Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Deadly complications of government bureaucracy

Jerry Stratton, April 28, 2021

West Texas Oil Pumpjack: Pumpjack located south of Midland, Texas, by Eric Kounce.; Texas; oil

One of the most durable and reliable machines ever constructed. Their biggest vulnerability: government bureaucracy.

The Permian Basin fiasco reminds me of the other major power crisis I’ve been through, when I did lose power—and the hospital that had kept me in power during the regular California rolling blackouts lost power too. In the 2011 Southwest Blackout Event, power was knocked out in “parts of Arizona, southern California, and Baja California, Mexico” including “all of the San Diego area”.

That’s a huge area. The outage started a little before 3:30 in the afternoon on a Thursday. At the time, power used to go out somewhat regularly for the university where I worked so I decided to head home. There wasn’t much point in waiting for power to come back up. The University had backup generators for servers, so they were fine—but not for offices, so I couldn’t do anything. And my workday ended around four anyway.

I was a little surprised to see that the power was also out to the traffic signal at the bottom of the hill. This outage apparently wasn’t limited to the university.

And then the power was also out at the traffic signal at Fashion Valley, and again all around Hotel Circle. Traffic was badly backed up. I got off of my bicycle and walked it the rest of the way to my apartment.

It took a little longer for the battery backups in cell towers to go out, so I was able to discover how widespread the outage was. Knowing that an outage that large would have a correspondingly long restoration time, a bunch of us at my apartment got food out to the grill at the pool, and drinks of course, and we made a party of it.

I remember going to sleep with the power still out. I didn’t have air conditioning at my apartment—it was San Diego—but I did rely on fans for evaporative cooling, and of course those were all electric. The power outage covered everything that ran on electricity. Besides traffic lights, sewage pumping stations were out of power. The dangers cascaded far beyond no air conditioning on a hot day, though that also was dangerous inland—it reached 115 degrees in El Centro.

The reason for the blackout? A technician was going through a checklist of steps, and at the same time talking to people helping him go through this checklist of steps to prepare for future items on it.

However, because he was preoccupied with obtaining assistance from a maintenance crew to hang grounds1 for a later step, he accidentally wrote the time that he had completed step 6 on the line for step 8. For several minutes, he had multiple conversations about obtaining assistance to hang the grounds. He then looked back at the switching order to see what step should be performed next. His mistake in writing the time for step 6 on the line for step 8 caused him to pick up with step 9, rather than step 7.

These were not emergency procedures. They were designed to avoid creating an emergency. But they were high pressure, and exactly what you don’t want in a high-pressure situation: complicated and tedious, to the point that different steps required distracting out-of-band conversations to prep for while performing previous steps. They were practically designed to create mistakes.

As a programmer, of course, I look at that description—a checklist of steps—and think, “this should have been a computer program”. Humans are for things that can’t be a checklist of steps. Of course, that may not be true: it may be that the checklist required human intervention. If so, it needed to be simplified.

I expect that, instead of simplifying the checklist, it was made more complex. They probably fixed the issue by adding a new checkbox underneath each step, “did you check the right checkbox when checking off the last step?”

The form clearly did not make it obvious that there were blank checklist items. I would not, of course, suggest making the checklist rely on having electricity. That would be as crazy as pushing natural gas producers to use the electrical grid for getting gas to power plants. That’s one of the craziest things I learned from the Texas Freeze. Not that ERCOT accidentally shut down power to natural gas producers. People make mistakes, especially under pressure. We need systems where mistakes do not cascade, and that recover from mistakes. Instead, we’re pushing natural gas producers into not using natural gas to power their distribution system. This ensures that mistakes on the grid cascade into crises.

You know what else was shut down?: “You know what else was shut down by a bureaucrat who had no idea how many lives it was saving?”; memes; COVID-19; Coronavirus, Chinese virus, Wuhan virus, WuFlu; Ghostbusters

Bureaucratic takeovers of markets fail partly for this reason. Bureaucratic solutions rarely cut red tape; they only add more red tape. Rather than cutting through red tape to find the best route from the producer to the consumer, they continue to erect more and more barriers against making the thing and getting it to who needs it. Often, ultimately forgetting that making the thing and getting it to who needs it was the goal to begin with. Getting it where it needs to be is not a reward when you’re a monopoly. All businesses have, to some extent, built-in rewards for pleasing their own bureaucrats and bureaucrats in the government over their “real” customers. But businesses that must compete for customers have the countervailing reward for getting product to customers. They’re punished when another business gets there first and/or better.

Government bureaucracies—including government-sponsored monopolies—benefit only from political CYA, not the better product. They aren’t rewarded for getting what people need to the people who need it. They’re rewarded for adding more and more bureaucratic red tape that gets in the way of people getting what they need when they need it.

It’s why the response to air bags are killing people is never to take a step back and let people choose whether airbags are the right solution for them. Instead, it’s to add more and more complications to how airbags work, to the point that cars are in many ways today just airbags with a vehicle tacked on as an afterthought.

The product gets pushed further and further from the people who need it, until what is ostensibly the reason for the product is ignored in favor of the bureaucratic rewards.

Thus the logic of the PUC unilaterally deciding that intermittent energy sources could be counted for reserve forecasts. Even though our coldest temperatures come at night when there is no sun—nor any guarantee that wind will blow.

Or keeping natural gas producers from using their own natural gas, with the result that natural gas production relies on a grid that itself is unreliable..

It’s a rube goldberg system of unreliable sources, to the point where our power grid relies on sources that fail when they’re most needed. In Texas! And when unreliable sources cause a shutdown of what should be reliable sources, the bureaucrats point in glee and say, see, natural gas is unreliable, too!

These were not solutions to a problem customers were complaining about. They were solutions in search of a problem: some government bureaucrat or politician thought there was a non-market benefit to be had for complicating the system, and they were right: there were bureaucratic rewards from federal and state subsidies to meet goals that did not help provide the service the organization is ostensibly meant to provide. The first two letters in ERCOT literally stand for Energy Reliability. The changes that made it unreliable were forced from the bureaucracy, not demanded by the people actually using the power.

It seems as though whenever we’re told that “markets failed” it turns out there was a government-run or government-controlled bureaucracy behind the scenes pretending it knew the market better than the people actually buying and selling what they wanted to buy and to sell. And pretending they knew what people needed more than the people paying for it and using it.

In response to The plexiglass highway: Government bureaucracies can cause anything to fail, even progress.

  1. From what I gather, “hang grounds” means, literally, grounding part of the system so that it is electrically safe. It discharges any remnants of charge remaining in a system so that it’s safe to work with. And it makes it much less likely that any accidental recharging of the system will harm the people working on it.

    “If it isn’t grounded, it isn’t dead.”

  1. <- Recycling radioactive waste
  2. Gain-of-bureaucracy ->