Swedish Ice Balls

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As anybody who’s suffered through the I am Curious movies waiting for sex to happen, or Wild Strawberries waiting for the damn thing to just end already, already knows, Swedes have an unwholesome tolerance for tedium. Nowhere is this more manifest than in their willingness to put up with magisterial bureaucrats determined to protect them from the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. And I’m not just talking cradle-to-grave socialized living, here. I’m talking fire codes. Sweden must be the only place in the world to require fire extinguishers in igloos.

Being ice, the hotel returns each summer to the river from which it was quarried, and flows away.

Not that my hometown wouldn’t pull such a trick, if anybody could figure out how to build an igloo in Portland. But nobody seems to have done so, at least not that I’ve heard about. So it’s the Swedes who’re left to carry the ball. And carry it they do, because they’ve got a really persuasive igloo up above the Arctic Circle in Lapland. It’s a Swedish-modern sort of igloo they call the Ice Hotel; as the name suggests, the place is made out of ice.

And remade every year, because, being ice, the hotel returns each summer to the river from which it was quarried, and flows away. Every winter, it’s rebuilt room by room, ice-block by ice-block; and there, chiseled into the walls of the long hotel corridors, are niches with fire extinguishers.

Fire extinguishers! The entire building is made out of frozen water. The walls. The ceilings. The floors. The crystals in the crystal chandeliers, the bed my wife and I shared, the elegantly curved staircase leading to the eight-foot high platform beneath the bed. No need to put ice in your drinks, because the glasses in the ice bar are ice, along with the bar itself, and the stools you sit on at the bar. You couldn’t set this place on fire with a flamethrower. But if I’m remembering right what the football coach who taught eighth-grade general science told us, with enough heat — I’m thinking a thermonuclear flamethrower — might be able to ignite the metal in the fire extinguishers.

There you have it. The only flammable objects in the entire Ice Hotel are the fire extinguishers – except, of course, that by the time you got them hot enough to catch fire they wouldn’t, because they’d be at the bottom of a river of melted walls and ceilings and floors and chandeliers and beds and staircases and platforms and bar stools and liquor glasses and the bar the glasses used to sit on.




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So, What Did You Do All Day?

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In the company I run, my partner and I have over 70 employees. Crazy. Business is good but stressful.

I just finished the latest meaningless HR task that small business owners must do: creating a “safety binder” for every single chemical in the office, with printouts of the numerous-page Safety Data Sheets from each product’s manufacturer, and with first aid information. “Every chemical” includes printer toner, dish soap, dry erase markers, WD-40, glue sticks, antibacterial wipes . . . the list is long, and the SDS sheets can be up to 11 pages. The Safety Data Sheets list such things as toxicity to fish and what to wear if you are in a plant that manufactures the dangerous item.

And this means he won’t sue us? Of course he will sue us. But maybe we will be spared the guillotine.

So, if an employee squirts hand sanitizer in his eye, he can get the safety binder and flip to the page that tells what to do if you have hand sanitizer in your eye. Or if he eats Windex, he can likewise turn to the safety binder. And this means he won’t sue us? Of course he will sue us. But maybe we will be spared the guillotine because we have shown such caring by having a bright red safety binder.

On a more practical note, I’ve bought three fire extinguishers, a huge first aid kit, and those continuous charge flashlights that plug into walls. Next on my list is choosing safety officers, devising a fire drill, and conducting it. My partner wants to get some of those bright orange vests. I’m thinking about it.

By the way, I have not done anything even remotely related to our product in a very long time.




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Ludicrous Leporidae Laws Lead to Legal Legerdemain

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When the Feds announced the sequester plan, I was quite afraid that essential federal employees would be furloughed like mere private sector employees.

Fortunately, my fears proved unfounded. Oh, sure, D.C. announced that a few thousand air traffic controllers and law enforcement officers were forced to stay home, but really essential services are safe. I present to you: the Federal Bunny Inspectors. Better known as the US Department of Agriculture.

