causation, correlation & the federal government

I believe there's one thing all sides of the political aisle can agree on: our current system ain't working so good.  Allow me to elaborate.

Recently I had a little snafu that required me to work closely with the folks over at the U.S. Department of Education. During the course of ironing out the snafu I had to fax some documents over. In the course of a phone call this conversation ensued:

DoE employee: "They probably did the search wrong. When someone faxes something over to us it goes to our Red Rock office. Then someone in that office receives the fax, scans it in and sends it over here. Someone in our office then receives the emailed document and sends it to the correct representative."

Me: "Wait. So someone's job is to just receive faxes & scan them in?"

DoE employee: "Actually there are several people that do that."

I kid you not. This conversation actually happened. How is it acceptable that we have a system in which people are hired full time to receive and scan faxes to send to other people who work full time sorting through the scanned faxes and sending them off? There are a few too many middle men in that picture. Now before you accuse me of wailing on the government and not offering a better solution allow me to actually offer a better solution: set up e-fax numbers for the representatives. The faxes can then be sent from a normal fax machine and the system will automatically scan them in and deposit them in the rep's inbox. I know this means a few people will lose their jobs but don't we have some sort of huge deficit or something? (I know there's a deficit, I'm just making a point).

Thankfully the people who answer phones at the DoE are significantly nicer than the people working at the DMV. In fact it was hard to get mad at the DoE employee explaining the system to me because he was just so darn nice about it. And it wasn't just that employee that was kind. After all I called the DoE 14 out of the 15 business days that this whole ordeal was going on for. Oddly, the only day I didn't call was the only day nothing happened on my case.

Now if there's one thing I remember from my time as a sociology major it's that correlation and causation are not the same thing. Take this example: more people drown on days when there's a higher volume of ice cream sales. The drowning and the ice cream purchasing are correlated: two independent events that happen to coincide but do not in fact cause each other in any way. We all know that buying ice cream does not increase one's likelihood of drowning. So what causes these two things? Heat. Heat is the causation of both the drownings and the ice cream sales. When it's hot outside, people buy ice cream. People also go swimming when it's hot outside. And when there are more people swimming there are more people drowning as well.

Let's examine a more complicated example, namely my experience with the government. It could well be that my non-calling and the non-action on my case are simply correlated. Or there could be an element of causation there. It's difficult to determine whether there's correlation or causation between two events without the full story. Maybe my representative wasn't at work on the day I failed to called in. Maybe she was there but was unable to work on my case for some reason. There are some surrounding circumstances that make me more inclined to argue for causation over correlation. Even though I never spoke to her in person, within 15 minutes of every delightfully saccharine phone message I left I received an email explaining that exactly what I wanted to be done had been done. No joke, no hyperbole. I could almost time it to the minute. This leads me to believe that in fact, the phone calls did have an impact on my case.

Causation/correlation aside, the bottom line is this: isn't there a better way? I refuse to believe that this is the best our government can do.

I will also return to abstaining from political commentary on this here blog.

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