One of the darkly amusing features of the modern American bureaucracy is the way that it uselessly and reflexively reacts to freak occurrences. I saw my favorite example of this just after 9/11: Someone inside the commercial real-estate company that owned/managed the building where I worked decided to distribute a “What To Do In The Event Of An Emergency” poster/pamphlet/flyer thing. There were useless but vaguely sensible pages for what you’d expect: fires, earthquakes, etc. Then there was a page for “What To Do If An Airplane Hits The Building”.
Now, this is stupid on two levels. First of all, that never happens (for all practical purposes), so it’s a waste of time to plan for it. Second of all, if a plane were to hit that building, here’s a comprehensive list of things for the inhabitants to do: Die. It was a little 5-story steel-frame building directly under the (foul-weather) approach path to SJC; if a 737 slammed into it, that would’ve been it for anyone inside.
But, ok, whatever. This sort of reflexive barn-door closing is just what bureaucracies do. Sometimes, though, the behavior moves from the merely silly to the embarrassingly contradictory. Consider the San Bruno pipeline explosion.
The short version is that in September 2010 a natural gas pipeline blew up in San Bruno, CA, killing 8 people and destroying about 40 houses. It caused an 8-alarm fire and left a 40-foot crater in the street. As a result, any rumor of natural gas odor now causes near-panic around here; there are radio announcements whenever pipeline work is being done, and my building was evacuated a few weeks ago because someone claimed to have smelt something.
As a result of the aforesaid bureaucro-panic, I got a letter from PG&E last week. (Here’s a copy of the letter.) Note that this letter includes pointers to two very interesting websites:
These sites conveniently map out major pieces of our natural gas infrastructure; exactly the sort of thing you’d like to know if you were a terrorist looking for something to sabotage.
Now, is such terrorism a reasonable concern? Apparently not. But the modern bureaucracy specializes in unreasonable concerns, and the reason I started this piece with 9/11 was to show how those unreasonable concerns shift over time — and that we can therefore conclude that no one really takes them seriously, and that bureaucrats simply don’t want to be seen to be insouciant about a high-profile “danger” that could threaten their jobs if it were to materialize.
If there’s a larger point to all this, it’s simply that there are an endless number of low-probability events that can ruin your day, and that you can spend an infinite amount of effort attempting to forestall them all. A wise man would refrain from doing so. Unfortunately, too much of our lives is now shaped by sinecure-protecting bureaucrats, who are all-too-eager to be seen to do all that is possible in response to one-off mishaps. Over time, the results of their labors can accumulate into an impassible thicket of red tape. The overweening size and insupportable cost of the US Government might not be unrelated to this phenomenon.