You thought the USDA's main function was to pay farmers not to grow anything and to advertise food stamp enrollment in Mexico, didn't you? Because you’re a narrow-minded libertarian. If so, hah! Prepare to stand corrected, little miscreants.

Enter Marty Hahne, an illusionist based in Ozark, Montana. Now, Montana is a place where small businesses aren't doing too badly, considering that unemployment in the state is 5.5%, way below the national 7.6%. So obviously, this place needs more regulation.

What is Montana's most common disaster? Every resident can attest that it is the meth-addled, toothless junkie driving a three-ton truck.

That is probably why the USDA sent Hahne an 8-page message, starting with the delicious salutation "Dear Members of Our Regulated Community." You can't make this stuff up. It brings back the nostalgia of the famous "Hello happy taxpayers" line that Droopy the dog uttered in Tex Avery's cartoons.

But this is not a joke. The letter demands that Hahne write a disaster plan for the rabbit he uses in his show. We learn that the rabbit falls under a regulation dreamed up by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service under the pretense of implementing the Animal Welfare Act. Said regulation was promulgated last year, but somehow, sadly, Hahne missed it. As a result of his oversight, he has until July 29 to write his plan. He and his wife must then get training to implement the written plan and submit the plan to the USDA inspectors.The goal is to make sure that the rabbit is safe in case of a disaster.

But what is Montana's most common disaster? Every resident can attest that it is the meth-addled, toothless junkie driving a three-ton truck. I suggest, therefore, that Hahne write a document explaining that if he and his rabbit are run over by an addict, his wife could slide the rabbit under the USDA's office door for inspection. Training would be provided by regularly rehearsing the procedure, using roadkill.

However, if Hahne wants to save himself this trouble, there is an obvious solution, reportedly confirmed by a USDA inspector: conclude his show with a demonstration of a boa eating the (humanely killed) rabbit. The USDA would then consider the rabbit as a feed animal and drop its ridiculous requirements.

Other magicians have already decided to (gasp!) use stuffed animals to avoid the whole nuisance.

Let's hope that these workarounds don't gain ground. I'd hate to see our most industrious civil servants deprived of disappearing rabbits. They would then be forced to invent even more intrusive, counterproductive, obnoxious regulations in order to justify their own existence and expand their bureaucratic empires.




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Isn’t It Time to Land?

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This is why some people regard Word Watch as a theater of cruelty. I am about to attack the verbal antics of a spokesman for the San Francisco fire department, which was responsible for rescuing many of the people who survived the wreck of the Korean airliner at San Francisco on July 6.

People often say that catastrophes bring out the best in people. I say that they bring out the worst, verbally. The lead bureaucrat in the government investigation of the plane crash, Deborah Hersman, immediately emerged as one of the biggest blowhards in the nation, jumping into interviews and news conferences in which she announced, at length, that she had no conclusions to offer. This did not prevent her from delivering lectures about the wondrous complexity and significance of the impending inquiry, about the tremendous workload of her agency . . . you get the picture.

What can such an expression mean? Has an army of goons been deployed in this country to maim or kill any advocate of safety?

She filled out some of the borders when she commented, a few days later, on the idiotic decision of the flight crew not to allow an evacuation of the plane until they were assured by an upstart flight attendant that the thing was actually, positively on fire. (And what else do you expect planes to be, after they’ve crashed?)

When asked if it was unusual that the crew wouldn’t announce the order to evacuate, Hersman said the pilots might not have been aware of the damage in the cabin.

"We don't know what the pilots were thinking, but I can tell you, in previous accidents there have been crews that don't evacuate," she said. "They wait for other vehicles to come to get the passengers out safely. Certainly if there's an awareness that there's a fire aboard the aircraft, that is a very serious issue. There was a fire, and then the evacuation began."

"Hindsight is 20/20," she continued. "We all have a perspective that's different than the people involved in this. We need to understand what they were thinking, what their procedures are, whether they complied with these, whether that evacuation proceeded in a timely manner" (Los Angeles Times,July 10).

