WASHINGTON — Washington.-- Ijust got a mind-jarring letter from the Income Tax Division of the state of Maryland that tells me why this country is going bankrupt, and we can't afford good public education or the needs of our cities.
Dumb as I am, I've been trying to blame it on gaudy crop supports for rich farmers and federal subsidies that enable big, rich companies to peddle grain to the former Soviet Union. I've been fingering the Pentagon for hogging a $274 billion budget for super submarines and star-wars weapons to protect us from enemies that no one can now identify. I've listened to those who blame food stamps, welfare and Murphy Brown's baby.
But that letter from the office of Maryland's comptroller enlightened me as to what is really wrong and costly. We have a zillion bureaucrats in America who have been turned into mindless robots, who have no authority to make common-sense decisions, or if they have that authority are scared to death to use it.
I don't live in Maryland, so I'm not a regular taxpayer there. But I made a few bucks in a Maryland business deal last year. My squeaky-clean accountants told me that technically I owed Maryland $430, so I paid it.
Then I got a formal notice from that state saying that my accountants can't really add or subtract, and that in fact I owed Maryland $431. I was one dollar short, and they were adding on ''interest due or late pay'' of one cent.
Furthermore, I got the ominous warning that if I did not pay the delinquent $1.01 by June 3, I would be socked with an additional penalty of 25 cents.
Where do we find them -- these bureaucrats who waste hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in man-hours, computer time, postage and more to collect a single dollar? You can wager your next income-tax refund that mine is not an isolated case -- that the Audit Section of the Income Tax Division in Maryland and in all states and federal jurisdictions is loaded with people who get paid to do stupidly unproductive ''work.''
Foolish, make-work bureaucracy permeates this society.
On June 16, 1991, I had laboratory tests for which the bill was $502. Medicare sent me a notice that the maximum pay for the service involved was $344.83. Later I found that my private insurance company had paid the lab $401.60 and that Medicare had paid it $195.86. I wrote Medicare to ask how a lab that billed me for $502 for work that was worth $344.83 could wind up collecting $597.46.
This set off a nine-month bureaucratic probe that cost probably a hundred man-hours and wound up with a demand that the laboratory refund $95.46. This episode would be worth the cost if it gave us any assurance that it might help eliminate such overpayments and bureaucratic foul-ups. But it won't. Half a million Americans will today get letters that cost a thousand dollars because some bureaucrat feels compelled to collect a buck or two.
For now, I'm going to blow 29 cents in postage, 10 cents for a check, five cents for a piece of stationery and an envelope and $12.84 of my secretary's time to rush that delinquent $1.01 off to the Maryland tax people. I'll be damned if I'll accept another 25 cents in penalties.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.