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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