This past weekend we came close to having our home declared an environmental cleanup site. All ended well, but we had the fire department, the police department, an ambulance, and the oil company all converging on our house last Saturday.
Our rural home was built in the 1970s; then most homes, in our area, were built with electric baseboard heat along with a woodstove. We are too far north to need air conditioning, and so we have no duct work for central heat. In the 80s the Japanese invented small, high-tech, and very efficient heaters; one unit can heat up to about 1000 sq ft each. They run off of propane or kerosene which is automatically pumped from a central storage tank. We had our system installed back in 1996 when kerosene was about $.80 a gallon. But no, this is not a piece about energy prices or about ingenious entrepreneurs responding to a need.
Saturday afternoon my wife was working under our deck near our 275 gallon kerosene tank. She began to scream. She had bumped the outflow pipe of the tank with a table and it had broken the pipe off from the tank. Incredibly, she had two very large galvanized steel wash tubs sitting right next to the tank, along with several empty five gallon paint cans. No more than a few drops spilled on the ground before she began to capture the kerosene. But the buckets were filling up and the fire department had not yet responded to our 911 call. My wife and I were trying everything we could do to stem the flow, and in the process kerosene was spraying on us.
We were mere minutes from running out of containers and facing the prospect of having approximately 125 gallons of kerosene empty on the ground when my 13 year old daughter thought of stuffing a rag in the broken pipe; using a screwdriver, we jammed in a rag. The flow slowed to a trickle.
Then the fire department and the police began to arrive. There were five firemen on the scene, and they were bewildered about what to do other than to say, “The Chief will soon be here.”
The Chief arrived and calmly assessed the situation. He was amazed that nothing had spilled on the ground and ordered his team to replace our rag and screwdriver with a whittled stick. The situation was further stabilized, but we still had 125 gallons in the tank and another 30-40 gallons in buckets and tubs. The Chief told us to call our fuel company; he explained that they would have to pump the tank empty before repairing the broken pipe.
Before he left, I asked the Chief how often this type of thing happens; he said that there were six incidents last winter. Given the size of the rural population being served by this fire department, our accident was not an uncommon occurrence.
When the fuel company’s technician arrived, we thankfully learned that there was no need to pump the tank empty. On his truck he had an ingenious gadget that he used to create a vacuum in the tank. With a vacuum in the tank, the pressure outside the tank would prevent kerosene from flowing out; thus allowing him to replace the pipe and valve without any further loss of kerosene. Now this was no high-tech state-of-the-art gadget; rather it appeared to be a low-tech gadget that had been used for quite a few years.
Later that evening when the adrenaline in my body began to subside, I wondered how it was that the Chief and the firemen did not know about this device? This was a trained, professional department; they had come across this type of accident before and will come upon it again. Creating a vacuum in the tank instantly stops the flow of fuel and possibly avoids expensive environmental cleanups. The gadget was clearly not expensive. How, I asked myself, could the fire department not have it as standard equipment?
The oil company’s repairman was equally professional, congenial, and helpful. Yet, when we asked him how we could get the kerosene smell off our bodies, he could offer no suggestions. Ordinary soap and water does little to the smell, and we had kerosene all over us. Yet, a brief search on the internet revealed that lathering inexpensive shampoo on your body would likely do the trick. And amazingly, it instantly did just that. I was again puzzled—how could a repairman who works with this stuff every day not know this remedy.
Now this is not a complaint. I mean that. Everyone acted professionally, and we felt sincere gratitude for their help. Nevertheless, there were important gaps in their knowledge. And let’s not forget the gap in my knowledge as initially my daughter saved the day. The point is that these gaps in knowledge are not failures—they are part of the nature of life.
In “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” perhaps the most important essay written by an economist in the 20th Century, Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek wrote: “…the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”
When most people reflect on this quote, it seems to them to be a self-evident truth. Yet, although Hayek’s essay was written in 1945, collectively as a society, we have not yet learned his wisdom. We frequently set up our institutions and organizations to “wait for the chief.” Even when highly competent and even having the best of intentions, any “chief” will have huge gaps in his or her knowledge. Waiting for the chief is an expensive and inefficient way to organize.
We are waiting for the chief when we think that McCain, Obama, or Congress can figure out solutions to our energy problems better than the market process can. We are waiting for the chief when we think Ben Bernanke can manage the economy better than the market process can. We are waiting for the chief when we have no idea how to heal our own bodies and run to the doctor with every complaint. Of course, there are countless other ways we are waiting for the chief.
Waiting for the chief will often lead to less than ideal outcomes. But waiting for the chief is an attitude of mind; real solutions begin with changing our mind. Our institutions are failing us, and one reason is that we are waiting for the chief.