Waiting for the Chief

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.

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7 Responses to Waiting for the Chief

  1. Frank v2 says:

    Dr. B,

    Your kerosene soaking incident sounds quite scary. You must be thankful that the kerosene did not leak into the ground: the environmental clean up costs could have been the equivalent of several years’ worth of kerosene purchases.

    I thought your comment on “waiting for the chief” was interesting. Clearly, as Hayek suggests knowledge is dispersed and resides at various levels of an organization, or economy for that matter. In my mind a good chief is not the one with all the knowledge, but rather the individual that has the skill set to empower the various players in society in order to leverage the knowledge that is resident within each of the individual members.

    Probably one of the best new tools for out there today is the Internet: in my mind it is a great device for bringing together dispersed knowledge. Your shampoo solution is a great example. The oil delivery experts did not know this trick, just as the expert fire chief did not know that creating a vacuum in the tank would stop the flow of the kerosene. Each one of these people though are experts in a narrow niche: again demonstrating the concept of dispersed knowledge. Because you chose not to look up, but rather to use your own talent to search the Internet, you were able to bring the missing bits of information to the surface.

    So my point is this: we don’t need a chief to run the country, but rather we need a leader. And the leader’s primary job should be to empower the nation and leverage the various skill sets that exist, and not try to interfere or control the players or the outcome. And perhaps the primary skill that he or she needs is to learn is how to Google in order to link together the dispersed knowledge resident within the members of our nation. 

  2. Frank,

    It was frightening and we are very thankful!

    Many of the Founding Fathers envisioned the President to be a steward of the great principles of this country and not a chief. We have a come a long way in the wrong direction.

  3. Jim D says:

    It was Teddy Roosevelt who said that a managers duty was to tell his employees what he wants done, give them the tools to do it, and then get out of the way–a clear nod to the fact that the employees will know what to do, and like Frank says, empower them.

  4. Bob G. says:

    The last 75 years or so have had such exponential change on so many fronts, that we have no data points that are meaningful to plug into our sophisticated models.

    This lack of understanding creates plenty of opportunities for many to rely on the “great man” or to “wait for the chief” as too many subrogate the hard work of awareness and the lessons of history to the false prophets and self-proclaimed experts who are quite content to maintain the status quo in their interests! Class warfare is more about the “governing” vs. “the governed” than anything else although it is often disuguised as something else and then packaged for collective consumption to the governed who are all too willing to buy into the easy fixes and false promises over and over again.

    Like one who is being boiled in a pot that is very slowly having the temperature turned up gradually, most do not even suspect what is going on until it is much too late!

    Bob G.

    Bob G.

  5. Jim,

    “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”—George Patton

    Bob,

    Last night I was reading Paul Gigot’s outstanding and sobering piece in the WSJ titled the Fannie Mae Gang. This is Gigot’s conclusion:

    The abiding lesson here is what happens when you combine private profit with government power. You create political monsters that are protected both by journalists on the left and pseudo-capitalists on Wall Street, by liberal Democrats and country-club Republicans. Even now, after all of their dishonesty and failure, Fannie and Freddie could emerge from this taxpayer rescue more powerful than ever. Campaigning to spare taxpayers from that result would represent genuine “change,” not that either presidential candidate seems interested.

    We are indeed being boiled!

  6. igli1969 says:

    As an Army officer, I was taught, both explicitly and implicitly, that my job was to tell an NCO (sergeant) what needed to be done. Then, just stand back and let him do it. (Although, as I learned later, it was a good idea to check occasionally to make sure he was doing it within the relevant regulations!) What could be more top-down than the military? Yet as civilians, we are taught in state-run schools, both explicitly and implicitly, that we should follow the leader.

    The lecture method seems to be used even more today (from conversations with my 18-year-old daughter) than it was in my experience. Students in this situation are implicitly taught that knowlwdge comes from an expert. Yes, there are research projects, then and now, but they are typically just turned in, rather than shared within the class, so learning is again compartmentalized.

    I agree that Google is changing things. It seems to me that Google is bringing disparate pieces of knowledge together in a similar way to how the market works. In the market, people that can bring the right pieces of knowledge together at the right time, adding their own entrepreneurial twist, can make big money. Like starting Google.

    Those using Google can save time and discomfort by finding the answers they need quickly, without having to wait for the teacher to come back to the classroom, or the leader to ride in on the white horse. In my experience, most of those called leaders resemble the south end of a north-bound horse.

    Chris C.

  7. E says:

    Wait for the Chief. Yes we can. This is the defining moment in history. This is your moment Prof B… This is your Time. (For what, I have no idea.)

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