Warren Buffett once famously said, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Of course, Mr. Buffett was referring to the economy, but with the recent pandemic’s receding tide, we are beginning to see that the quote has broader applications.
It’s hard to frame rebuttals to the observations that many healthcare professionals have left their fields or that workplaces that depended on large numbers of people working in offices are now learning to deal with new remote work experiences. The pandemic revealed cracks in the foundations of many of our social institutions and showed the limits of our resilience for our examination. What we do about these conundrums remains to be seen.
Not to be flippant, but one area that showed plenty of resilience and initiative was the fraudulent activities of people who saw an opportunity to promise to deliver a service or goods and just raked in the dough. The government acted rightly with all kinds of pandemic relief programs to ease the crisis, and just as promptly, thieves, scoundrels, swindlers, and cons moved in to make a killing on what they saw as a free lunch.

I saw my share of potential fraudsters as a small government cultural program director. Unfortunately, some of the potential fraudsters do not even see themselves as such. Instead, they are just attempting to aid the cash flow from government accounts to their accounts. I was very fortunate to have a contracting officer to work with who saw working with me as an opportunity to educate a newbie about the world of government responsibilities. Unfortunately, not all are so lucky.
I was dealing with relatively small amounts and volumes, and even then, I had my share of people who simply did not perform as contracted. The first time it happened, I was dismayed to find that the cash amount was considered too small to pursue for recovery. I was then amazed to find that the process of barring that contractor was so byzantine and obscure that it was just easier to write the bids in such a way that it made it harder for them to get selected.
So knowing what I know, I have great sympathy for what a new program must go through when there is extreme pressure on them to perform and get the funding to the people who need it ASAP.

Any impartial observer would suggest that getting the services, personnel, and equipment to those who need it is the first priority in a crisis. But if fraud bleeds off a significant percentage of the effort, it weakens our belief in the measures’ effectiveness. It’s easy to believe that corruption is at the root of poor performance when it is an inability to stop the corrupt, the cons, and the thieves before they ruin the works.

The government has built-in controls for stopping this sort of thing. CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) provides guidance to prevent thievery. Inspectors General are also in each government area, and contracting officers can and do provide advice. My general observation is that many politicians and some government personnel like to clip corners and evade regulations. The easiest way to do that is to weaken the system’s controls, avoid contract regulations on letting bids, and weaken the Inspectors General.

Responding rapidly is necessary for an emergency, but ensuring that the goods and services get to those who need them is just part of that. The other part of a good response is ensuring your efforts are not perceived as riddled with waste and corruption.


I had problems as a government functionary. Lurking just beneath the surface was my satirical and absurdist take on things. But unfortunately, these do not necessarily coexist peacefully with the Code of Federal Regulations. What compounded this discontinuity was that I was supposed to be a leader to my staff. They were like butterflies. They were trapped in the spider webs of the government and desiring to be creative, but always bound by regulation.

My job was to thread the needle, pilot the ship between the reefs, and supposedly achieve great things. It is tough to do these things when your fundamental nature wants to pull down Trou and moon the bastards.

In small ways, I rebelled. I’d find conflicting regulations and try to catch the contracting officer on the flypaper of contradictions. I’d write memos that defined our mission in one way at the beginning of the month and then file another at the end, which contradicted it with all the logical reasons why this new interpretation was valid and necessary. If they were to tie me up with regulations, I’d tie them up with tautology and carefully veiled illogical constructs. It was all the basic stuff that I had learned in grad school.
There was the time I wrote a satirical memo from the regional office requiring changes in how memorandums were composed that went viral. It was faxed all over the region within days, causing great joy and amusement among those who got it and much sanctimonious rage among those who did not. I called this “tying knots in the devil’s tail.”

I learned that the old academic trick of insisting that you always carefully defined the terms of an opponent’s argument, and then attacked the definitions, wreaked havoc among the innocents. It was almost too much fun. For example, if someone said yellow, tie them up by carefully composed arguments that it was saffron. Then, you accuse them of being thin-skinned and not collegial when they fly into a rage.

A background in Academia is a terrible thing to waste.


The latter-day revival of my woodcarving business began with the Clinton/Gore Reinvention of Government. Across the country, government agencies scurried to protect favored programs, cut those not central to their mission statements, and look for handy pockets of budget they could chop while saving their favorites from the ax. This sounds cynical, but it is my observation from within the system and the process.