Blah, blah, blah. Here’s a person who can fill any number of columns, yapping about what she doesn’t know. And by the way, Ms. Hersman, if you don’t know what the pilots were thinking, go ask them. You’re the “National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman.” But also by the way, the plane had crashed. Its landing gear had been ripped off. Its tail was missing. Miraculously, it had come to rest on a dry, flat piece of land. Who cares what the pilots “were thinking”? They should have been evacuating the passengers. Right away.

In some circles, the bloviating Ms. Hersman is known as “a fearless advocate of safety.” Tell me: what can such an expression mean? Has an army of goons been deployed in this country to maim or kill any advocate of safety? If so, I also bid the goons defiance. Fearlessly I declare: I advocate safety!

Now we return to the scene of the accident, maybe three minutes after the crash. Flames are spurting from the airplane; fire engines are arriving; passengers, thank God, have taken it into their heads to evacuate. And, very unfortunately, one of them, a teenage girl, has been killed, apparently by a fire engine on its way to the wreck. Certainly, no one was trying to run her over. All was confusion: a giant machine, smashed to the ground, leaking fuel and shooting flames; hundreds of passengers, still alive but in desperate need of medical assistance; rescue vehicles racing from every direction. I feel sorry for whatever would-be rescuer ran down the young woman, if the coroner’s office is right in thinking that’s what occurred. But I hope that he or she feels no guilt. The driver was not responsible. The woman died. It was no one’s fault.

But about 36 hours later, along comes Dale Carnes, the aforementioned spokesman for the San Francisco fire department, to explain what happened:

Approximately half to two-thirds of the way through the incident as we were transitioning from the fire attack and rescue phase into both overhauling the fire in the aircraft and starting to concentrate on the three-minute transport of patients it became aware to one of our fire attack battalion chiefs that there was a possibility that one of their two fatalities might have been contacted by one of our apparatus at an unknown point during the incident.

Could anyone have constructed a more gruesome pile of words? And the guy wasn’t stumbling along; he was proceeding calmly and confidently, as if he had rehearsed those very phrases. That’s the horrible thing. People learn — they are trained — to communicate in that way.

Suppose that you didn’t know, more or less, what had happened. Would you ever have guessed what that 79-word sentence was about?

Let’s take it in order.

  • “Approximately.” One rule of bad wording is never to use a short word (“about”) when you can use a long one (“approximately”).
  • “Incident” (note that this word is repeated). Disasters become incidents when someone with an official position changes the focus from something that went wrong to something that just, you know, happened.
  • “Transitioning,” used instead of the common “going from” or “changing from.” Always be long; always be Latinate; always be pseudo-technical.
  • “Fire attack and rescue phase,” used instead of “fighting the fire and rescuing people.” An assertion of professionalism is always more important than saying what happened so that other people can understand it.
  • “The three-minute transport of patients.” You don’t know what that is? Too bad for you. Does it mean they’re supposed to be picked up in three minutes, or delivered somewhere in three minutes? And where are they being delivered? To a hospital, or to some memory hole where they can lie in peace, next to the English language?
  • “It became aware.” Did the spokesman ever read a word of English? I mean, actual writing in English? Did he ever notice that, in written English, things (“it”) cannot become aware? But actually, they can’t become aware in spoken English, either. Because they’re things, that’s all. Nevertheless, “it became aware” is growing on us. Watch for it. Try to avert it.
  • “There was a possibility.” Observe how the distant past is creeping up on us here. There may possibly have been another incident at some “unknown point during the incident,” but the only way it’s becoming aware to us is that, we are told, some unnamed official detected the “possibility” at some other point, after the incident within the incident.
  • “One of their two fatalities might have been contacted by one of our apparatus.” In published redactions of these remarks, “their” is often rendered as “the.” In video versions, it’s “their.” So the speaker lost control of his referent. But he remained very much in control of his theme, which was that nothinghappened. Well, nothing much. It was an incident. With some other incidents attached. There were two fatalities. (Nobody died; that would be going too far.) “Contacted,” of course, means run over. If you’re like me, you would rather be contacted by an apparatus than run over by a fire engine. I dunno; maybe it’s just a subjective preference, but that’s the way I feel. I’ve been contacted by many apparatuses in my time, and suffered no harm. But now the fire department informs me that a fatality might have been contacted by an apparatus. Picture that, if you can. Evidently, however, that is what the fire department does not want you to do. Otherwise its spokesman would say that “a person who had escaped from the burning airplane may accidentally have been killed by a fire engine.”

