Bad Sound, Bad Sign

“Please hold on, please set luggage cart brake to on.”

That sound irritates me every minute or so when I ride the SFO airport tram. George Will feels similarly:

You step onto an airport’s moving walkway …. soon a recorded voice says: “The moving sidewalk is coming to an end. Please look down.” … Is that announcement about it ending really necessary? … Passing through a U.S. airport is an immersion in a merciless river of words … clearly they flow from … the assumption is that we are all infants or imbeciles in need of constant, kindly supervision and nudging … all this noise is symptomatic of … an entitlement mentality that … If something bad … happens to us, even if it results from our foolishness … we are entitled to sue someone for restitution. … Almost none of this noise is necessary for people mature enough to be allowed to walk around the block, let alone fly around the country. (more)

Yes this shows an entitlement mentality, but I see worse: common knowledge that we are well aware of problems we don’t intend to fix. We all know these warnings are excessive, bothersome, and counterproductive. But we also know that they are a reaction to lawsuits where jurors give big awards to show their concern and loyalty for accident victims, and hostility and defiance toward big organizations. When we repeatedly see thousands of others notice and ignore this problem, we learn that we have decided to let that symbolic support continue, accepting the useless-bothersome-warnings costs it imposes.

This sets a bad precedent regarding our many other social problems. The better informed among us might hope that the public doesn’t quite understand many of our problems, and that we’ll fix our problems when the public better understands them. For example, when the public better sees the ineffectiveness of our war on terror, the harm to kids when teacher unions block school reform, or the waste from excess professional licensing. But such informed folks also know that such harmful policies arise naturally as symbolism, to show respect for terrorism victims, teachers, professionals, etc.

So the more that informed folks see cases like excess airport warnings, where everyone seems pretty clearly aware that we’d rather accept high costs and bother to let symbolic signals continue, the more they should reasonably conclude that this holds for our other big problems as well. Why try to work to end a wasteful war on terror, for example, if most everyone seems ok with wasting vast sums to continue to signal our support for terror victims?

The US is rich, but we spend an increasing fraction of our economy on wasteful symbolic signals regarding law, war, medicine, school, the elderly, etc. Yes, this trend cannot continue forever, but it can continue for a few decades more. And our unwillingness to limit the waste in cases where it is the clearest that we all see and understand the waste is a bad sign about our willingness to cut back anytime soon on these other wasteful signals.

One reason to come down hard on visible petty crime like vandalism is that people may interpret getting away with petty crime as a signal that they can probably get away with bigger crimes as well. Similarly, by actually fixing these very visible wastes, we might raise hopes that we’ll also fix not quite so visible problems. For now, alas, I’m not holding my breath.

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  • Lord

    Costs? How much can recorded announcements possibly cost? Attention? When it is so easy to ignore? On the other hand there are benefits. You don’t have to pay attention until brought to it and only then if you care. Might not the blind or illiterate or inexperienced find it useful? Should the handicapped just stay home? Should we all complain about how much sanitation costs and how we should all be adult enough to take care of it ourselves? Running water, what an exorbitant waste and deprivation of liberty? Yes, there are things with real and substantial costs but we shouldn’t confuse them with trivialities.

    • Andrew

      As Robin says, its the mentality, the culture that thinks messages like that are useful. Americans seem to value independence highly, but fail to notice that they really want someone to hold their hands when they get onto an escalator.

    • Lord

      And since when does the airport only serve adults?

    • Michael Wengler

      Lord, you are right IMHO.

      Will says ” the assumption is that we are all infants or imbeciles in need of constant, kindly supervision and nudging.”

      How immature do you have to be to think that everything in a public setting is aimed at “we.. all?” Does Will thinks signs in Spanish or French or German or Korean or any of a hundred other languages are also aimed at all of us? Is Will annoyed by signs pointing to restrooms when he doesn’t have to piddle and to food courts when he isn’t hungry? If Will has a kindle is he pissed at the bookstore signs trying to grab everybody’s attention?

      The signs on the highlway pointing to the airport must really annoy WIll once he has been to that airport a few times.

      Add to this the possibility that sometimes the airport is more crowded than others, on a moving sidewalk you cannot easily detect the end of the moving walkway as the experienced people pick up walking at the same pace in the same direction at the end.

