The Most Thankless Job in the World

I'm not really going to write about Hurricane Katrina. It's hard for me to believe there's actually anything left to say.

What I do want to talk about is the most thankless job in the world. It's the one where you're in charge of making sure something doesn't happen. Usually this has to do with security, but it can take on other forms as well.

There was a guy on the janitorial staff of the firm where I used to work whose job it was to make sure the bathrooms didn't run out of toilet paper or paper towels. Once when the paper towels ran out, people got mad at him.

It was the first time in eleven years it had happened. It never occurred to anyone that for eleven years he'd done a great job.

If the computer systems at your job never get hit by a virus, you're probably not going to throw a party for the computer department, for two reasons:

First, you're not going to notice that nothing happened because, well…nothing happened.

Second, when are you going to throw it? After a week? A year?

People whose job it is to make sure nothing happens are dead meat. If they do their jobs perfectly, nobody notices. If they screw up, they're toast. There's no upside.

Okay, that's kind of obvious. But here's what's not so obvious, and it's what makes that kind of job truly terrible:

Generally, the more money you spend to make sure something doesn't happen, the more likely it is that nothing will.

It's not hard to secure a school against some kid coming in with a gun and shooting people. It's very simple: You put an armed guard with a metal detector at every entrance, and then you surround the building with more armed guards to watch the windows, plus a few on the roof with anti-aircraft guns in case a kid decides to hijack a helicopter.

That school will never have a shooting incident. Guaranteed.

But it will cost about $3.5 million a year.

That's the thing about security. The more you pay, the more you get.

So you might think that people who prevent disasters are always asking themselves this question: "How much do I have to spend to assure that nothing terrible happens?"

You'd be wrong. This is the question they ask: "What's the least amount of money I can spend to make sure nothing happens such that, when it doesn't happen, nobody will think I spent too much?"

Here's a little story. In the late 90s the threat of a "Millennium Bug," also known as the Y2K problem, loomed large. A lot of computer systems used only two digits for the year in a date because, back when they were first written, few programmers took into account that they'd still be running when the year 2000 rolled around. So the thinking was that a lot of these systems, some very critical, were going to fail on January 1, 2000.

An effort was mounted to modify these systems to make sure they kept running. It was a monumental task and virtually every I.S. department in the country was involved, in both the public and private sectors. It cost millions of man-hours and billions of private and government dollars.

It was an astounding success. On January 1, 2000, hardly anything went wrong.

About a week later a member of Congress got up and ripped to shreds all the "alarmist" government officials who had backed this effort and spent money on it. He decried it as a huge waste of time, a boondoggle and a fraud.

The reason he felt this way was that nothing happened on January 1, 2001. Because nothing happened, he concluded that the Y2K problem hadn't existed in the first place.

Let's get back to Hurricane Katrina.

We know that there were a lot of problems in responding to the disaster. One head rolled, the head of FEMA, but when all the yelling is done, not many others are going to suffer a similar fate.

Now picture this scenario:

A Category 5 hurricane is predicted to hit New Orleans. The mayor and governor put into place the emergency plan (the same plan that was on the books but not put into place for Katrina). The entire city is evacuated, an almost unimaginable disruption to people and businesses. Ten people die during the evacuation, four of them hospital patients who couldn't tolerate the move, the others from heart attacks or accidents. Total cost is $2 billion.

When the hurricane is 200 miles from landfall, it suddenly veers back into the ocean. New Orleans experiences nothing but a light drizzle.

How would you like to be the guy who made the call to evacuate?

Probably about as much as you'd like to be the guy who didn't for Katrina.

The job just plain sucks.

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