The US dollar must be in bad shape. Even the US government will refuse to accept it.
The other day I went out to exercise my most important right of citizenship. No, I didn't go to vote; I went to get my passport.
At the post office, the sharp-eyed woman who handles this matter quickly spotted my deficiency in filling in all the little boxes on the application. "When are you departing?" she asked. Being a commercial pilot, I am in fact always departing for somewhere, several times a day. It took a few moments of frustration on both sides to figure out what the other was saying. In this case the proper question would have been, "When do you need the passport to leave the country?" I found out the passport office wasn't just being the usual nosey bureaucracy but was apparently only interested to know whether you needed a rush job on your application. Well, I didn't, so she put down N/A in the little box, and everything was right with the world—that is, until we came to paying for it.
The fee is $14, so I hauled out my cash to pay. "We don't accept cash," says the clerk. "If you don't have a check, you will have to go next door to the post office window and get a money order."
"But, but, but…," I sputtered. "The legal tender law says you have to accept your own government money in payment of any debts. See, it says so right here on the money ('This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private')."
"No, no, no," insists the passport clerk just as forcefully. "We don't do things that way here."
It seems the local passport office has a little problem. They have to mail the application and the fees to a bigger passport office. That means one government agency (the passport office) has to use another government agency (the post office) to handle their money, and of course, that isn't safe, right? Well, if you say so, thought I.
"That's your problem," I said. "Here is my $14 cash. I expect you to obey the law and accept it."
"Look, I just work here," she said. And we went through the money order business again. Oh, boy, I groaned. Not that excuse again.
"It's not my responsibility," emphasized the clerk. "This is the way I am told to do it."
"It is your responsibility to obey the law," I retorted. "Especially since the Nuremberg Trials, the 'I just work here' or 'I was told to do such and such' excuse is no excuse."
Would you believe we have a federal employee perfectly willing—in fact, insisting—on violating federal law, just because someone told her to? I guess that's a silly question; perhaps you expect it.
Well, I finally had to go pay the government next door $14.80 for a $14 money order to pay the government $14 for my passport. Does that sound a little like Catch 22? By the way, if the passport agency uses my money order the next day, that's a whopping 2,085 percent annual interest the government is getting.
"Now," I said to the passport clerk when our business was transacted, "you owe me 80 cents." (I was thinking of adding a service fee for managing an intergovernmental monetary transaction for them, but I decided to keep things simple.)
Well, to the woman's credit she did call someone on the phone to find out how to handle this latest development. (I guess she realized the "I just work here" excuse wasn't going very far.) That put me in touch next with the postmaster, who, it seems, is the man in charge of trying to keep track of what the left hand is doing while the right hand is dealing off the b----- (no, I won't say it). I explained how the clerk wouldn't take my money and that I objected to that and also to the 80 cents extra the government was getting.
Naturally, I got the same thing from him—the same excuse, plus, "That's the way we have always done it," as if to say that breaking the law often enough makes it okay to do it again. My pointing out that little flaw in his logic seemed to make him mad. (As a matter of fact, I wouldn't mind the government using that excuse so much if it were only valid for me to use it also. I can just see it now, "…Your Honor, I always drive over the speed limit, so this speeding ticket is null and void.")
"Look," he says, "the regs say we can't accept cash."
"Oh, really?" says I. "Now that's a reg I'd like to see."
"OK!" he says, surging out of his office to get it.
Several minutes later he entered the office announcing, "That's just the way we do things, and I am not going into it anymore with you." Apparently, he could not find any such regulation; and further, I take it from his brisk termination of the discussion, he may very well have found a regulation to the contrary.
"OK," said I as I left, "I'll quote you on that."
"You do that," said he.
And so, you see, I have. The passport office (or is it the post office?) still owes me 80 cents, and they owe the public an explanation of their cavalier disregard of a citizen's right to pay with cash.
Would you do business with people like that if you had another choice?
Eric Westling is a businessman/pilot who flies commuters around the San Francisco Bay area. His background is in engineering, business, politics, and economics, with a unifying interest in philosophy.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Even the Government Won't Take It".