Column: The Van Halen principle in Washington

In its contract rider, Van Halen specified no brown M&M’s, but that was only a test to see if venues were reading the lighting requirements.

Times file (1996)

In its contract rider, Van Halen specified no brown M&M’s, but that was only a test to see if venues were reading the lighting requirements.

Right there on page 40, in the "Munchies" section, nestled between "pretzels" and "twelve (12) Reese's Peanut Butter Cups," is a parenthetical alert so adamant you can't miss it: "M&M's," the text reads, "(WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)."

This is the famed rider to Van Halen's 1982 concert contract. In a sentence fragment that would define rock-star excess forevermore, the band demanded a bowl of M&M's with the brown ones laboriously excluded. It was such a ridiculous, over-the-top demand, such an extreme example of superstar narcissism, that the contract passed almost instantly into rock lore.

But the color of the candy was entirely beside the point.

"Van Halen was the first to take 850 par lamp lights — huge lights — around the country," explained singer David Lee Roth. "At the time, it was the biggest production ever." Many venues weren't ready for this. Worse, they didn't read the contract explaining how to manage it.

So Van Halen established the M&M test. "If I came backstage and I saw brown M&M's on the catering table, it guaranteed the promoter had not read the contract rider, and we had to do a serious line check," Roth explained.

Call it the Van Halen Principle: Tales of someone doing something unbelievably stupid or selfish or irrational are often just stories you don't understand. It's a principle that often applies to Washington.

One of President Barack Obama's favorite examples of bureaucratic muddle is the government's management of salmon. "The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater," he said in his 2011 State of the Union address. "I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

As the kids say, LOL. Only there's a real issue here. The Interior Department supervises rivers and lakes. The Commerce Department handles oceans. Salmon, inconveniently, live in both. Should there be a new department to handle only salmon? A new department that oversees all water, regardless of salinity? Should the Commerce Department be given all responsibility for salmon regulation even though it doesn't have the infrastructure to manage rivers?

"The salmon issue isn't some kind of blunder," Slate's Matthew Yglesias wrote. "It just reflects the fact that large bureaucracies — whether private sector or public sector in nature — need to make some choices about dividing up responsibilities. Any set of choices entails dealing with some edge cases. It's tough. But absent a constructive suggestion, just pointing and laughing is silly."

And so on Obamacare, the administration recently released a draft of its application to join the health-care exchanges. It was 21 pages long and "as daunting as doing your taxes," the Associated Press reported.

Last week, the administration released the finished product — at five pages. Reviews have been great. But the difference between the two applications is not so cheer-worthy. Most of the pages in the original were there because the application accommodated families of six. A single adult would simply leave those pages blank.

The new application is designed for single adults — that's why it's short. If, for example, you have a family of six, you need to get the form for families, then "make a copy of Step 2: Person 2 (pages 4 and 5) and complete" for each additional family member. The administration cut the page count by making the application much more cumbersome for larger families.

In a similar vein, members of Congress love picking through federal grants to find dubious-sounding research. In a report, "The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope," Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma promised to identify "over $3 billion in mismanagement at NSF." Mostly, the report just mocks research that, on the surface, sounds amusing.

Coburn takes gleeful aim at scientists who've been running shrimp on treadmills. According to the scientists, the treadmills cost about $1,000 out of a half-million-dollar grant. The point is to determine whether ocean bacteria are weakening shrimp populations, a development that would tip the entire food chain into chaos. Coburn's attack is particularly dangerous because it encourages government researchers to conduct science that sounds good rather than science that does good.

It would be nice if the government's mistakes were typically a product of stupidity or bureaucracy. Then we would need only to remove the idiots, fire the villains and cut the red tape. More often, the outrageous stories we hear are cases of decent people trying to solve tough problems under difficult constraints that we simply haven't taken the time to understand.

© 2013 Washington Post

Column: The Van Halen principle in Washington 05/03/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 8:28pm]

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