Ezra Klein: Van Halen’s ‘No Brown M&Ms’ Rider Is Why Gov’t Should Pay For Shrimp On A Treadmill Or Something
May 1, 2013 - 12:17 am
Right there on Page 40, in the “Munchies” section, nestled between “pretzels” and “twelve (12) Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups,” is a parenthetical alert so adamant you can’t miss it: “M&M’s,” the text reads, “(WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES).”
This is the famed rider to Van Halen’s 1982 concert contract. In a sentence fragment that would define rock-star excess forevermore, the band demanded a bowl of M&M’s with the brown ones laboriously excluded. It was such a ridiculous, over- the-top demand, such an extreme example of superstar narcissism, that the rider passed almost instantly into rock lore.
It also wasn’t true.
I don’t mean that the M&M language didn’t appear in the contract, which really did call for a bowl of M&M’s — “NO BROWN ONES.” But the color of the candy was entirely beside the point.
“Van Halen was the first to take 850 par lamp lights — huge lights — around the country,” explained singer David Lee Roth. “At the time, it was the biggest production ever.” Many venues weren’t ready for this. Worse, they didn’t read the contract explaining how to manage it. The band’s trucks would roll up to the concert site, and the delays, mistakes and costs would begin piling up.
So Van Halen established the M&M test. “If I came backstage and I saw brown M&M’s on the catering table, it guaranteed the promoter had not read the contract rider, and we had to do a serious line check,” Roth explained.
In a similar vein, members of Congress love picking through federal grants to find dubious-sounding research funded by the National Institutes of Health or other agencies. In a report titled “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope,” Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma promised to identify “over $3 billion in mismanagement at NSF.” Mostly, the report just mocks research that, superficially, sounds amusing.
Coburn takes gleeful aim at scientists who’ve been running shrimp on treadmills. According to the scientists, the treadmills cost about $1,000 out of a half-million-dollar grant. The point is to determine whether ocean bacteria are weakening shrimp populations, a development that would tip the entire food chain into chaos. Coburn’s attack is particularly dangerous, because it encourages government researchers to conduct science that sounds good rather than science that does good.
It would be nice if the government’s mistakes were typically a product of stupidity, venality or bureaucracy. Then we would need only to remove the idiots, fire the villains and cut the red tape. More often, the outrageous stories we hear are cases of decent people trying to solve tough problems under difficult constraints that we simply haven’t taken the time to understand. That isn’t to suggest that people in government don’t get it wrong. They do, repeatedly. But if we want to get it right, we need to work harder to understand why they decided to remove the brown M&M’s in the first place.
What Klein doesn’t understand is that stupidity and venality are the cornerstones of a bloated bureaucracy. And what leftists really don’t get is that a bloated bureaucracy is only interested perpetuating and bloating itself further. It’s not a mystery and it isn’t at all ridiculous to presume that, nine times out of ten, money is being wasted.
But to leftists the government is something benevolent that is to be trusted. Oh, how they must disappoint the radicals from the 1960s who spawned them.