What Fresh Hell Is This?

My new column is up this week at Forbes.  This week it discusses the regulatory burden on small businesses.  Here is an excerpt:

Typically taxation issues get a lot more attention than these regulatory issues in discussions of government drags on the economy. But these small regulations, licenses, and approvals consume management time, the most valuable commodity in small businesses that typically are driven by the energy and leadership of just one or two people. If getting a certain license is a tremendous hassle in California, large corporations have specialized staff they throw at the problem. When a company like ours gets that dreaded call that the County wants a soil sample from under the parking lot, odds are that the owner has to deal with it personally.

So the ultimate cost of many of these silly little regulations is that they each act as a friction that wears away a bit more available time from entrepreneurs and small business owners. The entrepreneur who has to spend two hundred hours of her personal time getting all the licenses in place for a new restaurant is unlikely to have the time to start a second location any time soon. Since small businesses typically drive most new employment growth in the United States, can it be a surprise that new hiring has slowed?

Incredibly, after the column was in the can, I experienced another perfect example of this phenomenon.

In the camping business, July 4 is the busiest day of the year.  This year, on July 3, I got a call from one of my managers saying that the County health department had tested 20 ground squirrels in the area and found one with the plague.  I know this sounds frighteningly medieval, but for those of you who live out west, you may know that some percentage of all the cute little western rodents, from prairie dogs to chipmunks, carry the plague.  Its why its a bad idea for your kids and dogs to play with them.

Anyway, in the past, we have usually been required to post warnings in the area giving safety tips to campers to avoid these animals, what to do if one is bitten, etc.  At the same time, we then begin a program of poisoning all the lairs we can find.  It's about the only time any government body anywhere lets us kill anything, because only the hardest core PETA types will swoon over rubbing out a rodent carrying the black death.

But apparently, in the past when these mitigation approaches applied, the county health department was not in a budget crunch and in need of high-profile PR stories that would reinforce with taxpayers the need to fund their organization.  This time the health department marched out and closed the campground on July 4 weekend, kicking out campers from all 70 sites.  We spent the day dealing with angry customers, refunding money, and trying to find them new lodging on a weekend where most everything was booked up.  Fortunately we have a large overflow area at a nearby campground and offered everyone a special rate over there.

It is hard to imagine that, given the whole year to test, they just suddenly happened to find a problem at one of the busiest sites in the LA area on the busiest weekend of the year, particularly since they simultaneously changed their mitigation approach from notification to closure.   I have tried hard to find the original time stamp on the press release they sent out.  I can't prove it, but it sure seemed like a lot of media had the story before we (operating the campground) had been informed of a thing.  Incredibly, the health department was directing the campers to a nearby campground that was easily close enough to our campground to share the same rodent populations.  But that campground had not had a positive plague test.  Why?  Because that campground has not been tested recently, at least according to the official who brought us the news.  We're in very good hands.

  • ice eater

    We have all the well intentioned laws we need to arrest you when we decide to arrest you.

    Need a law on the civil servants

  • DrTorch

    So, when are you going Galt, Coyote?

  • LoneSnark

    Did you make sure to tell all your disgruntled customers exactly who was at fault for their useless suffering?

  • LJB

    From the Health Canada website: "10 to 15 cases occur every year in the southwestern United States. In 1996, two deaths were attributed to plague in the United States. These cases resulted from contact with infected wild animals." So it does happen and like you say its transmitted from wild animals, but infections are rare and deaths even more so.

  • A Friend

    You think they are trying to raise money for them. Perhaps they are trying to discredit private management.

  • Michael

    I didn't think coyote was in the business of providing private rodent recreation.

  • NormD

    This raises an serious problem for which I have not seen a "conservative" solution: When government is cut back, its employees can punish their customers in order to restore their funding.

    I have worked in high tech for my entire career. Sometimes business is good, sometimes bad. When its bad, we have to cut back, get more efficient, rearrange things, perhaps lose some people or functions. Everyone understands this. In the extremely rare situations where a worker decided to punish the company for the downturn, they were fired in a heartbeat. What I tended to see was that people increased their effort to help the company make it through the downturn.

