Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Carefully Balanced Tray

Perhaps you have seen something like this; if not, most of us have been in restaurants enough to imagine it:

A busy restaurant. The wait-staff ranges among the tables balancing trays carefully loaded with meals. Each waitress knows how to load and unload the tray to maintain balance and avert meals crashing to the floor. Among themselves they call this the ‘free-tray-loading system’.

A new assistant manager shows up. This new assistant manager has no experience working in a restaurant, has no knowledge of the actual operations of a restaurant, but he has eaten in many restaurants, has a Harvard law degree, and has the power (perhaps he’s the owner’s nephew) to improve things.

This new, bright, superior assistant manger sees something he does not like in the way some trays are loaded. Because of his education and high IQ, he knows he can make an improvement, so he begins fiddling with (“improving”, he says) how the plates are arranged as the waitresses and waiters pass. This continues for several days, as waiters cope with the rebalanced loads, and the assistant manager gains confidence in his expertise.

Up to this point, there hasn’t been a tray dropped in the restaurant for many years.

One day, after the assistant manager makes an adjustment, the waitress progresses 20 feet towards her table while struggling with the unbalanced tray, then drops the entire thing. Food and dishes crash to the floor, splattered patrons upset their own tables as they jerk in surprise, and the restaurant business comes to a halt – a major crisis.

The assistant manager could respond in one of two ways:

1) “Oops! I guess I better leave things to the people who know what they are doing.”

2) “This just shows that the wait staff doesn’t know how to load and handle trays on their own. The ‘free-tray-loading system’ has failed. I must step in and manage this.”

The Parable Explained

With Congress and the previous several Administrations ever more active in fiddling with how the experts ran the mortgage markets, fiddling by the Bush administration brought trays crashing to the floor, causing a crisis in the entire financial system.

Congress and the new Administration have solemnly given response number 2.

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