Like much bureaucratic talk, the language I’ve been analyzing is not only absurd and arrogant, and offensive to normal human feeling; it is also false to the conditions of normal human life. The horror of a young person who escaped from one disaster only to be overwhelmed by another — that is matter for profound reflection, because it exemplifies conditions that are, regrettably, not abnormal at all. The horror of a driver who, with the best intentions, is speeding to the scene of an accident and who accidentally destroys the life of another person on the way — if that’s what happened, it’s a matter for the deepest human sympathy. The bureaucratic “language” panders to whatever inclination the audience may have to ignore the facts and the problems and proceed as if all of it had, in fact, been explained, or at least officially encapsulated. Move along; there’s nothing to see here.

Another bad thing — I was going to say the worst thing &‐ about this kind of talk is that it’s not even naturally produced. No one just pops out with “overhauling” as a synonym for “putting down,” or “apparatus” as a synonym for “fire engine,” or “at an unknown point during the incident” as a synonym for “at some time.” Granted, “it became aware” is simple ignorance, but why should people ignorant of words be chosen to speak for official agencies? Presumably because they can be trained in jargon. I wonder how much tax money is spent on this enterprise alone.

Disasters become incidents when someone with an official position changes the focus from something that went wrong to something that just, you know, happened.

You might, however, bring up another sense of the word natural. You might suggest that bureaucracies naturally resort to obfuscation, because they want to protect themselves. You might suggest that because they are collective and usually collectivist organizations, they often try to protect themselves in silly ways. There can be no check on silliness when no one in the org wants to stand out against the mob of “colleagues” and say, “This makes no sense.” If you reasoned in that way, I think you would be right. You would have identified one reason why nonsensical language is flooding our bureaucratized society.

But now for something completely different. Here’s what was posted on the Facebook page of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, just before the army conducted its coup: "We swear to God that we will sacrifice even our blood for Egypt and its people, to defend them against any terrorist, radical or fool.”

I’m stating no view about the coup itself. It’s really none of my business. But I like the statement. It’s short; it’s serious; and it uses words that actually mean something. It doesn’t call terrorism “workplace violence.” And it ends with the word fool. This is an expression that is seriously underused in American society and especially in American formal language. The Bible doesn’t mind calling people fools; the word appears, with its various derivations, about 100 times in the King James Version. “Fool” runs back through Old French and Latin into the original Indo-European, which apparently used it in the sense of “windbag.” In English, it eventually came to be used for people with more serious impairments, although it’s hard for me to think of any impairment that is worse than being a windbag — if only because, in our bureaucratized society, people are actually rewarded for being that way. And now, the curtain of psychological correctness has descended. “Idiot,” “moron,” and “imbecile” are out, not just as pseudo-clinical terms, but also as terms of social analysis. And so is “fool.”

I think it needs to be restored — as a term of analysis, not just of abuse. Some people are mistaken. Fine. Other people are fools. It’s a distinct species, requiring identification and understanding. Words are the tools of understanding. As the Egyptian generals maintain, someone’s folly, once identified and understood, can become a reason for taking action, in a way that someone’s mere mistakenness may not be. It is a sad day when America’s terms of analysis are less useful than Egypt’s.