    It seems as though the punish the customer attitude is pervasive in government employees. The last thing they want to do is become more efficient since this would show that they were over-funded in the first place.

    How does one fix this? We can cut a government department's funding. If that department then decides to retaliate we can do nothing except live with their behavior unless the department's management decides to stop the behavior and I am guessing they won't. In a private company when employees punish the company they cause it to lose ground to their competitors.

    I can only see two solutions: Replace management (is this practical?)
    Privatize the function (can we privatize heath inspections?)

    If we cannot solve this problem then the government departments will create enough pain so that they will eventually win.

  • caseyboy

    As if we needed another example of government incompetence or government officials grandstanding. Yet we continue to vote the same people in to office year after year. Governments, local, state or federal need a good douche.

  • David

    The answer to your question is simple. Repeal the various civil service acts and return to the spoils system. Make everyone employed by the government fire at will---as in, really fire at will, for no other reason than because the firing authority says so. Then you'll at least have accountability in the executive. An entrenched bureaucracy is unbeatable with the current rules in the long term. If you want to win, you have to change the rules.

  • Methinks

    I run an over-regulated business as well. My regulator wants to kill its prisoners as well. Of course, if they do, then they will no longer be needed themselves - although, they're too stupid to realize this.

  • Mesa Econoguy

    Me too.

    Can't wait for those new & improved! regs.....

  • Ron H.

    NormD,

    A third solution would be to eliminate the health department entirely. It only exists because of a ridiculous notion that business owners are too stupid to look out for their own interests.

    No business wants their customers to be harmed or made sick, especially in these days of almost instant, universal communication. Any rumor of harm to customers can quickly send them elsewhere; an almost certain death sentence for the business.

    I have to believe that business owners and operators would take excellent care of their own interests if the health department wasn't handling that responsibility for them.

  • Rapid

    Ah good old, bacterium Yersenia pestis bringer of much change to Europe - on could argue it was the rats but no matter. Considering how few cases of plague there are in the USA (10-20) and the low mortality, this is beyond ignorance in terms of a reaction. Further, fleas are equal opportunity so unless you kill all the furry hosts, knocking out a few ground squirrels will not prevent the future spread.

  • markm

    There actually is a working model for privatizing such things as health inspections and building code inspections. If you are producing electrical equipment in the USA, you go to a private company for safety certifications: Underwriters Laboratory (UL), or a few lesser-known competitors. UL can be pretty tough about making sure the design and production are right, but they aren't unreasonable; if they were, much of their business would shift to a competitor. OTOH, UL and all the others know that their business depends on their reputation, so they won't pass anything that is likely to malfunction and kill anyone or burn the building down. You might be able to bribe a county building inspector; don't even try it with UL.

  • VMS

    Well, they obviously shut you down in the busiest season because that's the time for the most potential for harm. Lots of customers mean a higher probability of contact with the plague. Of course, it is the time of most actual harm to your business and the camper's enjoyment of the great outdoors.

    That said, these gummint employees should all be fired. Posting meaningful warnings coupled with safety tips seems more than adequate. Camping always entails some risk, and the consumer should decide if (s)he wants to take that reasonable risk, not the gummint. [On the other hand, the government has good reason to ban people from going over Niagra Falls in a barrel.]

    I routinely hike in areas that are posted for rabid skunks (never saw one), but if I ever encountered one, I would know what to do. Also, I hike in bear country, snake country, areas with rocky steep inclines (gee I could slip and fall and hurt myself), areas with poisonous mushrooms (wouldn't dare eat a wild mushroom even if I were sure it were not poisonous), areas with water containing Giardia lamblia and other microbial niceties, etc.

    The gummint should shut down ALL recreational activities in the interest of the health and safety of the ignorant participants. For that matter, driving a car could be hazardous to one's health! Hey, shut down the whole economy!