The Government, the Private Sector, Chocolate Chip Cookies, and a Flag-Waving Member of the Local Chapter of Kiwanis – an Anecdote

I had a post earlier today about the government and the private sector, and the relative (in)efficiencies of each. Which got me to thinking about why the government can sometimes be so damn inflexible…

I think back to something I once saw on tv. My recollection is hazy, I think this was just after my comps in grad school and my brain wasn’t entirely there. I think it was on a C-Span, and I think it was the head of some cookie company testifying before Congress. Anyway, this guy showed up with a prop – it was this enormous book, which he said was the US Army manual on making cookies – presumably for contractors, if they wanted to sell cookies to the military.

And the guy said with a smirk (and I do remember that), something like this:

“This is the US Army’s specs on a chocolate chip cookie. But my company sells more cookies every day than the Army eats. And we don’t have no stinking manual like that. We have a recipe. And we do just fine. See how inefficient the gubmint is! Bad gubmint! Bad gubmint!”

Now, even if my memory is faulty and I’ve hallucinated this whole thing, there are plenty of good captains of industry who will compare their own way of doing business to that of the government quite favorably. Some of them are, no doubt, right.

But some of them…. Well, I know a little about how the military contracts. I do a little bit of work for the military. And a bit for NASA and similar agencies. Sometimes, the work I do involves looking at some of the contracts they give out to try to spot early signs of non-performance and the like. And if the Army ended up with an 8 pound tome on making cookies, which may or may not be the case, I know exactly how it happened. And my bet is that the dude with the smirk, he not only knew how it happened, but was the cause of at least 4 of the 8 pounds…

Say there’s an Army base opening up in the middle of them states that Right Wingers like to call the real America. And say somewhere in the state there’s a company that makes cookies. And say its 1952, or 1962, or at most 1972. Now, sooner or later the Army base and the cookie maker will get together, because Army personnel, like the rest of us, enjoy a good cookie. Do you know that you can give comfort cookies for someone whom you know struggling for something?

So the procurement folks at the Army try a few cookies, decide they’re satisfactory, and put in an order for A chocolate chip cookies at price B every day. And for a month, things are good. And then some of the Army personnel start to joke about how the cookies are getting smaller. A month later, there is a new, one page spec on cookies. It only indicates that all chocolate chip cookies must be C inches in diameter.

And for another month all is well. But then, the number of chocolate chips in each cookie starts to magically decrease. Another month goes by, and there’s a new Army spec, indicating not only that all chocolate chip cookies must be C inches in diameter, but that to qualify as “chocolate chip” cookies, they must have at least D chocolate chips.

Now, you might wonder – why doesn’t the Army just cancel the contract? Well, there are a few reasons. One is that the cookie maker is well connected, and canceling the contract is going to piss off one the local congressional delegation. Another is – who the heck else is going to make the cookies? How many bakers that can handle that kind of daily volume were there in the middle of Idaho or Alabama in 1952?

So the process continues… Eventually, the Army has a spec that indicates even situations that a rational person would say – “This makes no sense. Everyone knows that.” But the rational person wouldn’t realize that when the Army specifies that no sawdust is to be used in making flour, or that no more than X parts of per million of rat droppings will be in the cookie, that the Army has a damn good reason for having that in there, namely that some upstanding leader of the community who waves a flag and is a member of the local Kiwanis actually tried to pass such things off on American military personnel. And of course, that upstanding leader of the community who waves a flag and is a member of the local Kiwanis is happy to lecture one and all about how much more efficient the private sector is than the public sector – exhibit A being the Army’s specs on making a chocolate chip cookie.