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Home on the Range

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Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

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I collect markers of what I call “roadkill” legislation — roadside signs that demean my intellect or destroy my privileges. My favorite, of course, is “Click it or Ticket”. Get it? How clever of my state’s Humorous Sign Department (staffed by a dozen failed ex-comedians who enjoy fat salaries and a pension plan promising double their salary). The seatbelt sign reminds me that the belt, my strapped in belly, and the car belong to me. So does the road (my taxes). And I recall with sadness decedents, strangled by seat belts, who left this vale of tears after being T-boned or plunged into rivers, while many an unbelted survivor has been tossed from his vehicle toward safety.

Not to mention kids crushed by safety bags. What federal bureaucrat foresaw that? Why does my son ban me from seating my precious grandson in the front seat? “You’ll kill him!” he hollers as we back out of the driveway. Gee, I thought they saved lives.

However, the epitome of the state’s arrogance is “Traffic Fines Double in Work Zone.” It attributes to me the lowest of morals. Let’s see; if I knock down a road worker and it only costs $75, I’ll consider bowling one over and getting to work on time. What’s the calculus? One mashed road worker and congratulations: “Ted, you’re on time this morning”? But doubly fined — $150? That’s apparently enough of a penalty to upset my moral equation. I’d risk a worker’s life for $75, but not for $150. That’s what my state thinks of me. Not very flattering.

Forget occupying Wall Street. What we need is a roadsign protest movement that occupies our nation’s streets, cruising unbelted to a convocation site. Composed mainly of Washington lawyers disguised as farmers in denims and straw hats, they sue the first cop who slaps a seatbelt violation on them. They take it all the way to the Supreme Court, where any properly briefed schoolboy can prove that the Constitution doesn’t even whisper of straps, belts, or suspenders while riding your horse, and it’s clearly an infringement on the comfort of your own body, especially after a large, inflationary meal.

I save the best for last. The newest reminder by the state is that our life expectancy would go up ten years if we discarded our nefarious vehicles in favor of plodding horses, mules, or better yet, large turtles imported from the Galapagos Islands. How safe we would be! I refer here to the “No Texting While Driving” billboard. It doesn’t mention eating corn on the cob, reading War and Peace, or undertaking acrobatic sexual activity. Just texting. What about telephoning? That’s not dangerous when your wife tells you that her sister — the one with two kids — is coming to live with you? In the face of such news you’re not going to make a U-over four lanes of traffic to get to the bar, or end up in the front seat of the car in front of you? Or maybe bail out, converting your car into an unguided missile . . .

In summing up the above on personal safety, I say it is a matter of personal choice unless it infringes the rights of others. Sadly, we live in an age when society has robbed us of any choice in these concerns, as well as others that are much more serious. We’re on a slippery slope.




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The Bureaucrat and the Cellphone Ban

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About a month ago, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman, Deborah A.P. Hersman, called for a “first-ever nationwide ban” on “the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices,” including hands-free cellphones, while driving. In a prepared statement introducing the proposed ban, Hersman told the story of a fatal multi-vehicle accident that had recently occurred in rural Missouri, set in motion by a pickup truck driver who’d been using a cellphone while driving:

“And it was over just like that. It happened so quickly. And, that’s what happened at Gray Summit. Two lives lost in the blink of an eye. And, it’s what happened to more than 3,000 people last year. Lives lost. In the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.”

Quickly, critics of the Obama administration raised questions about that “3,000 lives lost” statistic. While some of these criticisms had a peevish tone, their basic point was valid. The 3,000 number was an exaggeration, based on an imprecise use of more defensible fatality numbers.

A few days later, the Washington Post published an opinion column under Hersman’s name that justified the NTSB’s proposal. (The Post’s opinion pages serve as a sort of free press-release service for columns supposedly written by high-level bureaucrats.) The column used most of the same language from Hersman’s earlier statement — but avoided specific figures:

“Washington residents remember well the 2009 Metro crash on the Red Line in which nine people were killed. The number of fatalities from distractions on U.S. roadways is the equivalent of one Metro crash every day of the year. . . . At the NTSB, our charge is to investigate accidents, learn from them and recommend changes. In Gray Summit and on highways across the United States, thousands of people were killed last year in the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.”

