Montana Viewpoint

June 13, 2005

Not so long ago there was a non-teetotal French philosopher who was asked, “How do you know when you’ve had enough to drink?”

“When I’ve had too much,” he shot back.

The first and only time I heard that story I thought it was merely funny, but as the years passed I began to see that it was not only funny, but it was pretty deep as well, because it applied to far more than finding the ideal state of intoxication. Think about it: when we strive for perfection there is a point, and only one point, at which it is achieved. One sip, so to speak, on either side of that point and you’ve either not achieved it yet, or you’ve blown it.

This concept has always loomed large in my thoughts when I hear people talk about making government run efficiently. Of course that’s the ideal, but how do we know when we’ve achieved it? Only when we pass the point of maximum efficiency. That’s the point at which it costs more to enforce the efficiency than the original inefficiency cost.

I ran this by my late lamented Uncle John a few years back. He was an engineer who spent his working life at DuPont’s Savannah River Nuclear Authority Plant in  South Carolina, doing what, he could not say.

He gave it some thought and then exclaimed, “That’s right! If a pump is operated at over 60% capacity you lose efficiency because you begin to increase the cost of electricity beyond reason.”

In engineering, apparently, you can determine what that point is. In government, quite frankly, it’s a crap shoot, because at some point the savings realized one place are going to manifest themselves as increased costs in other places. Program “A” will be looking good, but program “B” will be going gunny bags.

“If you think education’s expensive, try ignorance,” was a bumper sticker a while back which tried to point out that the costs of an uneducated public surpassed the costs to properly educate that public. Some of those increased costs would be in law enforcement, social services, and a lackluster economy due to a workforce that couldn’t run technical machines; so that the savings gained from not funding education are displaced by the increased costs incurred in controlling the negative effects of an uneducated populace.

Suppose you try to increase efficiency by cutting down on the number of Drivers License examiners. You gain the appearance of efficiency by having lower governmental costs, but that saved cost is shifted to the license applicants who have to spend more time in line and therefore more time off work, etc.

We all have the image of three workers digging a ditch where one poor guy is down in the ditch and the other two are leaning on their shovels. There may be a good reason for that.  My realization came one day when I was deep in the guts of a piece of farm equipment in a position that made it impossible to reach my tools without crawling out and then crawling back in.

I had a hired man who was there to hand them to me but I was moaning to myself about paying this guy eight bucks an hour for 10 minutes of work and 50 minutes of idleness. Then I realized that it would cost me far more in lost time if he wasn’t there. It sure didn’t look efficient, but it was.

It’s always good to strive for perfection, but it’s best to settle for close enough.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620