DHS steals TechCrunch founder's boat over paperwork error

Michael Arrington is a prominent tech blogger, who sold his site Tech Crunch to AOL in 2010. As such, this particular story of government overreach, starring a gleeful bureaucrat taking the property of a citizen operating in good faith, may get a wider audience than the usual conservatives and libertarians who catch wind of such things. Good. For every story that gets attention, there are countless abuses that don’t.

The story starts with Arrington buying himself a boat. He lives in Seattle, where there’s much boating to be done. Having paid for the boat, named her, and had her imported from Canada, she was to arrive Thursday. After signing a few customs papers, Arrington was to be standing astride the deck of his vessel. No such luck.

I named her Buddy. It has state of the art electronics and a fairly new highly efficient propulsion system that the TechCrunch audience would be interested in.

Today was the day that Buddy was going to be delivered. That didn’t happen, because the Department of Homeland Security seized the boat.

Buddy has to clear customs, part of the DHS, since she was built in Canada.

My job was to show up and sign forms and then leave with Buddy (WA sales tax and registration fees come a week later).

DHS takes documents supplied by the builder and creates a government form that includes basic information about the boat, including the price.

The primary form, prepared by the government, had an error. The price was copied from the invoice, but DHS changed the currency from Canadian to U.S. dollars.

It has language at the bottom with serious sounding statements that the information is true and correct, and a signature block.

I pointed out the error and suggested that we simply change the currency from US $ to CAD $ so that is was correct. Or instead, amend the amount so that it was correct in U.S. dollars.

I thought this was important because I was signing it and swearing that the information, and specifically the price, was correct.

The DHS agent didn’t care about the error and told me to sign the form anyway. “It’s just paperwork, it doesn’t matter,” she said. I declined.

I, too, would refuse to sign a form for the government containing obvious errors when said form has threats from the government for knowingly signing something incorrect. Had Arrington acquiesced in the form-signing, he would surely have been liable for the mistake in later tax forms or accounting documents. One would think the form could be quickly corrected, especially since the mistake was the government’s not Arrington’s. But this is the United States government we’re talking about:

She called another agent and said simply “He won’t sign the form.” I asked to speak to that agent to give them a more complete picture of the situation. She wouldn’t allow that.

Then she seized the boat. As in, demanded that we get off the boat, demanded the keys and took physical control of it.

What struck me the most about the situation is how excited she got about seizing the boat. Like she was just itching for something like this to happen. This was a very happy day for her.

So now I have to hire a lawyer to try to figure all this out. And I will figure it out, eventually.

My point in writing this isn’t to whine. Like I said, this will get worked out one way or another.

No, it’s to highlight how screwed up our government bureaucracy has become.

A person with a gun and a government badge asked me to swear in writing that a lie was true today. And when I didn’t do what she wanted she simply took my boat and asked me to leave.

Arrington wanted his boat. He was seemingly acting in good faith to sail his new purchase through the U.S. customs system. The system is no doubt complicated, and Arrington’s likely never been through it before, but it was in his best interest to cooperate to the best of his ability, and in so doing correct a problem he noticed.

None of that mattered to the person who seized his boat. I was struck by his description of a bureaucrat’s excitement at the prospect of his deigning to step a quarter-inch out of line, so she could make with the heavy-handed discipline. Doesn’t that just ring true? Sure, not all public servants are in this category. But how often have you clammed up and avoided making a reasonable objection, or even asking a question, in the presence of a be-badged official you calculate would delight in dragging you to a special security area to hassle you for 45 minutes for your impudence? If you’re lucky, the cost is a missed flight. In many cases, the cost could be a trip to the county jail, a ticket, a minor charge, or as in this case, the loss of a rather expensive piece of property.

Arrington got back his boat, largely he says because the company that built it went to great lengths to extract it from DHS. The company has no doubt dealt with the customs office before, knows who to call, and has more sway than a single citizen. But you shouldn’t need to know the right people to simply sail the boat you own. Arrington says it succinctly: “My point in writing this isn’t to whine. Like I said, this will get worked out one way or another. No, it’s to highlight how screwed up our government bureaucracy has become.”

And, if it’s this hard for a well-educated and well-heeled citizen who can get a lawyer to navigate the system, there are many more with fewer advantages dealing with this kind of abuse at every level about whom we never hear.

All this put me in mind of an epic rant by Dilbert creator Scott Adams this week, called “I want my cheese.” He recounts a shopping trip and the cascading and unintended consequences of the California bag law, ending with this:

My point is that the new bag law in California is entirely reasonable when viewed in isolation. Likewise, loyalty cards, self-checkout, and all the other annoyances make complete sense when viewed in isolation. But we don’t live in a world in which anything can exist in isolation. Safeway and my city government have made the simple act of food shopping so complicated that I’d rather scrounge in the dumpster behind the store than endure the pain of shopping inside the store.

This is an interesting issue because every business decision that causes inconvenience for customers is viewed in isolation. When you take that perspective, eventually the entire process becomes so complicated it is barely competitive with dumpster diving.

What we need is some sort of system in which any proposed complication is viewed as more bothersome than earlier complications. The first complication usually doesn’t cause much problem. The tenth complication – no matter how well-meaning – destroys the system.

But here’s my big gripe. Yes, I saved the best for last. You see, brains are like muscles in the sense that they have a limited capacity during any given day. If you lift too many heavy objects, your muscles will fail. Likewise, if you use up all of your brain cycles on nonsense, you have nothing left for the important things in life, such as making Dilbert comics and writing blog posts.

Seriously though, I think society is blind to the hidden cost of complexity in daily life. The ever-worsening complexity isn’t simply annoying; it is hijacking your brain. Every minute you spend trying to find cheese, and trying to pay for it without getting arrested, is time you aren’t thinking about solutions to real problems.

If this seems like no big deal, you might be wrong. Consider that everything good about modern civilization was invented by people who really needed to focus to get the job done. What happens to a world-class engineer or entrepreneur when he or she has to syphon off more brain energy to satisfying Safeway’s marketing strategy instead of designing new products? Now multiply that times a hundred because every retailer, website, and business is trying to complicate your life too.

Complexity sneaks up on you because every individual decision – such as the bag laws in my city – make sense when viewed in isolation. But if that trend continues, complexity will be a huge drag on civilization.

Does complexity have a cure?

Yes, every idea from every well-meaning bureaucrat has a cost. It can be human or business-related, small or large. But they add up, and when we add hundreds more all the time, the cost gets higher and higher.