Many years ago, I started work on a speculative fiction short story about a dystopic world in which a sizeable portion of the population worshipped Murphy, as in Murphy’s Law (whatever can possibly go wrong, will.) The public demonstration of their faith was the Sign of the M, made by holding either hand with three fingers extended downward. Usually this was an apotropaic sign, as the anthropologists say, to ward off the nastier consequences of Murphy’s Law. I never finished writing the story (which involved psychedelic experiences caused by claustrophobia in a windowless world, among other things), but the cult of Murphy stuck with me.
It revisited my head yesterday, when I heard on the radio one of numerous stories about people who are now suing various banks and mortgage agencies. About a year and a half ago, the feds came up with a program to help people get their mortgages modified and avoid foreclosure. In practice, the program, and those trying to avail themselves of its benefits, have been thwarted by a pattern of bumbling and non-responsiveness on the part of the mortgagors that could be explained only as (a) conspiracy, or (b) Murphy’s Law at its apocalyptic worst. As I understand it (and what do I know, I’m just a lawyer?), to get your mortgage modified (to lower either the monthly payments, the rate of interest, the total amount owed, or more than one of the above), you have to contact whoever holds your mortgage and “work it out” with them. Naturally, they will want documentation both of the existence and terms of the current mortgage, and the problems that now lead you to want it modified. Usually that means lots of financial documentation, roughly parallel to a tax audit. The uninitiated may find this to be unnecessarily intrusive or just too damn much trouble to bother with. But we more sophisticated white-collar types figure it’s perfectly fair, and generally manage to comply with these demands, albeit with some difficulty because (a) nobody ever remembers exactly when something happened, and (b) most people don’t know exactly where anything is.
The plaintiff in one of these lawsuits explained that she kept contacting the bank to find out what documentation they needed, and sending it in. Each time, she would then find out they either needed one more piece of paper, or that they hadn’t received the last piece of paper she had sent them. Every time she called, a different person would answer, and would have to find her file and ascertain what had previously happened in her case. Eventually, it all came down to a single tax document. She sent it in, and then called to see whether they had received it. They hadn’t. Lather, rinse, repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Next thing she knew, some stranger was standing on her front lawn auctioning off her house on behalf of the bank, which had foreclosed, because, they claimed, they had never received that single last tax document. The semi-happy semi-ending in this case is that the court ultimately suspended the foreclosure, and is now graciously permitting her to live in her home and continue to make the payments on her mortgage pending resolution of the lawsuit.
But think about it, gentle reader. How different is this cycle of misfortune from what most of us deal with at least once a week, with somewhat easier and more favorable resolutions? The difference between us (so far, anyway) and the unlucky Ms. Plaintiff is all in the relative competence of the bureaucracy on the other end of the process. Eventually, they usually get it right.
Let’s leave aside, for another day’s posting, the question of whether there really is a conspiracy involved in the mortgage modification mess. It wouldn’t surprise me, but Murphy is perfectly capable of messing up transactions like this on his/its own. My brother and my daughter, who both do astrological charts, would attribute a lot of this stuff to Mercury being retrograde. I actually know realtors (mostly of Asian ancestry) who won’t schedule a closing when Mercury is retrograde.*
Anyway, while listening to Ms. Plaintiff, it occurred to me to wonder whether there is anybody out there who doesn’t have to deal with this kind of administrative bumbling. See http://aleksandreia.wordpress.com/2009/01/26/maxine-waters-cannot-drown-bureaucracy/, on roughly the same subject, only with the congressional representative of a fairly important district as the protagonist.
The Wired family is actually caught in a similar bind at the moment, unable to pay for a very necessary medication until the New Year. This happens because the insurance program which provides Part D coverage has decided this is the time for the deductible to kick in, but the various assistance programs for the pharmaceutical companies are available only to people who don’t have medication insurance coverage. And the reason for this inability to pay is that a bunch of clients who owe me roughly a year’s income between them haven’t paid, and most of them really can’t pay, for reasons very similar to my own.
All I need, perhaps all most people need, is for the system to work properly by its own standards. This would entail the people who owe me money paying on time, the people I send documents to not losing them, the people I talk to on the phone on various important matters either being available the next time I call, or at least taking good notes so the next person I talk to there will be able to find the file and then get up to speed on the case while I am on the phone with him/her. Judging by the experience of Maxine Waters, getting elected to Congress wouldn’t entitle me to this. Probably being POTUS or very rich would. Which makes it not only a privilege, but a really rare one.
In some situations, the M Factor can be literally deadly. The procedural histories of most of the death penalty cases that find their way to the Supreme Court are swamps of the M Factor. It is no coincidence that most of the defendants in these cases are poor, poorly-educated, and poorly represented. It is probably no coincidence that so much of the Supreme Court’s wisdom is expended on deciding whether a particular occurrence of the M Factor is serious enough to justify overturning a guilty verdict or a death sentence.
On the other hand, POTUS, and the very rich, are not necessarily exempt from these hassles. What their privilege generally gets them is the services of somebody else, usually somebody reasonably competent, to resolve them. There is actually a job title for this: Personal Assistant. Arguably, there may even be a career path for it: wife. President George H.W. Bush was famously enthralled by the electronic gizmos at grocery checkout counters, not because no grocery store was involved in the purchasing of his daily bread, but because somebody else had always been the one to stand in the checkout lines for it. Does this mean that the M Factor (let’s call it that for the purposes of this discussion), like matter and energy, cannot be eliminated, but only moved around, delegated, transformed?
I don’t know if anyone has actually done a systematic study of the M Factor as such, under any name.. Hamlet calls it “the law’s delay,” and cites it as one good reason for suicide. It gets examined for other purposes under other names, for instance, in the study of Third World systems and why they work so badly. Corruption is merely a subspecies of the M Factor—it is the money one pays to various functionaries to keep the M Factor from totally destroying a transaction. Various hierarchies of public and domestic service exist mainly both to create the M Factor, and to keep it under control.
The M Factor raises some great politico-philosophical questions. Is it inherent in the human condition? Are those who either try to eliminate it or try to avoid dealing with it in their own lives guilty of hubris? Is a life free from the depredations of the M Factor, a life where everything works the way it is supposed to, a privilege everybody should have, or a privilege nobody should have? Most of us perceive rich people as having to deal with less of the M Factor than poor people, and people in rich countries dealing with less of it than people in poor countries. Is this reality, or appearance? Is the amount of the M Factor per person constant, subject only to being delegated or moved around? Or can affluence actually get rid of at least some of it? And if so, is affluence necessary for that purpose, or merely sufficient? Is there some other way to do the job?
Until we get a better handle on the workings of the M Factor, maybe worshipping it is the best we can do. Ommmmmm’s the word.