Friday, February 4, 2011

Office Management

Last summer, I collected and dried a lot of fruit: cherries, apples, and mulberries.  Dried fruit lasts for a long time, but there is a small chance that it could get moldy if you leave it at room temperature, so I kept it in clear plastic zipper bags in the department fridge, eating it a little at a time.  I thought it would be fine there; there is almost nothing in the fridge, it is rarely used, and nobody ever cleans it out.

When I went to get my lunch today, my fruit was gone.  Our new office manager had, without any warning, cleared out the fridge.  I went out to the hall trash can and saw that it had already been emptied.  I was not going to let that fruit go.  I had put a lot of work into it, and you simply cannot buy stuff like it.  I found the janitors, asked them where the trash bag was, and then followed their directions to the big dumpster by the loading dock.  After opening three trash bags, I found my fruit.

I understand that there was some old junk in the fridge.  But you do not just throw away food and containers without any warning.  You need to give people advance notice before doing things like that.  If there is a problem, you solve it by setting clear rules ahead of time, not by arbitrary unannounced action.  The office I used to work at had a perfectly sensible policy: The fridge would be cleared out at 4:30 every Friday.  Everything would go, and everyone knew it.  There was a sign on the fridge saying exactly what would happen.  The fridge stayed clean, despite lots of use, and nobody ever lost anything.

I would think that anybody could tell the difference between perfectly preserved bagged dried fruit and spoiled old leftovers.  But because one or two people had left some junk in the fridge, they reacted by throwing out anything that had been in there for more than a few days.

This is a perfect example of the things we teach in basic Econ class: misallocation of a public resource, followed by an ignorant and wasteful government intervention.  The problem could have been prevented by good institutions, in the form of a well-known policy, but instead we have to deal with the destructive consequences of arbitrary dictatorship.

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