*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on June 18, 2018. It can also be found online here.
It was the way catastrophes really happen and not as you imagine them.
The trip had been planned for months. I booked the flight to Montreal this past November. Go ahead, do the math. That’s seven months ago. Well over two hundred days. I thought I was all set. Babysitter: check. Hotel: check. Flight: check. I had that feeling you get when you’ve booked everything-in my own mind, I probably said to myself: “Canada, here we come!”
So when I looked down at my passport two weeks ago and saw that it had expired several months ago, the panic set in. Fourteen days to wheels up and with no passport I couldn’t even board a flight to Canada. The closest I could get would be to fly to Minnesota, which, let’s face it, is actually pretty much Canada, minus the maple syrup and trade wars.
Freaked out about missing some really fun travel, alone (!) with my wife, I went online and learned about the US State Department’s passport office in Denver (the Colorado Passport Agency). As long as you’re within a couple weeks of your intended travel, and can provide an itinerary to prove it, they’ll expedite your passport renewal from the normal turnaround time (typically measured in weeks) down to a few days. It cost a little more but looked promising the way a mirage does to a desert wanderer dying of thirst, so I signed up for the next available appointment.
In the meantime, knowing I had fallen to the mercy of the bureaucracy, I decided to learn more about why it is that we actually have, and use, passports. Just what is it that matters so much about this little blue book that caused such a ruckus?
Tim Harford explains in his fascinating book, “Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy,” that passports weren’t really a thing just a century ago. They nearly went extinct in the late 1800s. The French abolished them in 1860, and most other countries followed suit, including the United States.
So what turned the tide? In short, it was a war. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once wrote, war is the “father” of all and apparently, war contributed mightily to the birth of the modern passport.
Following the fighting in World War I, the brutal years-long struggle that included bloody trenches, poison gas, aerial bombardment, massive civilian casualties, and punctuated by a global pandemic that may have killed a hundred million people-having just experienced all that, the participating countries worried a bit more about their physical security in the wake of such a devastating war. And so nearly all the world’s large nations imposed restrictions on movement across national borders that have continued ever since.
The then-new League of Nations, in 1920, convened a Conference on Passports, Customs Formalities, and Through Tickets, which basically created the modern passport. When it was over, Harford notes, “the conference said, passports should be 15.5 by 10.5 centimeters (roughly 5 by 3.5 inches); 32 pages; bound in cardboard; with a photo. The format has changed remarkably little since.”
So that’s what all the hubbub was about. Never mind that the United States never joined the League of Nations, we still signed up for the passport program.
And when I went up to that passport office in Denver, it was fantastic. Their website described everything I needed, so I was prepared. I walked in and moved steadily through the line to the window. They checked my papers, gave me a number, while the next person took my payment and told me to come back and get it in 48 hours. The whole process in the office was around thirty minutes.
It’s almost an American pastime to pillory the bureaucratic parts of our government. We belittle the DMV. We crack jokes about jury duty. But when we really need them, the vast majority of the time, they come through for us. They’re professional, rigid when necessary, but above all they try to make the vital functions of government as frictionless as possible. The Colorado Passport Agency was efficient, smooth, and did the job fast-in time for that flight to Montreal. Crisis averted.
Now where did I put that phone charger?