a catchy song, but it's got to have the worst lyrics of any song I've heard, possibly ever. "My humps"? "My lovely lady lumps"? Ugh.

Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that the short "u" sound is kind of ugly on its own. What happened to precision in language? My family used to have a dog, and as she got older, she got tumors. The vet said she was too old to operate on, so the tumors just grew, all over the poor creature's body. This is the image brought to mind by that song - some tumor-ridden Quasimodette, dancing about in a disco.

Still, why complain? At least they rhymed "humps" and "lumps", which is pretty good, considering the forced rhymes of the rest of the lyrics. If I had written it, I probably would have added a couplet with "chump" and "pump". And maybe one with "rump" and "dump" - those two can fit together pretty well.

Aren't there any standards left at all?
Saturday, January 07, 2006
Two interesting topics over at Consul-at-Arms:

First is a sex scandal at British Immigration. (via) Unfortunately I think this kind of thing is unavoidable in any of the Western countries. Whenever there are people who are willing to do anything to get legal residence, there will be people who can't resist the temptation. The latter have to be rooted out (although maybe that's a poor choice of words for something with a British context). More at BBC. Brazilian women and Eastern Europeans benefit.

Then there's this:
"Two of the reasons [for the emigration of German professionals] he mentions are the continuingly unpromising outlook for the German job market and "absurd practices within the German academia," which will soon drive so many experts abroad that we can expect a distinct shortage of trained professionals in certain sectors. Among the highly and very highly qualified experts Germany is losing are IT-professionals, many of whom migrating to the United States. Canada is among other favored countries of immigration. " (via) It also says that working age Germans may go abroad for their productive years, then return home for retirement, so the German government gets all the expenses without any of the tax revenue. Long-term prospects for that can't be good.
Nuclear war in the Czech lands? The 1964 Warsaw Pact plans saw things going hot real fast. (via Kinshasa on the Potomac)
Friday, January 06, 2006
Speaking of ICE and CBP, what happened here? The overall situation sounds plausible, but the technical details don't make sense. How does someone go from a Visa Waiver overstay to an EWI? Someone who entered without inspection has more legal rights, since anyone who filled out the Visa Waiver form signed away all their rights to legal review.

I'm guessing this might have something to do with it.

Oh, wait, this makes sense:

The news prompted him to file an emergency motion with the immigration court in Arlington, which has jurisdiction in Ohio. In his motion, Mr. Leopold argued that Mr. Bartsch could not have been here under a visa waiver because twice in 1998 he and his grandfather traveled to Canada and were permitted to leave and re-enter the United States.
"If you leave the country and come back in, it's a different status," he said. "They couldn't have given him another visa waiver. The law says if you violate a visa waiver, then you'll never get another one, so technically he couldn't have been on a visa waiver."
Mr. Leopold admits it's a legal technicality, but still it apparently was enough to persuade Judge

Mr. Bartsch's troubles with immigration began when he tried to get his legal status worked out so that he could get a driver's license and a Social Security number and think about applying for college.

The Toledo Blade scoops the Washington Post. Most press reporting on immigration makes a mess out of the laws and procedures of the system. It's nice to see a nuts-and-bolts explanation for once.
Only in Washington. The best bits:

"I would also suggest you look at Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its many agencies [for federal jobs]. I have seen a good number of positions open up at FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) as well as ICE (Immigrations & Customs Enforcement) and CBP (Customs & Border Protection). These agencies will be increasing their hiring initiatives over the next couple of months. Do keep in mind that DHS is in constant flux but it does provide some opportunity for advancement."

The three agencies listed have been getting some very bad press recently, and at least for ICE and CBP, it's not likely to go away. Ever. It's not necessarily because of how the agencies are run, it's just the nature of the job. FEMA can always redeem itself by doing a good job next time. Something else to think about: the reason these agencies are always hiring is because the turnover rate isn't exactly low. However, that can mean rapid advancement, unless the constant flux blows some doors shut.

Then there's this:

"Why does the government make it so difficult to apply for a job? It seems, in my opinion, they have such a long drawn out process and consequently many seek employment elsewhere. The private sector is very successful in finding new candidates simply using the resume and interview process."

The federal hiring process is definitely no fun at all, and it can take a long time to get someone on board. It's not uncommon for people who've been hired to take other jobs because the red tape is taking such a long time. Still, there are jobs in the government that can be very rewarding, and it pays better than academia.
Quentin Tarantino presents another movie, this one about a hostel in some out-of-the-way Slovakian (!) town with a dark secret. From the commercial it looks like a darker version of Uday and Qusay's home videos. I've never been a fan of Tarantino, and this movie certainly isn't going to change my mind about him.

My prediction: Tarantino will try to mainstream a snuff film by 2012 at the latest.
Wednesday, January 04, 2006
Another vignette on immigration in greater Washington. One Maryland lawmaker proposes stiffening the penalties for driving without a license, and an "immigrant's rights" person claims that the law is unfairly targeting illegal immigrants. The legislator says that unlicensed driver's are a threat to public safety.

But wait! Maryland doesn't forbid issuing licenses to illegal aliens, with supporters of that side citing, yes, public safety. Another person from the same "immigrant's rights" organization complains that Maryland isn't issuing the licenses quickly enough.

So is the argument that the public is safer by having no standards at all to get a Maryland license? Because judging from the driving skills of some people with Maryland plates I've seen on I-270, the standards aren't all that high to begin with.
Sunday, January 01, 2006
There's apparently some squawking in certain political circles about impeaching George W. Bush. Still, I don't think the people floating the idea have really thought things through.

Two words: President Cheney.
Sure, it's a bit rude, but it's pretty funny. And even though everyone makes fun of Barry Manilow, you've got to admit, it's a really good tune.
I had planned to spend the bulk of the day passed out on the couch, but two iced coffees put paid to THAT plan. There's always tomorrow.

Instead, wired up on caffeine and sugar, I decided to clean up the link list to the right, getting rid of some, adding some others. For anyone reading this who may have stumbled across this site, the whole idea is pretty much to post things that I otherwise would send along to friends. Thus "Adventures in Bureaucracy" is essentially a way to cut down on inbox clutter. Depending on what is going on in my life, there may be long periods when I don't post anything here at all. I'm not all that interested in traffic (although you'll note that any site that links here is still on the link list), which means I'm not a slave to this thing - and yet "AIB" has outlived so many more promising - and let's face it, more interesting - places on the web. You'll never get guest writers here!

Also, neither here nor there, I don't like the word that rhymes with "flog" that so many people use to describe these things. This is a web site. It's not my bid to change the world. I am not so much the guy standing on a soapbox and shouting out my opinions at Speaker's Corner. It's more like the crazy old man in a bathrobe muttering to himself on the front porch. Sadly every year this becomes less of an analogy and more the literal truth.

Again for those of you who have stumbled across the place, the name comes from my job. I work in greater Washington, D.C., where there's really only one employer. The only differences come from whether you're directly on the federal payroll, working for a contractor, or simply hoovering up government residuals in one way or another. I don't talk about my job, which gives some people the idea that it's some super-secret thing. No, it's just that it's pretty dull to people outside my particular field, and I spend enough time thinking about it at the office, so I don't want to devote more time to it when I'm at home. Still, sometimes I will comment on governmental matters, but that's just me spouting my opinions.

So with that on the record, it's time to make something to eat and put in a DVD. I hear that sofa calling.
Happy New Year! Let's hope 2006 is a better one than 2005.
Personal comments, opinions and observations from someone stuck inside the Capital Beltway.

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