"I've got one job on this lousy ship, it's stupid, but I'm gonna do it. Okay?"*
The story had all of the elements a good short requires. A child victim, thoughtless State bureaucracy and a perplexed mom. To be a country song, all it needed was a dog.
A preschooler's mom sent her to school with lunch. I'd like to think it also contained an I Love You note - it's the romantic in me. A turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, apple juice and some chips. A "State Lunch Inspector" deemed it unworthy and substituted an approved, school-provided lunch of chicken nuggets, broccoli (a traditional pre-schooler's favorite) and apple slices. The young lady arrived home with a bill.
Crazy, stupid, out of control petty government functionary?
Don't bet on it. That inspector was probably a man or woman a lot like me and my cops - diligent, well-trained, following the rules and enforcing properly-enacted laws.
Oh, it all happens so easily. Somebody comes up with a popular concept - little kids should have a healthy lunch. Who could argue with that? Some four year old who toddles up to the cafeteria table, opens up their Hello Kitty lunchbox and tucks into a half dozen snickers bars.... Mom probably deserves a note or a phone call.
But then someone proclaims "there oughta be a law" and we all lose our minds.
Laws are spectacularly hard to write well. That doesn't stop legislatures from cranking them out by the gazillions, but many of them are a jumble of well-intentioned nonsense. According to Dumblaws.com it is illegal in New York to "flirt." Can you imagine trying to define the act and deciding whether someone has violated the law?
I can. I do stuff like that every day.
And people like me all across the country do it, too. Not because it's personal, or they have some axe to grind. It's because the people's representatives have decided to formally restrict, require, prohibit, regulate - in short, do all of the things government does when trying to alter a person's behavior. Then, they assign someone the enforcement task.
If you ask - "What next, a copy of a bar code proving that the chicken was organic?" the answer is painfully clear. Yup, that could be next. You've already let me into the lunchbox and given me a set of guidelines to evaluate how "balanced" it is. Changing those guidelines is simple. It's the initial intrusion that's the big hurdle. Once society stands for that, the game is over.
I'm not addressing profound arrogance of some politicians, bureaucrats and petty officials overwhelmed by their own awesomeness. They require little, if any, encouragement to order folks about in petulant meanspiritedness. I don't think that's what's going on here.
The breathtaking majority of public servants are service-oriented, decent people, trying to do a good job, acting primarily to enforce rules they didn't make. Kiddo has to have a veggie to go along with their chicken sandwich? The inspecter didn't make that rule, somebody with the legal authority to write it did. No carrot sticks...that'll be $1.25. Sorry, no checks.
This is the society we have. You think it's silly to have School Lunch Inspectors?
Change it. Don't blame the men and women who end up only doing what they are asked to do.
UPDATE: Maybe I was wrong - "Bob Barnes, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, told the McClatchy News Service Thursday that the first preschooler to make headlines just misunderstood her teacher when she thought she was told to ditch her homemade lunch for one from the cafeteria: the cafeteria items were only meant to supplement the food groups missing from the homemade lunch" (HT: The Blaze).
So, the problem wasn't an HHS guideline, it was a pre-schooler who did not understand the distinction between "supplement" and "supplant." That makes me feel MUCH BETTER.
*Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver), "Galaxy Quest," 1999