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A Peek Inside the Bureaucrat's Mind

By now, this story about the city of Portland, Oregon, deciding to drain nearly 8 million gallons of water from one of its reservoirs is old news. Portland Water Bureau administrator David Shaff decided to flush the water after a man was caught on a security camera urinating into the reservoir. There's already been lots of commentary on the utter senselessness of the decision. One comment on the Portland Oregonian's website nicely observed that:
"More than 1 billion people worldwide do not have reliable access to clean drinking water, and here we are tossing away nearly 8 million gallons of water just to appease the ignorant residents who believe their tap water will otherwise turn yellow."
Though I think Shaff himself said it best when he told the Oregonian, "The consensus appears to be that I am an idiot." After all, urine from a healthy adult is sterile, it's already composed mostly of water, and a few ounces of human urine diluted into 8 million gallons of water would expose drinkers to a minute quantity of contaminants measured in the parts per billion range, if not parts per trillion. And the Water Bureau even acknowledged that the reservoir water is commonly exposed to large quantities of animal urine and fecal matter, animal carcasses, trash, and other "pollutants." What I think is most telling, though is Shaff's explanation for the decision: "Nobody wants to drink pee, and I don't want to deal with the 100 people who would be unhappy that I'm serving them pee in their water." How fantastic is that? The Water Bureau decides to waste a few thousand dollars and a few million gallons of perfectly fine water just because the administer doesn't want to get a few angry phone calls. Unfortunately, this kind of decision-making happens a lot -- by bureaucracies both big and small, in this country and in others, and on matters ranging from the trivial, as in this case, to the significant. My colleague Henry Miller often recounts a story of his days as a medical drug reviewer at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:
"The team that I led was ready to recommend approval of recombinant human insulin after only four months of deliberation, at a time when the average time for FDA review was more than two and a half years. With quintessentially bureaucratic logic, my supervisor refused to sign off on the approval— even though he agreed that the data provided compelling evidence of the drug’s safety and effectiveness. “If anything goes wrong,” he remonstrated, “think how bad it will look that we approved the drug so quickly"."
Or how about this explanation from the former head of the Indian government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee for why it took so long to approve a biotech cotton variety that was already being grown commercially on millions of acres in a half dozen other countries, including the United States.
"We took a lot of flak over GM cotton. It was my job to ensure we weren't accused of overhastiness."
In general, I do think that most bureaucrats really are public spirited, and that they do see themselves as servants for the public well being. But they're also people, complete with the normal level of human frailty. And, let's face it, few of us like to be hassled. The problem is, when bureaucrats make decisions, they often affect huge numbers of people -- like Portland, Oregon's half-million residents, or the United States' 300 million, or India's 1.2 billion.