Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Lonely Death of George Bell

In a recent story by the New York Times, the writer follows what happens when George Bell, a man in New York City with few friends and no close relatives, died in anonymity last year, and why it took 4 months for his body to be cremated and 14 months for his estate to be settled. Although not a story about a current political event, I think that this story reveals some of the more hidden jobs and functions of government bureaucracy and ties in with our last unit.

Here's a summary of the bureaucracy involved when someone dies in anonymity:

A public administrator manages estates when there is no one else to do so, usually when there is no known heirs or will. They must evaluate a person's assets to determine the worth of the estate, and extracts a commission for handling the estate. This money is put toward the city's general fund and the public administrator office's expenses. Investigators who work for the public administrator go through the residences and belongings of the deceased, and determine if there is anything of value that can be added to an estate, from loose change to cars. The public administrator gives valuables like cars or antique watches to private companies that auction off the items. The proceeds of the auction are added to the value of the estate.

In the case of George Bell, the public administrator learned that Bell had an honorable military discharge, so the made a request to the National Cemetery Administration, which is part Department of Veterans Affairs (see, I told you there was bureaucracy involved.) When the National Cemetery Administration responded that George Bell did not qualify as a veteran because he had not seen active duty or died while in the military, the public administrator appealed. According to the article, "16 pages came back from the centralized satellite processing and appeals unit that could be summed up in unambiguous concision: No." Bureaucracy at it's finest.

New York City law specifies that a body cannot be cremated unless a corpse's identity is confirmed. In order to confirm that the body really was George Bell, the medical examiner needed x-rays from Bell's doctor. "A radiology provider had chest X-rays of George Bell dating form 2004. They were in a warehouse, though, and would take some time to retrieve...In late October, the radiology service reported: Sorry, the X-rays had been destroyed...Never mind, the X-rays were there. In early November, they landed at the medical examiner's office." George Bell's corpses' identity was confirmed, and he was cremated nearly 4 months after his death.

The death of George Bell involved city, state, and federal bureaucracies. It also showed that while the bureaucracy is slow, it does things that no one else can. How else do federal, state, and local bureaucracies affect everyday lives. How would the contracting of some of the jobs of the public administrator to private companies be beneficial? How would it not be?

1 comment:

Scott Chow said...

I think one example of the contracting out certain tasks is best seen with our friend the traffic camera. More specifically, the payment plans that low income individuals often have to pay are resulting from the state adding on a great number of surcharges to low level fines (another John Oliver video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0UjpmT5noto). According to John Oliver, in California, running a stop sign costs 35$ initially. After surcharges, that bumps up to 238$. Now justifications aside, a 680% increase in cost is absurd. Moreover, 238$ to a minimum wage worker in California is 26.5 hours of work. For. Running. A. Stop. Sign. That "California rolling stop" quickly becomes quite an expensive habit. That's one example of state bureaucracy and how it affects our everyday lives (especially lower income individuals). Then, as it turns out, some state have begun to contract out probation services that are for-profit institutions. This often leads to absurd payment plans that extort the poor for ridiculous sums of money over time because the payment plan starts with paying the probation company and not the ticket. This highlights some of the dangers that can be associated with privatizing certain government functions, as the same high level of scrutiny is not applicable to most for-profit institutions.