I had spent about sixteen years working for various government agencies as an anthropologist specializing in small ethnic, primarily urban communities. I was the guy who worked with local communities to create cultural and educational programming centered on their home cultures.

Seeing the writing on the wall, I spent some serious time rethinking my career opportunities. Jobs in Anthropology were scarce. I was in my mid-forties when professional job insecurities caused by age discrimination started kicking in. So what the hell was I going to do? I decided that my first step was to act on reducing my anxieties. A few of my boatbuilding friends suggested that I might start carving again. One suggested that volunteering to scrape bottom paint off a sloop might be healing. So I dug out some carving tools. Having scrapped and painted boat bottoms as a youth, I did not view it as medicinal.

I established a routine at work; at lunch, I’d go to a park with a small box of carving tools and work on a small project like a chip carving for the hour. It was a sort of occupational therapy that also reduced my anxiety. Knowing that my layoff was imminent, I began making small items for Christmas presents. Christmas that year was going to be lean. I carved many small boxes, signs, refrigerator magnets, spoons, and other small items. My favorite bench in the park became littered with chips and shavings. At work, co-workers were busily planning their exit strategies. I began to pick up commissions for quarter boards and transom banners. It was moderately lucrative and was genuine work without the bureaucratic hassles of government.

Following my last day at the government, I started a part-time job at a boat yard. I began recovering lost knowledge from my days working for the Cap’n in coastal Maine when I was younger. And I began identifying myself as a ship’s carver, not a governmental nobody.

A few weeks later, a frantic call came from my former office. They needed this and that and couldn’t do it or find it. I held the phone and quietly counted to ten. Finally, I replied that I had orders to get out and could not possibly get to them before Labor Day. I quoted a price twice what I made as a government employee and told them that my usual 50% deposit was due upfront. Their reply was the government doesn’t operate that way. I replied that a ship’s carver doesn’t work the way the government does, and I hung up.
The next year I ran out of Cobra benefits, and to get a health care package and other benefits, I took part-time employment at United Parcel Service. When not working at UPS, I was running my own business as a carver, calling my own shots, and if anyone deserved to be called an Idiot, I let myself know in no uncertain terms.

A former co-worker described us as displaced workers; I preferred the term, Pilgrim. I am a traveler on a journey, and there is a purpose to that journey.


Careful is not a word in the official governmental vocabulary. Procedural is. I worked as a Practicing Anthropologist for about twenty years. I worked for municipalities, semi-governmental organizations, federal and state governments, and contractual work. Doing something carefully and observing the correct procedure is tough. But, I am not among those who would suggest that the two could not possibly coexist.

The reason why I feel that coexistence is possible is because of a little phrase I learned from a senior bureaucrat early in my career. I know that you’ve heard it: “It’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.”

Tony Babcock, was a second-generation contracting officer. To walk into his office was to walk into a library of the Code of Federal Regulations ( CFR). Each book inscribed duly with his name. And an acknowledgment that he promised to enforce the code to the best of his abilities. I knew this because a small, very small shelf of similar volumes rested behind my desk. Like my office, his office featured a framed copy of the government code of ethics.

Our first meeting did not go well. I had failed to distinguish between the two words should and shall in a document. I received a lecture detailing the travails that could follow on such a mistake. It was not pleasant.

In subsequent meetings, I learned that no matter how carefully I prepared, if I did not have my procedural ducks in a row, I couldn’t spend a penny of the federal money in my budget. I also learned that Parental Legislation in a bureau, department, or agency was a guide to what could and could not get done legally. 

Eventually, I learned that the key to unlocking the nearly endless information available from Tony was to ask the correct question. He would sit behind his deck in a very non-issue rocking chair, smile, and tell me that I was not asking the right question. Not being too dumb, I did eventually master the art of asking good questions. It was a pleasure to see him smile and open the flood gates to two generations of knowledge.

Somewhere along the line, I learned that it was better to ask forgiveness than to seek permission. Of course, the key to successfully manipulating that process was to have prepared the groundwork with the proper shoulds and shall, references to CFR, and Parental Legislation. All this showed that your intent ( pay attention now!) had been correct.

In recent years all of us have had reason to fear the direction taken by our governments. I find myself a bit reassured, however, that in an office far away, some snotty Schedule C political appointee is discussing shoulds and shall, Parental Legislation and CFR.

Thank you! I salute all the Tony Babcocks of the world.

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