Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lessons in cookie cutting... and government?

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg was making a point about something else entirely when he wrote:
With two boys, 18 months apart, I spent years bisecting cookies with a diamond cutter's care and dividing cake slices with a surgeon's focus, knowing that should one half contain a few crumbs more than the other, the recipient of the smaller piece would howl "It's not fair! His piece is BIGGER!"
Poor, poor Mr. Steinberg. I thought most parents figured this out on their own: If you have two children competing for half of the last cookie, there is no way you can satisfy either of them by trying to divide it yourself.

Instead, tell the one with the better motor skills (usually the older one, but, hey, sometimes a kid is left-handed) that he can cut the cookie in half -- but his sibling gets to pick what half he or she wants.

The appointed divider knows that any inequitable division will result in him getting the smaller piece -- so he (forgive my using the masculine gender here, but it's usually boys in this situation, as it was in Mr. Steinberg's household) will be scrupulous in his efforts to divide the cookie exactly. Meanwhile, the appointed chooser will be measuring crumbs at an atomic level so that he may be assured of snagging the bigger piece, even if it's bigger by only a molecule or two.

Dad's role in this process thereafter is to watch -- mostly making sure one of the two doesn't grab the whole cookie and make a break for it.

Both sides will grumble at the outcome -- but it is quite a different grumbling than occurs if the parent tries to cut the cookie himself. In that situation, both kids will think the old man has favored the other sibling. That resentment will be filed away and surface at the most inopportune times. Like prom night. Or when Dad takes ill and needs help at home.

On the other hand, when the kids do it themselves, both may grumble that the other got away with something -- but their very competitiveness will prevent their giving voice to these inner doubts. To do otherwise would be tantamount to the grumbler admitting that he'd cut poorly... or chosen badly. Of course, each may crow that he got the better deal and poor old Dad may have a new controversy to resolve... but not always.

It's amazing that parents fail to realize that these hard-learned lessons have application outside the home as well.

Consider the role of government. Government is often described as a mediator among competing interest groups. That's a description that applies to snotty little kids, isn't it? And looking at the super-geniuses from BP, Transocean and Halliburton crying "Not me! Not my fault!" in a Congressional hearing room the other day, how could one not think of snotty little kids?

Anyway, when government tries to divide the cookie itself, it becomes resented, distrusted, an object of scorn. But that is one kind of government regulation. On the other hand, when government allocates and supervises the division of the cookie, the interest groups are (usually) pacified. Until the next cookie needs division. This doesn't mean that all government regulation should be done in courts, but a judicial approach -- even outside the courtroom -- is better than a managerial approach.

When I read about reining in Wall Street (and Wall Street's anguished squeals of protest against any government intervention that doesn't just provide them with piles of money when they screw up) I wonder what sort of regulation is contemplated.


Dave said...

A bit of a detour from the point of your post, one of the best books, legal or not, that I've ever read is Democracy and Distrust by John Hart Ely. He posits that govenment's, especially the judiciary's, role is one of making sure the minority doesn't get screwed by the majority - beyond that, let the people play. There's more of course:

Dave said...

I think I may pull it from its box somewhere after reading the blurb at Amazon:

"The Constitution," he writes, "has proceeded from the sensible assumption that an effective majority will not unreasonably threaten its own rights, and has sought to assure that such a majority not systematically treat others less well than it treats itself. It has done so by structuring decision processes at all levels in an attempt to ensure, first, that everyone's interests will be represented when decisions are made, and second, that the application of those decisions will not be manipulated so as to reintroduce in practice the sort of discrimination that is impermissible in theory.

Cristina said...

But are children these days even allowed to cut a cookie all by themselves? Who's fault is it if they hurt themselves with the knife? Helicopter parents of today can't just sit and watch their children do things they don't know how! Its truly mind boggling. The helicoptered generation will soon be running things...I can't wait.