Monday, January 11, 2016

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

I saw a news story today on Baltimore's plans to force warnings to be posted on "sugary drinks" to warn parents about childhood obesity. Or at least that is the claim*. Of course, obesity does not require such "sugary drinks", fried foods, starches, even rice or wheat, can make one obese. It is, after all, not the food, so much as the quantity. And, to be honest, the sodas that usually get called "sugary drinks" have little more sugar than supposedly healthy juices. (What is fructose but the sugar found in fruit?) So the plan is really just aimed at a small subset of foods, without any reference to the real causes of obesity, excessive quantities and lack of activity.

Then again, the other part of the bill seems to embody the real purpose of the law. Now, perhaps the original sponsors really believed they were saving the world. And maybe even now supporters continue to act out of some sort of altruism (albeit a pretty arrogant one**). But the politicians definitely have latched onto the bill, and twisted it to a new purpose, generating revenue. The bill provides that, if the warning is not posted, violators will be fined $500, presumably per offense. In other words, if manufacturers refuse to add the Baltimore-specific warning label, and you don't affix your own, you could conceivably be fined $3000 for each six pack of sodas. And what could be dearer to a politician's heart?( See "Racketeering Through Legislation")

Baltimore retailers have pointed out that -- much like Baltimore's previous ill-fated "container tax" and Maryland's equally disastrous ban on smoking in bars and restaurants (my description, not theirs) -- this law seems designed to drive retailers out of the city. As they point out, Baltimore is hardly supporting a robust economy, to impose extra costs and fines is not exactly the way to drag the city's economy out of the doldrums.  But is that not always the conundrum of politicians? The lust for plundering every last dime set against the need to (reluctantly) let citizens keep a pittance to inspire them to generate future income? Though, experience has shown me Baltimore seems most often to come down on the side of "take it all, they'll figure out some way to survive".

But I did not write just to point out the absurdity of Baltimore's schemes. Instead, I wanted to point out that this particular law is just one example of a rather silly modern trend, and one which, while often touted as a solution to all our woes, in reality turns out to be quite futile, imposing massive costs and inconveniences without providing any benefit.

That is the tendency toward warnings. Or, to be more specific, our ever expanding liability laws, which, by making individuals liable for ever more remotely connected events, tends to inspire them to try to deflect such blame, leading, quite often, to the "battle of the disclaimer", and its more visible corollary, the proliferation of signs. (See "The Perversion of Liability Law")

To be fair, signs are not always a private venture, a means of fending off the liability predators. Some times, as in the case of Baltimore, it is instead a government mandate. And that version is even more absurd. By mandating ever more excessive warnings on ever more innocuous items, government warnings do not provide the security that is their nominal purpose, but instead simply make us oblivious to warnings (including those few we should heed), while creating a new target for litigious predators.

Before I proceed, allow me to demonstrate this point by reproducing a sign I found while in California last month:


So, what is this sign protecting us from? Is it a chemical plant? A garbage dump? A factory? A treatment plant? Given the warnings it seems it is certainly an area rife with threats to human health, certainly nowhere one would want to visit.

So, what is the threat this sign is warning us against? A shopping mall!

As you can see, this warning comes from one of the signs to Universal Studio's City Walk shopping district. Needless to say, the statements in the warning sign seem -- to say the least -- a bit overblown. Which makes me imagine that Californians are prone to ignore such signs, since they appear almost everywhere.

If you doubt that claim, check out this sign I found on my hotel's conference rooms, giving warning that people might be exposed to smoke.

Now think about that for a moment. If these warnings appear everywhere, and warn of everything, how much attention do you imagine is paid to them? And, if they are routinely ignored, then, what is the point? How much safety do they offer if they are so ubiquitous that no one even sees them any more?

Well, in the case of California, they do provide one service, though not the one proclaimed. They provide a comfortable living to lawyers.

As I wrote before, when California adopted stringent rules on food and other labeling, requiring warnings on anything "known to California" to cause cancer or mutations or birth defects, they appended a massive fine structure as well, providing a bounty for citizens discovering such missing warnings, and creating a population of people who spent time seeking out missing warnings, essentially plundering businesses and splitting the proceeds with the state***.

All of which is perfectly predictable with but a moment's thought. If you warn against everything, you might as well warn against nothing, as people will simply go deaf and blind from the profusion of warnings. And yet, because government busy bodies see threats everywhere, they cannot do anything but warn us against everything. And so, we end up with too many warnings, too little additional protection, and exceptional costs imposed unpredictably, upon random individuals, paying benefit to lawyers and the state, while improving our lives little or not at all.

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* The newscast set a new standard for hype in leading into the story by describing sugar as a "serious threat to human life".

** As I have often pointed out, assuming you know better than anyone else what they should do strikes me as a pretty arrogant position to adopt. See "Why Freedom Is Essential" , "Another Look At Exploitation", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "Harming Society", "In Loco Parentis", "Government by Emotion", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "Humility and Freedom", "Smoking Versus Sex -- Want and Need Take Two", "Every Kid Likes Hot Dogs" and "On the Side of the Angels... Yet Completely Wrong".

*** There was a similar result when California provided similar bounties for noncompliance with "access for the disabled", which got so bad -- lawyers actually sponsoring crews of handicapped individuals who sought out inaccessible stores for a paycheck -- that businesses threatened to close their doors due to the sudden imposition of unexpected, and often unpredictable, costs.

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POSTSCRIPT

The description of how the fines might work is my own assumption, not the wording of the proposal, or the newscast. However, as far as I can tell, there is no concrete definition of what a single violation might be, and so, presumably, a $500 fine could be assessed for each item found without the proper warning, making for some tremendous fines.


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