There was still plenty of mendacious rhetoric at work in the column. It went on to imply that fatal accidents caused by cellphone use are a growing risk. It stated that cellphones and personal digital assistants have become “ubiquitous”; and it cited a study suggesting that 21% of drivers in the Washington, D.C., area have admitted to texting while driving.

Taken together, these emotionally fraught passages clearly implied that some 3,000 people a year are killed in motor-vehicle accidents caused by sending or receiving cellphone text messages. But that’s not true. The “3,000 lives lost” number comes from an NTSB study of “distracted driving” in general. Based on data from that study, the NTSB estimated that fewer than a third of those deaths could be connected to cellphone use. To repeat for emphasis, even that number is an estimate. (Of course, bureaucratic fiefdoms like the NTSB often issue regulatory decrees based on slight justification and without regard to practicality, effectiveness or cost.)

So, Hersman exaggerated the risk of cellphone use while driving by a factor of at least three — and repeated the exaggeration with carefully calibrated verbiage. And, most important, she used the exaggerations and imprecise rhetoric to support an invasive regulatory action.

She may have figured the mendacity was needed because the general trend has been toward greater safety on American highways. In 1990, about 44,600 people died in car crashes in the U.S.; in 2010, that number had dropped to less than 32,900. This drop is even more striking when you consider that the total number of licensed drivers in the U.S. rose significantly over the same period. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 1.71 deaths per 100 million vehicle-miles driven in 1994 but only 1.09 in 2010. That’s a major improvement — though you’d never know it from Nanny Hersman.

Hersman exaggerated the risk of cellphone use while driving by a factor of at least three, and used the exaggerations to support an invasive regulatory action.

In significant ways, Hersman resembles other current and former Obama administration apparatchiks. Like Julius Genachowski, she is a career Beltway insider whose slavish devotion to big government overwhelms any notion of private-sector economy; like Elizabeth Warren, her background speaks more to bureaucratic credentialing than education in the classical liberal sense.

Hersman’s December decree urged state governments to prohibit text-messaging and other electronic device use while driving. (It calls, specifically, for the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban “the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices.”) But her urgency was unnecessary: 35 states already have such rules in place.

If “distracted driving” is a problem, why are cellphones a more urgent issue than other sources of distraction — watching kids in the back seat, eating fast food, studying a GPS map, applying makeup, etc.? A cynic might say that a cellphone ban gives state agencies a broad excuse to harass citizens…and a new source of cash flow for government coffers. But statist hacks like Hersman are too earnest for that.

A more likely answer is that a ban on cellphone use in the privacy of one’s own car is a preemptive regulation. And preemptive regulations have two distinctive traits: they are often misused — and, particularly, overused — by state agencies; and they are often based on shaky logical foundations that sound good on first impression but don’t stand up well to rigorous inspection.

That second trait explains why bureaucrats like Hersman use emotional manipulations to promote pre-emptive regulations.

An important point: The feds’ own research underscored the futility of Hersman’s gesture. An NHTSA report on accidents “involving” cellphones as the cause of fatalities stated that:

“Sixteen percent of fatal crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving and ... of those people killed in distracted-driving-related crashes, 995 involved reports of a cellphone as a distraction (18% of fatalities in distraction-related crashes).”

So, Nanny Hersman proposed banning cellphones in cars to reduce a risk that causes — at most — 2.9% of traffic-related deaths.

There may have been other factors affecting her thinking. A few months before Hersman’s proposal, the U.S. Senate considered a Department of Transportation spending bill that set up a $10 million grant program aimed at helping states combat “distracted driving” — and especially texting behind the wheel. According to the bill (S. 1596):

“While there is no definitive data as to how many distracted driving deaths and injuries are caused by cellphone use and texting, 20% of the drivers involved in fatal accidents in 2009 were either using or in the presence of a cellphone at the time of the crash, and there is reason to be concerned about whether the recent rise in distracted driving fatalities is linked to the increasing use of electronic devices.”

