My wife used to have a very nice dentist. A very professional-looking dentist with a professional-looking office in a professional office park. The staff — very professional. A very nice, very professional, very expensive dentist.

Who accidentally left the end of one of his dental instruments embedded in my wife’s jaw.

She found out about his little gift a week before Christmas, when she was suddenly stricken by debilitating pain. We had to make an emergency visit to a different dentist who charged us a small fortune to dig out the artifact, and then repair the same root canal the very nice, professional dentist had given my wife two years earlier.

A few weeks later, my family and I moved into a new house. A very professional (and not inexpensive) moving company packed our stuff and did all the heavy lifting — a real treat after having pulled a few “Beer & Pizza” U-haul moves in the past. After the movers drove away and we started unpacking, my wife was stunned to find:

Delicate lamps stuffed upside down into boxes, along with heavy books; framed artwork shoved three at a time into picture boxes, all completely unwrapped and unprotected; and our personal favorite, the three-year-old’s sippy cup, wrapped like fine china in packing paper and delicately placed in a box.

Oh, did I mention the sippy cup was still full of milk when we unpacked it?

The new house needed a new heat pump, not exactly a small-ticket item. Two HVAC visits and several thousand dollars later, I had a brand new one cranking away. Only … it wasn’t.

I couldn’t feel any actual heat. In fact, I couldn’t feel anything coming from the vents at all. For 48 hours, I set the blower control on every setting from “vent” to “emergency power” to “super sorority girl,” but I couldn’t get any proof the thing was actually moving any air.

I assumed, being the utterly clueless pseudo-metrosexual that I am, that I was doing something wrong. After all, guys with heavy boots who wear ball caps inside the house had just charged me a small fortune to install the thing. Surely it was working when they left the house. Right?

Now, generally speaking, asking me to troubleshoot a major appliance is like asking a dog to explain quantum physics, but I knew enough to check the return — the big vent where the air sucks in — and discovered that it was entirely covered by cardboard and tape. Apparently the previous owner didn’t use the heat pump and sealed it airtight to save a few pennies during the winter. And no air in means no air out.

I pulled off the cardboard and — voila! Instant wind tunnel. So why didn’t the professional installers do that? They hadn’t noticed. They left my house without ever checking to see if the expensive new gizmo they had just installed actually worked.

When I called the owner of the company and complained, he just shrugged. “It’s workin’ now, ain’t it?”

It is the same experience when I go to a hardware store. When I go to get ice cream at the DQ. Nearly everything I do in life that involves paying other people to do a job — from fast food to furnaces — also involves me having to do that job for them. And it’s not just me. I hear this from friends and co-workers all the time. We are spending more time and more money paying more people to do less for us, and to do it less well.

We’ve all concluded that we now must assume that everyone we hire is operating in a natural state of suck. If you pay more for the same job, all you get is a more highly refined level of suckitude.

A few days ago the Haleigh Poutre story broke. She’s the 11-year-old girl in Massachusetts who, along with her stepparents, spent three years under the watchful eye of the state DSS. During that time, the state received 16 complaints alleging abuse and neglect by the stepparents. DSS repeatedly found bruises, burns, and the like, but the social workers always sent the little girl back home. Until the 17th time.

That time, the baseball-bat beating Haleigh took was so severe she ended up in a coma. The violent stepfather ended up in jail. And the abusive stepmom and grandmom ended up dead in what police are calling a “murder-suicide” pact.

Just 10 days after gaining custody of Haleigh, DSS asked for permission to remove all her life support. They did, but she stunned them by living, by breathing on her own, and responding to stimuli. Turns out they had misdiagnosed her medical condition, too.

The head of the state DSS, commenting on this horrible situation, says (and I quote): “We did what we were supposed to,” and “I believe that the department has nothing to be ashamed of.”

He qualified that last statement by adding, “except that all of us hold the painful shame that we missed what was happening.” But that’s like asking, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

Is competence really too much to ask for? Or, if not actual competence, how about just a little shame at being exposed as incompetent? Or has the drive-thru window standard of minimum-wage ineptitude become the performance standard for all America?

President Bush keeps insisting that we need illegal immigrants because they’ll do jobs that Americans won’t. Could it be that we really need them to do jobs that Americans can’t — because we’re just too dumb?

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