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March 15, 2005

Parkinson's Law: The Law of Triviality

Last week I wrote a piece concerning Parkinson's Law and how it applies (or may not, up to you) to my favorite whipping boys: the Minnesota legislature. If you'll recall, Parkinson's law states: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for completion." However, that wasn't the only "law" that Parkinson wrote. Today we shall look at Parkinson's Law of Triviality and how it applies to my favorite topic of stadiums in Minnesota (and of course those morons in the state legislature). And please, once again, do not take this too seriously. I only write this because I found Parkinson's Law to be humorously accurate and I wanted to share it with you. Concerning the Law of Triviality Parkinson wrote:

People who understand high finance are of two kinds: those who have vast fortunes or their own and those who have nothing at all. To the actual millionaire a million dollars is something real and comprehensible. To the applied mathematician and the lecturer in economics (assuming both to be practically starving) a million dollars is at least as real as a thousand, they having never possessed either sum. But the world is full of people who fall between these two categories, knowing nothing of millions but well accustomed to think in thousands, and it is of these that finance committees are mostly comprised. The result is a phenomenon that has often been observed but never yet invesitgated. It might be termed the Law of Triviality. Briefly stated, it means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.

Again, according to the Law of Triviality the less an agenda item costs, the more time people at the meeting will want to spend on it. Parkinson goes on to discuss a fictional finance meeting where there are 11 items on the agenda: Item 9 concerns the building of an Atomic reactor for $10 million. Now, the members of the committee are a bit confused by this agenda item. No one knows exactly what an Atomic reactor is, or what it does, and the members certainly cannot comprehend the cost of $10 million and/or why an Atomic reactor costs so much (keep in mind this was written in 1957). The agenda item passes quickly with little discussion. Parkinson writes:

Allowing a few seconds for rustling of papers and unrolling diagrams, the time spent on Item Nine will have been just two minutes and a half. The meeting is going well. But some members feel uneasy about Item Nine. They wonder inwardly whether they have really been pulling their weight. It is too late to query that reactor scheme, but they would like to demonstrate, before the meeting ends, that they are alive to all that is going on.

Next on the agenda is Item number 10: the construction of a new staff bicycle shed. Ho ho! Now here is something everyone can understand. Who hasn't ridden a bicycle? Who hasn't been in a shed? The cost of the shed to be debated is listed at $2350. Parkinson goes on to say:

The debate is fairly launched. A sum of $2350 is well within everybody's comprehension. Everyone can visualize a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some $300. Members at length sit back with a feeling of achievement.

Next on the agenda is Item 11: Refreshments supplied at meetings. And I think you know where this is going. The yearly sum of $57 launches such an acrimonious debate that no decision is made and the agenda item is pushed to the next meeting. Sigh. Raise your hand if you have a better understanding of how the Minnesota legislature works.

Last year, the Minnesota legislature was at the height of ineptness. Nothing of importance was accomplished as our hard-working legislators preferred to squabble about every little detail. The one newsworthy bill they were able to pass was a new law allowing the hunting of mourning doves. What is remarkable about this is how much time this relatively small and inexpensive "agenda item" took to finally pass. Proposals to reinstate a mourning dove hunting season in Minnesota had failed about two dozen times, dating back at least 30 years, and up until last year this issue was debated annually. My favorite quote from last year's debate came from Sen. Sandy Pappas who said that the bird was "really a back-yard songbird" and that there were plenty of birds to hunt without hunting doves. Plus, she added, "there's more meat in one Chicken McNugget than in one mourning dove." Ahhhhh!!! Hold on ... I've got to take a moment to compose myself ... too ... much ... stupidity ... OK, I'm all right.

What does all this have to do with stadiums? Well, as I was reading about the Law of Triviality I was struck with how it didn't really apply to stadiums at all. Stadiums are relatively expensive, which would suggest that the legislature would pass through the corresponding bill(s) quickly. However, stadiums also deal with a topic everyone can understand and visualize: hitting a stick with a ball, or chasing a man with a ball and tackling him. Nothing too complex in either of these sports, at least from the perspective of a typical Minnesota legislator. In other words, stadiums are expensive, but they are not incomprehensible.

