Monday, January 25, 2021

Everything Is Broken

I'd say more about Big Tech but since they've 'privatized totalitarianism', I fear being 'digitally disappeared' if I dare criticize Big Tech.

Mr. Bob Dylan was once again prescient: Everything Is Broken. You may think I'm referring to the political system or Big Tech or the Corporate Media, and certainly all those are very broken indeed, but I'm actually referring to everyday life systems that once worked fairly well. I could mention bridges that take decades to build that sport cost-overruns in the billions and the general decline in the quality of goods and services, but let's just stick to critical digital systems for now.

One shared trait of these broken service systems is that they're all digital and all online. Wasn't everything supposed to become faster, better, easier and cheaper when it was digitized and put at our fingertips via websites and mobile phone apps? The opposite is often the case: the digital systems are broken and nobody on either end--staff or customer--can figure out why or how to fix what's broken.

You'd think the government would make special efforts to make it easy to pay one's estimated taxes online. You'd be wrong. Like many others who've been filing tax returns and paying taxes for 50+ years, I decided to withdraw a few bucks from my 401K "retirement" account (in quotes because who can retire on their 401K?).

The plan manager recommended I pay the estimated taxes due via the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS), which is presented as the "easy way to pay your taxes." Wow, the cat's meow--I completed the online form with great anticipation. As a security measure, the EFTPS snail-mails a code to the physical address that's on record with the IRS.

Alas, the EFTPS rejected my application--something didn't align with the information on record at the IRS. My wife's application went through without a hitch, and so after an hour on hold and a long conversation with an EFTPS staffer--who I sincerely believe was doing his best to assist me--I re-applied, attributing the failure to some detail such as typing "Street" instead of "St". I carefully entered the name, address, etc. on my 2019 tax return and submitted the application again.

This second application was also rejected for the same reason: a discrepancy between the IRS records and what I entered on the form. Since i'd entered the data exactly as shown on my 2019 return, what was the problem?

After another long wait on hold and another fruitless conversation with an IRS staffer who did her best but could shed no light on the problem, and I took her recommendation and decided to pay the estimated tax on the regular IRS website: Direct Pay.

OK, this should be easy, right? Wrong again. Part of the process is you have to select a tax year, not for payment but for alignment with the IRS records. I kept trying 2019 to no avail. The IRS website kept rejecting my name, address and Social Security number no matter how carefully I entered the data. After numerous rejections and another painfully long wait on hold and useless conversation with a helpful staffer, I tried selecting a tax year before 2019 to match the IRS records. 2018--failure. 2017--failure. 2016--bingo, we have a winner! The IRS ignored the address I'd used in 2017, 2018 and 2019, abut kept the PO box address I'd used in 2016. How is a taxpayer supposed to know which tax year is the "correct one"? Was there nothing the staffers could see or do to rectify the guessing game?

Evidently, none of the IRS or EFTPS staff could access this data or suggest trying a previous tax year. I'd like to think I am the only one who's experienced these kinds of needless travails with the IRS interfaces, but alas, I've heard from friends who were trying to sort out their elderly Mom's tax refund, etc., that after excruciatingly long waits on hold, they got zip, zero, nada in the way of resolution.

It's not the staff, it's the digital systems that are broken. I can easily imagine the frustrations of the staffers trying to fix taxpayers' problems with a kludgy system.

Next up: healthcare. Over the past few decades, as a self-employed worker I've paid tens of thousands of dollars in healthcare premiums to my healthcare provider because I'm my own employer, and I don't qualify for government subsidies (Medicaid).

The task: switch my coverage from one state to another state. The wait time rivaled that of the IRS, and when I finally spoke with a human, the process took almost an hour--much of it related to compliance with regulations designed to make regulators and Corporate America look like they care (they don't). "Do you acknowledge that if you drop dead during this phone call that you were treated fairly before you expired?" etc.

I set up my online account without issue, and a few days later received emails prompting me to "view and pay my bill." Nice, except when I logged in, "no documents found." I had to wait for my credit card statement to see if the autopay setup worked. I could have tried calling, but I'd expended my patience for long waits and near-zero odds of resolution.

Meanwhile, my wife had made the mistake of contacting the provider for information on their plans, and they assumed they had a "live one," i.e. a potential customer--so they aggressively robo-called her phone every day even after she spoke with a human and explained that she was already a customer so there would be no sale and commission.

So if you're looking for aggressive marketing, Corporate America has got you covered. If you want service--hello, developing-world, minus the work-around of a bribe.

It's worth glancing at your Social Security statement/account every once in a while, because your earnings for 2019 might be listed as zero. OK, so the Social Security Administration (SSA) somehow failed to pick up my 2019 earnings from the IRS. A quick phone call should remedy the problem, right? Wrong. The wait time was short but the call stretched on for an hour as the staffer attempted one thing after another.

How difficult is it to strip out the taxpayers' name, Social Security number and the earnings they paid Social Security taxes on and send that data to the SSA? Most years it works, this year it didn't. There is apparently no digital fix, as I was eventually instructed to send paper copies of our 2019 tax returns to the local SSA office.

You might attribute these flubs to government services or quasi-government services, but that overlooks one important point: private-sector Big Tech appears to work because its task is simple: privatize customer data and sell adverts. Try getting Big Tech to resolve real-world problems, and you'll find it's extremely difficult to get a human to help, and the odds of the human fixing your issue are near-zero. Big Tech's expertise is in acknowledging there is a problem and then ignoring it until you give up.

I'd say more about Big Tech but since they've privatized totalitarianism, I fear being digitally disappeared if I dare criticize Big Tech. A couple years of being shadow-banned were enough to give me a taste of Big Tech's privatized totalitarianism, thank you very much. That alone tells you our entire system is broken.

Say it again, Bobby: Everything Is Broken. Just don't say it too loud unless you have lobbyists and lawyers in excess.



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