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Jack Smith

The stuff that laws are made of: As trash cans multiply, so does the trash

March 05, 1985|JACK SMITH

All of us encounter frustrations that are so common they seem to fall under some kind of law, which we can formulate--thus Murphy's Law, Parkinson's Law and the Peter Principle.

"Allow me," writes Bill Cuddy, "to introduce you to Borchert's Law.

"Some years ago Rudy Borchert and I were associated in business. . . . Contemplating the acquisition of a large credenza for my office, I mentioned it to Borchert. I explained that I needed more storage; my desk was a mess.

"He said: 'If you get it, before you know it, it will be overflowing.'

"Borchert's Law was born."

At the time, Cuddy recalls, he had three trash cans. He bought three new ones, and soon found himself lugging six full trash cans out each Tuesday.

"We are currently in active search for a bigger home," he concludes.

Borchert had not expressed his law as a law, but as a specific prediction, in the case of the credenza. Cuddy reformulates it as follows:

"Newly acquired space will fill to the level of original space."

It is of course a corollary to Parkinson's Law: "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion," which is the foundation of the bureaucratic system.

An obvious corollary to Parkinson's Law is, "Work expands to occupy the number of employees available to do it."

It was upon those two simple principles that our trillion-dollar bureaucracy was erected, and upon which it feeds.

I had lunch the other day with a well-known intellectual, a wealthy businessman who in semi-retirement devotes his time to world travel, geopolitical studies and membership on various boards and commissions.

We were discussing personal computers, and he said that he had finally acquired one and it made it possible for him and his secretary to do so much more work that he soon had to acquire a second computer and a second employee, to handle the overload; today, he said, he has three computers and three secretaries.

I had one personal experience with the bureaucracy. I was stationed for a short time in Washington, D.C., for a period of "indoctrination" as a Marine Corps combat correspondent at the Navy Annex. We all put in an eight-hour day at the office, trying to stretch out our work to fill the time; and I noticed that every day as the clock neared 4:30 everyone began securing his desk and edging toward the exit, so as to waste not a minute in departing on time.

I was given an assignment to write a speech for the general in charge of our unit. He was to deliver it on the occasion of the Marine Corps' birthday. I could easily have written it in an hour--spontaneous and with feeling, and just enough facts to get by on a gung-ho occasion like that--but I had to fill the time allotted to me, and so I picked away at it for days, discussing it with the lieutenant in charge, until it was regarded as foolproof. In other words, it sounded just like any other bureaucratic speech of that era.

I wonder how many men and how many computers it takes to write a general's speech today?

As for Borchert's Law, I think it could be rephrased as follows: Impedimenta will increase to fill the space available for its storage.

When it comes to implementing that one, my wife has no peers.

Not long ago I got rid of a couch that I had made for my workroom. I needed the wall space for more bookcases. It certainly is a law, in my case, that the number of books one possesses will increase to fill the bookshelves available. I had books spilling over and decided to part with the couch and install a seven-foot bookcase.

But what to do with the couch?

We put it temporarily under the window by the front door. Where, at once, it began to be a catchall. It was a handy place to drop anything you happened to bring into the house and didn't know what to do with.

At the moment it holds a sack of my cast-out clothing for the Goodwill, two cartons full of my wife's paper work, a large cooking implement; a basket containing all our Christmas cards, numerous books and magazines, and two large outdoor clocks that our daughters-in-law gave my wife for Christmas to hang outdoors, so she'd know it was time to come inside and start cooking my dinner.

So far as I know, no one has ever sat on the couch.

The other evening I overheard my wife trying to get one of our daughters-in-law to take it off our hands:

"Yes," she was saying, "you could put it down in your family room. No, we don't need it. It's nothing but a catchall."

My daughter-in-law was too smart to take it, though.

I suppose it will have to go to the Goodwill, or the Pasadena Art Alliance, for their Treasure House Sale.

The question is, when it's gone, where will we put the stuff that's on it now?

My theory is that if we hadn't had the couch to put it on we wouldn't have that stuff. We'd already have given the clothes to the Goodwill; we'd have put up the clocks; we'd have thrown out the Christmas cards; my wife would have put her boxes of paper work in her filing cabinets, where they belong, or thrown them out.

The only way to stay ahead is to move into a smaller house, with less space, and buy another trash can.

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