Admitting they had “no definitive data” to support their actions, the Solons would bribe states to prohibit citizens from operating a vehicle while in the “presence of a cellphone.” Maybe Hersman wanted the NTSB to administer the grants to the states.

If “distracted driving” is a problem, why are cellphones a more urgent issue than other sources of distraction — watching kids in the back seat, eating fast food, studying a GPS map, applying makeup?

The Senate bill also required $5 million to be set aside “for the development, production, and use of broadcast and print media advertising to support enforcement of State laws to prevent distracted driving.” Maybe Hersman wanted the NTSB to produce those ads . . . and its chairman to star in them.

The Obama administration has never been shy about manipulating numbers and emotions to support its various statist schemes and bureaucratic boondoggles. Specifically:

  1. According to the Census Bureau, more than 30 million Americans — one in every seven — live in poverty. And that number is growing, in part, because the Obama administration has expanded the definition of the word “poverty.” The administration has worked to delink the concepts of poverty and deprivation…and redefined poverty instead as being “about inequality.” Traditional metrics of poverty have focused on absolute purchasing power — how much food or durable goods a person can buy; the Obama administration’s metrics focus instead on comparative purchasing power — how much food or durable goods a person can buy relative to other people. This is a statistical trick designed to assure that a fixed portion of the population will always be poor.
  2. In the spring of 2011, Obama administration officials publicized the possibility that “82% of U.S. schools” could be rated as failing, according to metrics established by the No Child Left Behind program. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan repeated this statistic in numerous speeches — even though education experts called the number “unverified,” “likely exaggerated” and “meaningless to the schools that are being rated.” Even after several education policy groups challenged Duncan’s emotional rhetoric, he and other administration officials showed no inclination to make more precise statements. Some observers suggested the administration’s goal was, rather than issuing reliable numbers, to scare Congress into approving its spending goals.
  3. In the fall of 2011, a heated exchange between Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL) and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis made clear that tension between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans over the president’s efforts to bolster the clean energy economy was getting worse. Mack scoffed at administration projections that counted drivers of hybrid buses as “green jobs.” (This dispute occurred during the height of public outrage over Department of Energy loan guarantees — funded through Obama’s $825 billion stimulus plan — to bankrupt solar energy company Solyndra.) Some lawmakers argued that the Obama administration exaggerated the impact that its “green energy” policies had on improving the economy and creating jobs.
  4. In late 2011, immigration policy groups noted that the Obama Administration had inflated statistics to suggest that it had deported a “record-high number of illegal immigrants with criminal records.” In fact, the real deportation figure was closer to an historic low. In October 2011, Obama’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director had announced that nearly 55% of the record 396,906 illegal immigrants deported in FY2011 were convicted of felonies or crimes. But the real figure was less than 15%, according to federal records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). Specifically, the average rate across the four quarters for FY 2011 was 14.9%.
  5. In October 2011, the web site FactCheck.org caught the Obama administration exaggerating the impact of a proposed additional round of “stimulus” spending. (The administration had predicted that its previous stimulus plan would “save or create” millions of jobs. Those predictions turned out to be wrong — some 1.2 million American jobs had been lost during the two years following passage of the 2009 stimulus. In 2011, Obama claimed that “independent economists” agreed that a new stimulus package would “create nearly 2 million jobs next year.” But FactCheck.org countered that the “median estimate in a survey of 34 economists showed 288,000 jobs could be saved or created over two years under the president’s plan.”

Focusing on this or that political prevarication is easy and, on a reptilian level, fun (on this topic, I commend to you Vaclav Havel’s great New Year’s Day 1990 speech on statist lies). But there’s also a bigger point raised by the meddling of bureaucratic schemers like Deborah Hersman and Barack Obama. Specifically: what burden of proof should be borne by a party who proposes a law or regulation?

The feds’ own research underscored the futility of Hersman’s gesture.