      I generally love Will’s points even when I don’t agree with them, but this is not his best work.

  • woodchuck64

    Motivated mainly by the strong belief that George Will is an idiot on matters large and small, I would like to point out that an automated voice guidance system is far more likely to assist visually impaired, elderly or handicapped persons, not to prevent lawsuits.

  • sk

    I thought these warnings were useful. In many airports, those moving walkways are quite long and it’s easy not to pay attention. This is unlike an escalator where you are more focused about where/when it stops. Also, all travelers are not able bodied/traveling alone w/o bags etc.,

    • kirk

      When I get on a moving walkway without at least 5 confused people staggering on and exiting in a panic I’ll start complaining. Move to the right if you are just standing in one place! If you walk at the same pace you WERE walking you will be moving twice as fast…

  • Doc Merlin

    Yah, its for blind people.

  • Matt W

    If it’s for blind people, then ‘please look down’ must be a cruel joke.

    Personally though, I’d sit through all the useless warnings in the world if they would just get rid of the TSA.

  • y81

    I think if you do the numbers, you will find that the U.S. can proceed for an infinite period of time spending rather trivial sums on recorded warnings that the walkway is about to end, printed warnings that the coffee in the cup is hot, etc. It’s stupid, but it’s hardly going to bankrupt us.

    But hey, if a bunch of econ professors want to start a tort reform movement, go right ahead. (Then again, if econ professors would rather complain and do nothing, that’s fine with me too.)

    • Hansenista

      Did you even finish the article? Robin’s point was that the U.S. wastes a lot of money not only on trivial matters like airport warnings, but also on big things like overpriced med and the War on Terror.

  • Mathnerd314

    Personally, I always jump over those messages at the airport. (They’re activated by an invisible beam at shoe level slightly before the end of the walkway)

  • Philo

    “[W]e spend an increasing fraction of our economy on wasteful symbolic signals regarding law, war, medicine, school, the elderly, etc.” You may be right, but it would be a challenge to back this up with hard statistics. What fraction do we spend wastefully on signaling now, and what fraction was spent at various times in the past? I suspect that these quantities are unknowable. Since both motivations and effects tend to be compounded, one would have to determine what proportion of each activity should be assigned to *signaling*. Then one would have to distinguish between *wasteful* and *efficient* signaling.

    No doubt we waste more on signaling now than was done in the past; but we are also richer, so the proportion may be about the same.

    • I second the call for statistics to be gathered. Maybe get a grad student to do it.

  • But we also know that they are a reaction to lawsuits where jurors give big awards to show their concern and loyalty for accident victims, and hostility and defiance toward big organizations.

    “We”? What you mean we, white man? We don’t know that they are primarily a reaction to lawsuits, and if they are we don’t know that the presumptive big awards are given for the bad reasons you give. You are pulling facts out of thin air (to put it politely), poor practice on a blog devoted to rationality.

    Not everyone in the airport is a frequent traveler like yourself and George WIll. Some may be elderly or handicapped, there may be small children, for some this may be their first time in an airport or on a moving walkway. So if the environment is slightly more nagging and nanny-like than suits you and George Will, so great big what? The world is not comprised of people exactly like you.

    And I suggest everybody see the recent documentary Hot Coffee. The horror of excessive payments in lawsuits is yet another myth dreamed up by the right-wing propaganda mill.

    • J1

      What do you mean we, straw man? I suspect most readers here are aware giant awards are outliers. The problem is the death by a thousand cuts of excessive litigation. I know your movie covers a few cases, but just to take the coffee case itself, the problem there is not that there was a giant jury award (although there was in that case), but that a plaintiff can file such a case to begin with without being laughed out of court.

  • Duane Moore

    The phrase you mention should actually be “Please set luggage cart brake to on.” I don’t think the luggage carts break that often.

  • ” the harm to kids when teacher unions block school reform”

    Seems a bit shoe-horned in to me. From reading critical comments in Yglesias’ blog, my sense is that the US education system is highly performing and efficient relative to most in the world. If anything, my intuition is that the wasteful signal is advocating so much attention be paid to the idea of “school reform” relative to the range of other domestic US concerns.

