Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 | 2 a.m.
When you buy a gallon of gas, how do you know it’s a gallon? That pound of tangelos you measured at the grocery store — you sure the scale didn’t cheat you an ounce?
You believe these measurements are accurate. You trust that they are. More accurately, you don’t think about it. If you did think about it, you’d quickly realize that on any given day there are a handful, or a bucketful, or a truckload of points at which you simply trust some anonymous process to ensure that you’re not getting nicked in small ways.
You have to. Imagine how crazed and weary you’d be if you had to worry about every ... little ... thing.
Did you know the state has a Weights and Measures Department? Me, either. But there it is, tucked away in the Agriculture Department, a team of state employees that worries for us, working, pretty much invisibly, to ensure that our faith in the gallonness of our pumps and the poundness of our scales is warranted.
“We touch everybody’s lives every day,” says Dave Walch, regional supervisor. “We look at gas pumps, pharmacy scales, supermarket scales, cement hoppers ...”
Walch leads a team of seven that fans out around Southern Nevada and checks on the accuracy of a whopping 26,000 measurable, dispensable products and devices. Do the math: roughly 3,700 things per inspector.
“… bar code scanners, wrapped-meat packaging, cords of firewood …”
“It’s hard, it’s real, real hard,” Walch says. He just got back from the Midwest, he adds, where in some states gas pumps are checked every four years. Walch and his team try to look at Las Vegas’ pumps every year. Try to picture doing that — every pump, hose and nozzle in town, making sure that the 87 octane really is 87 and goes for the advertised price.
“… gravel, rock, truck scales …”
Most of the deviations and inaccuracies his people uncover, he says, stem from equipment failure, not an attempt to cheat consumers out of a half-ounce of ground chuck. “We haven’t had anything fraudulent in a long time,” he says. And this is worth noting: Very often, when the equipment starts going south, it favors the consumer, not the business owner. So, although much of the department’s activity is prompted by consumer complaints — Walch gets 18 or 20 calls a day, he says, which he answers himself thanks to budget cuts — it’s not merely a consumer-protection force. Business buys in, too.
“… casino scales, candy stores, toy stores …”
If all of this sounds a little … ordinary, well, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? It’s ordinary precisely because, on most days, these mundane things don’t trip us up. We can think of so much in our lives that should function smoothly but don’t — freeway traffic, home valuation, the BCS bowl system — that it’s easy to forget how much actually does. We couldn’t get through a day otherwise.
Even stuff we believe doesn’t work often does, at least to a degree we rarely acknowledge. There are some legitimate reasons to criticize the School District, for example. But the debates over education seldom take into account that, given the complexities of cycling thousands of diverse students through 180 days of instruction, a lot of kids are pretty well-served. (Disclosure: My wife is an educator.) No one thinks about all the potential bog-downs, monkey wrenches and outright catastrophes that could occur in such an unwieldy system but don’t.
These are among the things I wonder about when people fog up the discourse with vague talk about shrinking the government — what are we cutting that we don’t know about? Hey, Dave Walch: Do many citizens even know you guys exist?
“They don’t know we’re out there,” he says. “They really don’t.”