Tiny Sandford Syndrome

Lately, we’re awash in Tiny Sandford Syndrome. 

Wha’? Tiny who? 

Tiny Sandford was a very big guy (6’5”, around 300 pounds) who played small parts in 1920s and '30s comedies—Laurel and Hardy’s in particular. Perhaps his best known role is that of the cop in the Laurel and Hardy classic Big Business, a brilliant comedy supervised by Leo McCarey, who was later to direct the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and other notable films.

In Big Business, L&H are door-to-door Christmas-tree salesmen. We meet them as they try to make a sale to the perpetually sour James Finlayson, who slams the door in their faces, clipping off a Christmas-tree branch in the process. L&H retaliate by making a little nick in the door, as Finlayson looks on. He rips off a little more of the tree, as L&H look on. The destruction then escalates, until Finlayson has completely destroyed their car and they’ve substantially destroyed his home. But the demolition derby proceeds, as it were, by Marquis of Queensberry rules—L&H stand placidly by when it’s Finlayson’s turn for mayhem, then nod resolutely and proceed to their own sledge-hammering as Finlayson stands by in close observation. Everyone plays offense; no one plays defense.

And Tiny Sandford? He’s the cop. He sees the whole thing. As it unfolds, the camera cuts to him again and again as he furiously documents each separate assault in his citation book, writing one whale of a ticket. It never occurs to him, apparently, to step in and stop the destruction (though when it’s done, he does deliver a firm scolding).

Thus Tiny Sandford syndrome. It’s a useful shorthand for explaining what passes for oversight these days. Tim Geithner confronted with evidence (hell, confessions) of LIBOR rigging? Tiny Sandford Syndrome. The Bureau of Mines and the gazillion safety violations of Massey Energy before the West Virginia disaster that took 29 lives? Tiny Sandford Syndrome. Too many Catholic bishops to count and pederast priests? TSS. 

Tiny Sandford Syndrome—an ailment increasingly common to people in authority. It can be applied more broadly than “regulatory capture.” It’s snappier, too.

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