    • I think it’s controlling for ethnicity that makes the U.S seem pretty good compared to other schools.

      Years ago I had more optimism for libertarian-flavored school reform, but I’ve moved in the direction of what Yglesias calls “edu-nihilism”.

      • TGGP,
        Yeah, I think that sold me on the US educational status quo. If almost every ethnicity is doing better in the US than they are in their “home” geographic region, that’s an empirical indication to me that the fever for school reform is grounded in something other than a reasonable ranking of policy priorities.

      • I concluded that the avenue for improvement was to have schools be less unpleasant places to force kids to spend seven hours a day (I came to that conclusion when I was still in school). More recently Adam Ozimek has argued that equivalent performance in charter vs regular schools is still an argument for charters because their per-pupil expenditure is lower. I believe that had long been the case for Catholic schools.

      • My sense is that people smarter than their teachers/school environment become deeply empathetic to the notion that schools are run badly and that it’s an Important Problem, at least as important as less emotionally impactful deficiencies to their formative years like how the US healthcare, financial, defense, or financial sectors are managed. I’m sure I’ve felt that way most my life too. But if the data is that the US education system is producing better results per ethnicity than most of the world, it becomes wasteful to devote such a high proportion of attention to educational reform in the US.

      • I’m not so confident that U.S schools are actually better than average for the first-world rather than just about average. I’d have to see what numbers are available, but at least in the link I gave it was mostly saying that if you look at the above-average schools they look similar or better. They mention the OECD average, but that isn’t actually restricting the sample to whites and some of the countries like Mexico or Turkey still have lots of rural poverty.

        I’d agree that the scale of the problem is no so big. At worst, families can just go to private schools. Education has been soaking up more and more money like healthcare and finance, but a lot of that acceleration is in higher education which is a somewhat different issue. There has been ridiculous administrative bloat over the decades in k-12 education though.

  • Zvi Mowshowitz

    So you think we should spend to shut down costly signaling in order to send the right signal about future cost of signaling?

  • I think this whole post was signaling by Robin, to indicate the ongoing intolerable costs that audible safety warnings and regulations pose. Airport audible warning systems have already been implemented, so it would actually cost money to get rid of them. The only “savings” would be the few seconds of distraction that elite high status individuals such as Robin and George Will have to suffer through.

    This is signaling to try to get policy makers to appreciate the astronomical costs that these public safety announcements have on high status people with such valuable thoughts as himself and George Will. Disrupting the chain of thought of even a few high status elites like Robin or George Will for even a few seconds is too high a cost to pay to prevent the injury of even many low status individuals, with such plodding thoughts they are unable to pay enough attention to prevent injury to themselves.

    The most economical thing to do would be to bar non-elites from the moving walkway, so such distracting warnings are not needed. But explaining the wisdom of such a policy in ways that the non-elites could understand would waste even more elite thinking time, and most non-elites would never be able to understand anyway.

    • Oliver

      I’m relatively low-status but I find most warnings ridiculous. If we grow to expect warnings, we’ll never naturally take heed. Why is the question not, is it economical to centralise the act of taking care, such that only a few people think about things like accident and risk avoidance, who everyone else just listens to?
      I think Robin was affiliating with the idea that people gain the ability to take care of themselves when they know there’s no-one else to.

      • Or that people are easier to exploit when no one who understands that exploitation is happening is watching, or when the exploiters are given free reign to lie about what the risks are.

        It is easy to blame victims for being stupid. How about those idiots who bought the Collateralized Debt Obligations that were rated AAA by S&P because there was no nanny government warning them not to?

        Oh wait, a whole bunch of them did get bailed out by taxpayers, so how stupid were they? Who are the real victims? Why did tax payers have to bail out all those wealthy people, who were working so hard generating real value that they didn’t notice that they were being scammed by the other wealthy people working so hard generating real value?

  • Mark M

    We can’t get rid of waste. Our economy is driven by waste. How many jobs would be lost if we stopped wasteful spending?

    Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 was a consequence of advances in technology and production. The book isn’t known (at least to the general public) for its economic forecast, but that is the background that drives the story. In short, the world was so good at producing things that we had way too much stuff and needed a way to dispose of it in order to have a reason to keep producing more. This keeps unemployment low. Constant war was the biggest way to do it, but regulation and oversight was a part of it as well.

