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Ballpoint pens and breakfast cereal

November 17, 2012

[J.P.'s Moment of Common Sense on Broad View, KBZZ 1270 AM and 96.1 FM in Reno. Listen live Saturdays at 2:00 PM Pacific Time.]

Ever notice how skinny the breakfast cereal boxes have gotten? They’re still the same height and same width so they look the same on the grocery store shelf, but when you open them you suddenly realize how thin they are. You can barely get your fingers inside to open the doggone bag, and after pouring two or three bowls the cereal is pretty much gone.

Cereal boxes are so skinny now the corn flakes have to enter single file at the Kellogg’s factory.

Ballpoint pens are another example. Tuesday I watched a lawyer hand a client two different pens so he could sign some papers and both of them were dry. Every pen I pick up seems to be dry. I’m old enough to remember when we wrote letters by hand, took notes in school with pen and paper, and filled out checks to buy stuff instead of using credit cards, but somehow those old Bic pens lasted forever. Why did the pen makers take all the ink out of the pens?

Accountants, that’s why. The biggest mistake you can make is putting accountants in charge of your business.

A businessman makes and sells a product, and the better his product and the better he makes it, the more money he makes. Being a successful businessman is a rewarding, creative, entrepreneurial thing. But it’s tempting when the business gets large to hire someone pragmatic to run it and way too often people turn to the guy with the numbers. Unfortunately, accountants sound real good in job interviews.

The first time they hired an accountant to be CEO at Kellogg’s, the guy said something like this:
“If we narrow the boxes by two millimeters that will be ten fewer corn flakes per box... times 500 million boxes manufactured every year... that’s a total of fifteen million dollars a year in savings on corn and cardboard. And the customers won’t even notice two millimeters is missing.”
Then the accountant got a five million dollar bonus for saving fifteen million dollars, had another great job interview, and moved on to the next company... probably a ballpoint pen company. After he was gone, another accountant came in and shaved another two millimeters off the cereal boxes. That’s the history of cereal and you heard it here first.

Meanwhile the ballpoint pen manufacturers keep reducing the amount of ink, MacDonald’s shrunk the meat in their cheeseburgers to the point where you can’t even see it, car companies are making fenders so thin you can bend them with a fingertip, and farmers are packaging berries in plastic containers that look like pints but only hold about ten blackberries. You know what I’m talking about – you’ve got your own examples.

This is what accountants do, and by accountants I mean the kind of people who think in very narrow static terms about the effect of their decisions on the bottom line. “Penny wise and pound foolish” we used to call them. It’s not just cereal companies hiring them – the government is full of them, too.

It’s accountants from the government who keep mandating thousands of government standards for car companies, each one of them analyzed in the same penny-wise-pound-foolish manner that makes Kellogg’s think nobody will notice how skinny their corn flake boxes are. The seat belts have to be like this, the bumpers have to be like that, the airbags have to be here and perform to this precise standard, the brakes have to work exactly like we tell you... “Hey, don’t worry,” the government accountants say each time, “this will only cost a few pennies!”

Meanwhile the cars are so restricted by government fiat they look like they were all designed by the same committee. I can’t tell one model from another anymore. They’re just boxes with wheels... and by the way three months ago the government accountants decided car companies should start shaving millimeters off those boxes until they get 54.5 miles per gallon. Never mind how small they’ll have to be to get that kind of mileage or how much the people who drive them will hate them.

When accountants come in and ruin the cereal boxes, you can stop buying cereal and have eggs for breakfast – it’s hard to shave a chicken – but when the government starts putting accountants in charge, there’s not much you can do about it. You’re stuck. They have the force of law behind what they do, and more and more often they’re making penny-wise-pound-foolish decisions and stuffing those decisions down our throats. Exactly like accountants can wreck ballpoint pens and cereal boxes, government accountants are ruining our society.

Obamacare, for example, was supposed to fix some minor problems with the healthcare system and only cost pennies, but now we see people getting fired everywhere, taxpayers facing enormous penalties, and health insurance being designed by a government committee instead of by customers’ needs. Congress arguing about raising taxes to raise billions while the deficit continues to be measured in trillions is a perfect example of penny wise and pound foolish. So is the recent decision by the Interior Department to remove billions of dollars of oil shale from the market to save a few pennies worth of birds.

Short-sighted decision after short-sighted decision is being stuffed down our throats because we put small-minded accountants in charge of our lives.

That's... today’s dose of common sense.

"I never get the accountants in before I start up a business. It's done on gut feeling, especially if I can see that they are taking the mickey out of the consumer." – Richard Branson

"Bureaucrats: they are dead at 30 and buried at 60. They are like custard pies; you can't nail them to a wall." – Frank Lloyd Wright

From Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA       

November 19, 2012 - Is it the misguided accountant that's creating a problem or the gullible consumer who continues to buy a mediocre product? Is it Obama-care that is responsible for the massive lay offs and down sizing or do these consequences rest on the shoulders of the society who elected him. These are the questions I have to ask as I watch what's unfolding here in the US. – Samantha, Michigan

November 19, 2012 - some ppl are retarded – anonymous, Missouri
J.P. replies: Yes.

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