Rube Goldberg, for those of you who are unaware, was a cartoonist who is probably best known for his satirical sketches depicting overly complex and convoluted machines designed to perform simple and mundane tasks. In one of his cartoons he shows a contraption for a self-operated napkin. The man sitting at the table enjoying his soup lifts his spoon with one hand which pulls on a string which then jerks a ladle that in turn tosses a cracker to a parrot which then jumps to catch the treat upsetting a bowl of seeds on the opposite end of the perch. These seeds then fall into a bucket putting extra weight on a chord that opens a cigar lighter setting off a firework which cuts a string and allows the pendulum of a clock to swing back and forth. At the end of that pendulum is a napkin which passes in front of the mouth of the wearer and wipes his mouth. Of course the fact that such a device was not necessary because the man’s other hand is not doing anything except sitting on the table is not missed by anyone paying attention. All this man had to do was pick up his napkin in his other hand to wipe his mouth rather than wear such a funny device.
Such overly complex contraptions have become known as Rube Goldberg devices and every year there are even contests held in his honor where people construct machines which go through a myriad of often unrelated steps to do simple tasks such as turning on a light switch. The point is to be not only humorous, but to show off engineering skills because these complex contraptions rely on all sorts of natural forces and are not as easy to construct as one might imagine. Often times debugging these contraptions to make them work properly is more of the trick than anything else.
Over the course of the years the American economy has become one huge Rube Goldberg device as well. It should not be one, but it is.
Try to get something that you want or need in life and think about everything that is being done so that you can buy said thing. For the sake of example, let’s look at the often used and universal example of the widget.
A man wants a widget. So how does he get one? Well, to the untrained eye it might appear that he just goes down to the local widget dealership, finds one he likes and then pays for it and drives off the lot. The only part of the Rube Goldberg device he is seeing however is the napkin wiping the mouth of the soup eating man. What is behind the scenes is actually much more complex and overly so.
In order for him to actually get the widget it requires much, much more to happen. Most of this is unnecessary. First the person that wants to build widgets has to apply for things such as business licenses and approvals from possibly several government authorities. If any one of these groups refuses for any reason then no widgets will be had. Then the person looking to make widgets often has to obtain a loan in order to capitalize his or her business. This requires going to the bank and, once again, filling out all sorts of applications; many of which are government required forms which add another layer of bureaucratic mess to the mix. Then once the loan is acquired the businessperson needs to build their facility. Once again this requires filling out forms and permits galore for local, state and federal authorities. The process often includes the government making demands, some reasonable but most wholly unreasonable, of the businessman or woman which affect the overall design and cost of the soon to be built widget plant. There are inspections to make sure everything meets with the government’s approval and so on.
Oh, but that is not then end of the Rube Goldberg device. Nope. There is more!
When it comes to the business owner hiring his or her workforce even more unnecessary mechanisms are added to the process. Every employee hired not only has to meet the qualifications of being competent in their job and capable of contributing to the making of a quality widget but also fall under government guidelines as to the color of their skin and even their gender. You have to have enough women and minorities after all ... even if there are not enough that are qualified for the positions that are applying or if other races and genders are just by the reality of it all more qualified for reasons that have nothing to do with race or gender. Then once these people are hired the widget maker has to abide by all sorts of labor laws and take a percentage of each worker’s paycheck to placate government and its lust for dollars.
And if you think this is the end of the road for our widget making contraption, think again. There are taxes paid in transportation costs for every gallon of fuel spent and mandated by governments both large and small as well as retail licenses for the distributors that sell the widgets. But let’s also not forget all the ongoing fees for lawyers and compliance officers within the company that spend every hour of their work day solely making sure that the company does not run afoul of some government regulation or another and that must defend the company if such a violation is even suspected.
Only once all this is accounted for can our widget desiring person actually go down to their local widget dealership and purchase the widget of their dreams. Only once government hands are appeased at every turn and a cost is paid do the shelves or lots become filled with bright, shiny widgets for sale.
Much like the often problematic Rube Goldberg devices each of these cogs introduces a higher level of complexity to the entire system. Each new cog also introduces a point of potential failure where the decision of just one bureaucrat can cause there to be no widgets available for purchase. Time and again we see that somewhere along the line one or more of these cogs fails to work properly and the whole system grinds to a halt. When the one that is currently broken finally gets fixed another invariably rears its ugly head to threaten the whole process once again.
Sometimes, although rarely, certain of these cogs are indeed necessary. Government does have a very limited role in making sure that the general welfare of its citizens is maintained and promoted. A local municipality is perfectly within its right to suggest that a busy and noisy factory which would run twenty-four hours a day is not appropriate to be built in the heart of a residential neighborhood for example.
The problem arises when all government is stacked on top of itself. When the regulations that businesses which drive our economy must deal with are looked at cumulatively and when they start to impede upon the ability of the citizenry to obtain the goods and services they want and can afford and which infringe upon no rights of others is when everything starts to get messy. It is when the government at some level decrees that the busy and noisy factory to run twenty-four hours a day, ready to produce a good the people desire, cannot be built at all either by absolute rule or by cumulative regulation that makes its building impossible that everything has failed.
When government gets involved the level of cost always increases. Those costs are always passed on to the end user who is lowest on the ladder, with the least skill and the smallest ability to pass on those costs to another. Eventually however when the Rube Goldberg device becomes too complicated and the costs becomes too high there is nothing left for anyone. Not the business owner. And certainly not the consumer.
The business owner walks away. And the consumer is left yearning for widgets.
Copyright ©2010 J.J. Jackson