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Have We Lost Our Minds?

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Quiz: Which is the wiser, more reasonable, and, ultimately, more effective decision-maker? Manager A, who does his or her best to consider all the relevant facts -- including any mitigating circumstances, messy as they may be? Or Manager B, who adheres to a rigid "zero-tolerance" policy?

I think most of us would say it's the nimble-minded Manager A. Not only is Manager A's style best suited to the subtleties and ambiguities of a complicated world, but, in truth, we wouldn't even need a live human being to do Manager B's job, because a well-written computer program could do it equally well. Just type in the relevant data, press "Enter," and the machine would spit out the proper decision.

Yet, despite the obvious virtues of Manager A, we've somehow allowed ourselves to become a nation dominated by bosses who emulate the inflexible decision-making style of Manager B. Consider the following.

• A 73-year old man is told to leave the children's book section of a local bookstore after a customer apparently complained that he looked like a potential child molester. So a store employee ordered him to leave. As it turned out the man (a physician) was harmlessly shopping for books for his grandchildren. Sorry, sir, but we have a strict "zero-tolerance" policy against sex deviants lurking in the kids section. What's that? You're not a pervert? Well, we're going to ask you leave anyway. Better safe than sorry.

• When an employee of a grocery store chain saw a male customer viciously beating a woman, he heroically came to the woman's rescue, grabbing the man and wrestling him to the ground. The employee was subsequently fired for his actions. The reason he was fired was because the store had a strict "zero tolerance" policy against fighting. Fortunately, the employee had a labor union to represent him, and it was the union, principally, who got his job back for him.

• A female track coach was removed from her position after accompanying a male student to the school prom. The boy was 17 years old, the coach was 41. Apparently, after someone at the dance complained, school officials sprang into action. The facts: This woman was the boy's English teacher. Part of the deal was that he promised to study harder if she agreed to accompany him (he was depressed over being unable to find a date, which was why she offered to go in the first place). The teacher had gotten the dad's permission in advance. And while at the dance, the boy and his teacher mainly played foosball and ping-pong. Still, "zero tolerance" dictated that she step down as volunteer coach.

• A 6-year-old boy, a first-grader, told a female classmate at recess that he was "sexy." A school yard monitor overheard the comment and reported it to a teacher, who reported it to an administrator, who took it upon himself to suspend the boy. Reason? The school had a strict "zero-tolerance" policy against sexual harassment.

There's a wide range of penalties for car theft, depending on "how" the car was stolen. You get a stiff penalty for breaking into a car and hot wiring it, a lesser penalty if the car was already unlocked, and a lesser penalty yet if the car's engine was running, and you jumped in and drove off with it. All three instances are clearly "theft," but they're treated differently. That's the wisdom of our legal system. Apparently, it's only in the world of bureaucrats and petty tyrants where "zero tolerance" is king.

David Macaray is a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"). He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net