Common sense from an uncommon man

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

Growing up in Colorado Springs in the 1950s, I dated a girl named Nancy Shoup.
Nancy’s dad, Merrill Shoup, the son of Gov. Oliver Shoup, was one of our small city’s leading businessmen. CEO and chairman of the Holly Sugar Corp., he served on half-a-dozen boards and was an ardent conservative, at a time when “conservative wasn’t cool.”
Mr. Shoup, who was fond of my parents and grandparents, took it upon himself to teach me about business, fearing that I’d become dangerously liberal.
Whenever I arrived at his door to pick up Nancy, he’d summon me to his study, close the door and give me a talking to.
At 16, I thought it not at all odd that the CEO of an NYSE-listed company would want to sit down with me and explain the world — and even listen with amused tolerance to my own callow opinions.
I vividly remember one afternoon when he held forth on government regulation of business.
“Johnny, if you were me, running a company with hundreds of employees, everyone of them expecting to get paid, and expecting me to do my best to pay ’em — and I’ve never missed a payroll, and never will! — how would you like it if some bureaucrat who you wouldn’t pay $300 a month tried to tell you how to run your business? Let me tell you, the government is going to ruin business in this country — they just need to get out of the way and leave us alone …”
Like most of my contemporaries, I thought Mr. Shoup’s ideas were antediluvian nonsense — why, what could be better for the country than sensible government regulation?
Wouldn’t businessmen, left to their own devices, exploit workers, pollute the environment, defraud the treasury and cheat the public? Didn’t businessmen get rich by selling lousy, unnecessary products to unsuspecting customers, pocketing the profits and laughing all the way to the bank?
And weren’t government regulatory agencies staffed by fearless crusaders for truth and justice, not lazy, venal, by-the-book bureaucrats?
Times change. If Merrill Shoup were still alive, I’m sure he’d be happy to know that the kind of wet-behind-the-ears liberalism that I so embraced in those days is all but extinct — but he’d be appalled to realize just how all-pervasive, intrusive and irrational government regulation of business has become.
He’d probably agree, although reluctantly, that some regulation is a good thing, but he’d be aghast at most of it.
Here’s a case in point — one which begins badly and, surprisingly, ends well.
If you’ve ever watched giant earthmoving machines move dirt on a big grading job, you’ve probably wondered just how the operators figure out where to grade, and how much to take off.
Until just a few years ago, the process hadn’t changed for decades. Surveyors stake the site, the machine operator reads the stakes and grade checkers relay the information via hand signals. Pretty primitive, but workable.
But, starting a few years ago, contractors began using GPS technology. By installing GPS receivers and buying appropriate software, the process became much simpler. Machine operators can simply look at a computer screen and see what needs to be done.
Developers embraced this technology, as quicker, cheaper and less error-prone. They were quick to move from paper plans to all-electronic plans, making it easier for contractors to submit timely, accurate bids.
Not so the Army Corps of Engineers. Mired in bureaucratic inertia, the government was slow to alter its bid processes, forcing contractors to revert to the older model of estimating and earthmoving techniques.
That meant that for a typical job at Fort Carson, only a few out-of-state contractors who specialize in catering to quirky government regulations would bother to bid. Local contractors weren’t competitive. By requiring that bidders use obsolete technology, the government had simply closed off the process to the most efficient providers.
It was as if the government, in putting out an RFP for a new phone system, had specified rotary-dial telephones.
Enter Maj. Joel Cross at the Corps of Engineers, who after being contacted by local earthmoving contractors, managed to change things. By the time earthmoving bids were due for the BCT-H complex at Fort Carson, electronic plan specifications were available to contractors. And, sure enough, a local contractor got the job.
So what does that prove? Only this: in an age where extensive regulation is an inevitable part of business, the need for close, cordial and productive contacts between regulators and those that they regulate is imperative.
Mid-level government employees, like Cross, who are close enough to a regulatory situation to understand the actual, as opposed to theoretical, impacts of regulation need to have the power to make appropriate changes, without years of delay.
But it’s a delicate, precarious and even threatening process — one which is full of danger for the government employee who dares to use simple common sense. In the real world, common sense runs afoul of manipulative special interests and legislative busybodies.
And that’s why Jeff Dwire, whose company was the low bidder on the Fort Carson deal, is so impressed with Cross.
“What he did was really miraculous,” Dwire said. “So often, it’s just territorial protection — they sit there and protect their little fiefdoms. And you know, the city and the county still haven’t gone to electronic documents.”
Let’s imagine, for instance, a public school principal who, like Cross, would like to make some changes. Maybe she’d like to control her own budget, have hiring/firing authority, determine her own curriculum. In other words, be a real principal, not just a minor functionary.
Forget it. She can’t do any of these things, because she’s drowning in a sea of good intentions. She’s hemmed in by thousands of rules and regulations, by decades of well-meaning legislation, by the machinations of dozens of perfectly legitimate special interest groups.
Common sense will get her nowhere. To do her job as an educator, she has to fly under the radar. She needs the skills of a finalist at the World Series of Poker — guile, cunning, and the ability to win with a weak hand.
Skills, in other words, that Merrill Shoup would recognize and appreciate. I can almost hear him now …
“Johnny, you go tell Maj. Cross and that poker-playing principal of yours to go into business, run things the way they like, make some real money, and never have to listen to those bureaucrats they wouldn’t pay $300 a month …”
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 634-3223, ext 241.