Obviously, Parkinson's Law of Triviality won't suffice in this instance. How can we reconcile this? Allow me to give to you the Law of Expensive Triviality, written by me! I know! Get on with your bad self! Anyway, the Law of Expensive Triviality comes in two parts because it is my own law, and I can do whatever I want with it:

The Law of Expensive Triviality

  1. The more expensive a seemingly trivial item costs, the less likely it will be purchased.
  2. Moral indignation rises proportionally to the cost of an expensive trivial item.

To describe this further let's use the example of baseball. Again, from the perspective of a typical Minnesota legislator baseball is not hard to comprehend. It is a sport played by grown men (in the case of major league baseball) and probably many of the children and grandchildren of the legislators. See the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball. A typical legislator thinks to him or herself, "How much money do they want for this? I don't care how many people in the upper Midwest care deeply and passionately for baseball, how much money are they asking for? It will cost that much to see grown men act like children? No way."

This is where the second part of the law comes into play. Because our legislators have probably already mucked everything else up to the point where, again, nothing of importance is being accomplished, they use this opportunity to get really morally righteous. In other words, they start to grandstand. They say, "We shouldn't be paying for stadiums! It is wrong to spend this money on a game my grandchildren play! We should be spending this money on education!" Blah, blah, blah. The sad thing is no one ends up getting anything. Another year goes by without solving any problems. There is a lot of moral indignation, the legislators possibly feel a sense of achievement (we really stuck it to the old man again this year!), but the problem still remains.

Oh well. Like I said above don't take any of this too seriously. I probably can't read the back of a cereal box without thinking of how it applies to the stadium mess in Minnesota (Captain Crunch has a handle bar mustache ... Rollie Fingers has a handle bar mustache ... build a new Twins stadium now!). Anyway, if you are ever in a library I urge you to check out Parkinson's Law by C. Northcote Parkinson. Humourous and thought-provoking, it will give you a new perspective on how bureaucracy works from the meetings in your place of business to the committee meetings at the state capitol. Until next time ...

Posted by snackeru at March 15, 2005 7:34 AM | Stadiums


Easy. Don't call it a stadium. Call it a park. Call it the Minnesota Events and Althletics Park. Then they won't know it's a stadium It will confuse them. So then they'll vote for it in under two minutes. After all, you're going to rename it later for Mighty Dog Field or the like, so what does it matter what you call in in the proposition?

Posted by: Dianna at March 15, 2005 9:22 AM

Speaking of trivial issues please see the recent "important" issues the legistlature has been debating. Booster seats for all kids

Posted by: Jim in St. Paul at March 15, 2005 12:32 PM

Has anyone else had problems with post getting cut off in the preview post stage?

Posted by: Jim in St. Paul at March 15, 2005 12:34 PM

Jim, congratulations, you have found the first bug in my new design. At least the first one someone has reported to me. I have removed the Preview button until I can fix it.

Let me say, though, that we were thinking of the same thing this morning. This booster seat law for all kids 9 years old and under is the perfect example of what I am talking about in this post. It is trivial, to be sure, and everyone is arguing about it. The legislature at its finest.

Dianna, I like your idea to just say we are building a "park." We could even put a swing set in center field or something. It would be our signature, like Minute Maid Park's incline. I love it!

Posted by: Shane at March 15, 2005 12:47 PM

They better call a referendum on the booster seat law. That's the type of legislation that can get a rep voted out of office!

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at March 15, 2005 2:32 PM

So true Craig! No one is going to want to do their jobs on this one. Too much at stake. Better give it to the public to make an uninformed decision ...

Posted by: Shane at March 15, 2005 4:09 PM

I think JOD actually put in a playground area for the kids when they remodeled, so why not? Spectator sports are a form of recreation so you put the legislation through under parks and recreation and explain how this will get 30,000 outside all on the same to day to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.

Posted by: Dianna at March 15, 2005 4:59 PM

The other part of my post that got cut off concerned the legislators trying to pass a bill not allowing 21 year olds to drink until 8 am the next morning. Being in the beer business I always take afront at the "demonizing" of alcohol. I am well aware of the problems with alcohol abuse in society but I believe we need to teach our youth young regarding responsible drinking. Heck, in Belgium the give grade schoolers a low alcohol beer ( -Jiminstpaul

Posted by: Jiminstpaul at March 16, 2005 5:47 AM

I love this post. I've already added it to the meeting agenda for my team meetings at work. Focus!

It's a funny "law," but oh so true.

(PS - you need to work on your preview screens. Sorry if someone has already mentioned this.)

Posted by: bjhess at March 17, 2005 6:22 PM

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