Friday, October 18, 2013

The plural of anecdote is ideology

If you ever want to get a big, appreciative laugh at a chamber of commerce meeting, you can't go wrong by quoting Ronald Reagan’s famous quip: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

I’m as keen a fan as anyone of clean air and child-labor laws and so on, but sometimes you can’t help but agree with the Gipper. Here are two anecdotes that have had Debbie and me shaking our heads in bewilderment:*

● One of Debbie’s uncles makes long-haul trucking runs for a company that sells leases MRI and CT imaging systems to health care facilities. Under U.S. Department of Transportation Hours of Service regulations, he is required to take a half-hour break within the first eight hours of his shift. If he doesn’t, he and his company face heavy fines. It's a hard-and-fast rule, with no exceptions.

Recently, he completed a delivery and was on his way home, when the tracking system in his cab started flashing. He was at the 7 hour, 30 minute time limit, and he was still technically on his shift. So, even though he had just five minutes to go, he had to pull into a shopping center parking lot and cool his heels for half an hour before he could drive the last couple of miles and end his day.

● Debbie’s landlord has just installed a deck behind the house she rents, with a beautiful view of the woods surrounding the property. Right now, she can sit in an Adirondack chair back there and enjoy an unobstructed vista. Building codes, however, stipulate the deck has to have a railing – one at least 36 inches high, with rails no more than 4 inches apart. Adirondack chairs are low; when you sit in one, your eyeline is maybe three feet above floor level. So any view Debbie has from her chairs will be obscured as soon as the rails are put in. Never mind that the deck is only two to three feet above a pillow-soft lawn. Rules are rules, so a railing there must be.

Oh, and let’s not forget how enthusiastically colleges and universities embrace the regulatory mindset:

● The York College of Pennsylvania resident assistants conducted dorm room inspections this week and found Debbie's daughter, Monica, to be in violation. Contraband was confiscated, hearings and fines were threatened. The offending items? Two five-pound hand weights. According to the student handbook (which the website says “is comprised (sic) and updated each year”):

Any threat to the health and safety of residents or damage to property will not be tolerated. The presence, possession, and/or usage of the following items is prohibited. … D) waterbeds, pools, weightlifting equipment.

Fortunately, the RA supervisor saw reason, and Monica got her weights back. Score one for common sense. Which, coincidentally, just offsets the point the RA scored for maniacal literal-mindedness by confiscating the weights in the first place.

Advocates of government activism sometimes write as if there were no justice whatsoever to Reagan’s gibe, as if government regulators (and college administrations) were invariably fair-minded and sensible, and would never make anyone’s life harder unless they deserved it. If only it were so!

Addendum: James Brown makes good points playing devil's advocate in his comment on this post. Yes, one backward fall of a child or elderly person off an open deck, even a two-foot fall, could easily lead to a lifetime of guilt and regret. Better safe than sorry, to be sure. Still, there might be different ways to be safe – rails 6 inches apart instead of 4 inches? Crossbars? Temporary barriers? But the mandate isn't "be safe," it's "be safe in this particular fashion." There's a good reason for that – if regulations aren't specific, bad actors will find loopholes – but still, specificity creates burdens for people acting in good faith. They have to follow the letter of a law rather than the spirit. Even if there's no better alternative (apart from all of us turning into saints overnight) it's still a shame. 
*I had forgotten this until I looked it up just now, but deck railings and hours-of-service regs both figured prominently among business owners' gripes in a story of mine from last year, “Regulations we love to hate.” They seem to be hardy perennials. 

1 comment:

  1. OK, couple of questions -- not necessarily in defense of the regs, but to play devil's advocate:

    1) If the long-distance trucker knew his route might push the 8-hour limit, whether simply because of distance or unforeseen traffic delay, why wouldn't he take a half-hour break well within the time limit, rather than hoping he'd make it home in 7.5 hours or less? Wouldn't it be prudent after at least after four or five hours to take a lunch and/or a potty break (save that Gatorade bottle for another trip)?

    2) Trust me, few lawns are pillowy. And a two- or three-foot fall can easily result in broken or badly sprained limbs, particularly for older, more frail individuals who might misjudge edge location in the dark, or for kids racing around not watching where they're going. Can't write a reg that waives a safety rule simply to allow for unobstructed views of wonderful scenery. Drink in the vista, then plop into the chair and discuss it from memory -- good mental exercise.

    3) The third one is kinda over the top. Like elementary schools' zero-tolerance policy that results in a kid being suspended for pointing his finger like a gun. Although, I can see why waterbeds and pools are prohibited. Wouldn't want some college kids horsing around near one with sharp objects, tripping and producing a couple hundred gallons of water rushing past electrical equipment and down a hall.