The statists who support Obama argue that the answer to that question is “none.” They argue that bureaucrats are by definition well-meaning and laws or regulations they propose should be presumed virtuous and effective. According to this peculiar logic, the burden of proof falls on those who question the proposed laws or regulations. Here’s one commenter’s defense of Nanny Hersman’s decree:

“Ms. Hersman was appointed to the NTSB in 2004. I can’t for the life of me figure out what possible political (or other nefarious) agenda she could possibly have in recommending that states ban cellphone usage while driving. I don’t see why we can’t assume that she is a conscientious officer who has looked at the question and sincerely believes that the evidence supports her recommendation. . . . I challenge you to find any study that shows that texting or mobile phone use does not impair driving ability. You won’t find any.”

So, unless citizens can prove something isn’t bad, conscientious officers can ban that thing. This is sophistry. And, in the case of Hersman’s proposed cellphone ban, it’s threadbare sophistry.

A more coherent — and liberty-friendly — approach to government regulation would be that, if a state agency proposes restricting or banning some object or action, it must first prove that:

  1. the object or action accounts directly for some demonstrable economic loss, and
  2. restricting or banning the object or action will alleviate the loss.

If the agency can’t establish both points, then its proposal would be ignored.

And even if the agency can establish both points, citizens would demand a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed regulation that establishes with some confidence that it will save more in economic losses than it will cost to enforce.

This approach would reduce the amount of statist noise generated by the present administration. And future ones, too.

Back to the point: statists claim that bureaucratic drivel like Hersman’s proposed cellphone ban should be presumed valid. And that those who question it must prove the validity of their questions.

The fruitless search for zero risk fits well into this warped thinking. Whether the particulars involve texting on cellphones, smoking cigarettes, wearing seatbelts, eating Big Macs, or anything else, statist busybodies justify their requirements, prohibitions and other petty tyrannies with good intent. And they imply that their opponents are in favor of the bad outcomes of risky behavior — or are “against safety.”

But a quick text message sent home or to work while driving on an empty country road or stopped in traffic might be as effective a safety measure as wearing a seat belt. Because text messages are time-stamped, people who care about you can know where you were at a given time; this is important, if you don’t show up as expected.

Whether the particulars involve texting on cellphones, smoking cigarettes, wearing seatbelts, eating Big Macs, or anything else, statist busybodies justify their requirements, prohibitions and other petty tyrannies with good intent.

This sort of effective communication may have something to do with the overall trend toward safer U.S. highways. (And most of the existing state laws that restrict or prohibit cellphone use while driving specifically exempt emergency use — such as calls to the highway patrol to report dangerous conditions, etc.)

As I’ve noted, Hersman’s decree was unnecessary. Most states already have laws in place restricting cellphone use by people driving cars; and all states have reckless driving laws that apply to situations in which cellphone use causes dangerous results. But, as one online commenter noted:

“Enforcing laws is so boring. Not only is it work, you get little political benefit from mundane enforcement stuff as it rarely makes the papers. And enforcement of laws may even upset people, causing political problems. But passing laws, now that’s sexy.”

Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

The most damning indictment of the proposed cellphone ban comes from a statistical study conducted by researchers at the Colorado School of Mines. They note:

“On July 1, 2008, California enacted a ban on hand-held cellphone use while driving. Using California Highway Patrol panel accident data for California freeways from January 1, 2008, to December 3, 2008, we examine whether this policy reduced the number of accidents on California highways. To control for unobserved time-varying effects that could be correlated with the ban, we use high-frequency data and a regression discontinuity design. We find no evidence that the ban on hand-held cellphone use led to a reduction in traffic accidents.”

This study is preliminary and based on limited data — but it doesn’t bode well for the cost-effectiveness of Hersman’s futile gesture.

Bureaucrats promulgate regulations. It’s their lifeblood, the air they breathe. A bureaucrat isn’t fulfilling her statist destiny unless she banning or prohibiting something.

But free citizens need to keep in mind that the United States is a country built on the philosophical premise that everything not banned is permitted instead of the tyrannical axiom that everything not permitted is banned.

It’s right there, in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Nanny Hersman and her current boss should take a look.




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