    We’re nowhere near that level of efficiency, and of course the consequences that Orwell puts out there are pure fiction, but I can see similarities in the economic model. What happens when we produce more than we need? We just don’t need as many people working.

    As a nation we’re pretty good at spending more when we have more. We’re not so good at spending less when we have less. At a national level, our overall rate of consumption is not being managed or regulated in a way that matches production. I’m not saying it necessarily should be managed in this way, but I think we’re going to continue a boom-bust cycle without it. Of course, there has to be something to trigger the boom. Many believe there will be a green energy boom. I hope so. But once the market is saturated, many years later, there will be a corresponding bust. Then we’ll be looking for the next boom again.

    • What basis do you have for saying that the economy is “producing more than we need”? Are there people without medical care? Are there people without homes? Are their people without enough food to eat? Are their people without schools to be educated in? Are there people without cars? Are there research scientists without research funding?

      There is plenty of “need” out there for everything that the economy can produce. There is no need to “waste” anything, unless you consider letting an unemployed homeless person live in a foreclosed house rent-free instead of bulldozing it a “waste”. Or consider idle health care workers treating people without health insurance a “waste”.

      • Mark M

        You’ve listed some inequities in the system, but these aren’t due to our inability to produce enough medical care, homes, schools, food, etc. We, as a society, have decided these things must be earned rather than given.

        We’d like everyone to have the opportunity to earn their way, which means keeping them employed. Wasteful regulation is a thinly veiled disguise for redistribution of wealth, which keeps some people employed.

        My post mentions that we are nowhere near the Orwellian level of efficiency – meaning we don’t need the government to dispose of excess production. The real point of the post is our government is not managing consumption of resources in a meaningful way. They increase consumption (and regulation) during boom cycles, and continue that level during bust cycles. This allows, and probably aggravates, the boom-bust cycle.

      • Mark, I am not talking inequalities, I am talking about irrational, inhumane and perverse behaviors.

        Right now there are serious proposals to destroy homes that are foreclosed on so as to reduce the housing stock to drive up the value of existing homes via creating a scarcity of housing.

        Who has made the perverse and irrational decision that it is better to destroy something (at a cost) than to give it away to someone who needs it? All destroying something that already exists does is create an artificial scarcity. The only value behind an artificial scarcity accrues to those with monopoly power. If there was no monopoly power, then an artificial scarcity would rapidly be filled by a free market. If an artificial scarcity can make “business sense”, that demonstrates that the market is not “free”.

        When the market is not “free”, then there is not and cannot be “equality of opportunity”. The entity with the monopoly power has monopoly control and uses that monopoly power to maintain its monopoly power.

        The acquisition of monopoly power, and the use of that monopoly power to maintain and extend that monopoly power is the problem the economy is facing today. The monopoly power is held by the 1% that the OWS is protesting against.

      • Mark M

        Demolishing those houses is the right decision.

        I’d agree that the bank never should have foreclosed on these houses. They’d have been much better off signing those houses over and changing the debt to an unsecured loan. The debt (or some portion of it) would remain valid but the owners would continue to have a place to live, the property would be maintained, and the bank wouldn’t have to assume the liability of the house.

        Unfortunately, once a bank owns a house, the bank is responsible for the house.

        Banks are not trying to create a housing shortage. They are trying to deal with a surplus that includes properties that they believe have no chance of becoming profitable. This does include giving houses away, which is preferable to spending money to demolish them. Banks are for-profit entities, and destroying these houses is an example of the free market dealing with a surplus by destroying items with a negative value, not an example of manipulating the market to create a shortage.

        Even if the houses aren’t demolished, they can’t let anyone live there. That would be a lawsuit just waiting to happen.

        (I have no comment or opinion on your monopoly power statements. I suspect that subject is deeper than can be explained in one of these posts. Feel free to provide a link where I can read a more fully developed analysis supporting that claim).

  • Jason Graff

    It would take quite a reform of tort litigation to make legal liability less costly than a recorded message.

    • Mark M

      And also quite a reform for juries to hold people responsible for having a little common sense. How can you step onto a moving sidewalk without knowing you will eventually need to step off?