Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Understanding Causation In Your Life

A scale falls on a lady after a man jumping on a train drops a load of fireworks.  Who caused the accident?

In Law School, one of the cases they use to confuse young would-be lawyers is the Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad case:

Sunday, August 24, 1924 was a very hot day in New York City, and Helen Palsgraf, a 40-year-old janitor and housekeeper, who lived at 238 Irving Avenue, Brooklyn, was taking her two daughters, aged 15 and 12, to Rockaway Beach, New York. They were on the platform at the East New York station of the Long Island Rail Road ("LIRR" or "the railroad") on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, when a train, not theirs, pulled into the station. As it began to move again, a man carrying a package ran for that train, as the doors had not closed. He leapt aboard, but was unsteady as he landed, and a platform guard pushed him from behind as a member of the train's crew pulled him into the car. The passenger made the train, but lost the package, which dropped and exploded, apparently containing fireworks. Either the force of the explosion or the panicking of those on the platform caused a large penny scale to fall onto Helen Palsgraf. No one was hurt enough to spend the night in the hospital, though several people, Palsgraf among them, were listed as injured.

The question is, what caused this accident?  Was it the railroad, by pushing and pulling the man onto the train?  The man who jumped onto the train?  Or because he was carrying fireworks?  The lady who didn't get out of the way of the falling scale?  Or the scale company for not making a scale that wouldn't tip over?  Or the man who owned the scale for not bolting it down?

And the answer is:  it doesn't matter.  Under the law today, you sue the party with the most money, which means the railroad, the scale manufacturer, and the guy who manages the penny-scale.  And in today's climate, it is clear than when vending machines tip over, the vending machine company is often at fault - even when the person injured or killed by the falling vending machine was trying to tip it to get free product.

So you spend all this time in Law School learning about "causation" and it doesn't really mean anything.  If you stood up in court and argued that your client wasn't liable under Palsgraf due to causation issues, the judge would laugh at you.

In your personal life, causation does matter - and it doesn't.   I have harped on this a lot in this blog.   People routinely absolve themselves of fault in some matter, claiming to be innocents, when in fact their actions lead directly to their predicament.   They made bad life choices and are now paying the consequences.   They could have made different choices and their outcomes could have been better.

For example, it is mutely reported in the news today that a young couple flying off to Costa Rica for their wedding was thrown off a United Flight when they tried to sit in upgraded seating without permission.  Once again, we'll never know that the real story was, but the key thing is that when the flight attendant asked them to get off the plane, they complied.   Rather than raise a fuss and be dragged off a plane that wasn't theirs, they said, "OK, we'll leave" and they took a later flight.  No compelling video, no lawsuit, no outrage on the Internet.   But of course, if you want to generate outrage, I guess we all now know how to do it!  I predict there will be many "copycat" incidents on airlines with people trying to set up "outrages" on Social Media.

But getting back to causation, it is true that causation does have direct meaning in your life.   If you speed and get a ticket, it is your fault for speeding and not the policeman's fault for giving you a ticket.   This seems pretty straightforward, but I can tell you that at one time in my life, I believed the opposite - the same sort of "poverty stories" that we liked to bandy about - that the Police were just in it for the money, and the whole speed limit thing was just an excuse to harass people, and so on and so forth.   Blame everyone except yourself!

You get older and realize that speed limits exist for a reason.  A crowded suburban street is no place to do 50 mph, simply because people trying to pull out of their driveways can't if assholes are driving by at freeway speeds.   And let's not even talk about kids on sidewalk bicycles darting out into traffic.

No, I realized after many years that it is just as easy to obey the law, and the reward is my insurance for two cars, including collision and comp, for six months costs what you pay for a month.   It always kills me that some high-cost insurance company puts up an ad saying that they could save me $50 a month over GEICO.   To do that, they would have to offer me free insurance.   But it illustrates how much some folks pay for car insurance these days - hundreds a month, not tens.

You get older and you get an inkling that maybe all the things that happen to you in life are not, in fact, random events.  You are no longer suffer from learned helplessness and start to take action in your life.

But what about causation by others?  This is where it gets tricky.   As I have noted time and time again, Externalizing is never a healthy thing.   Blaming all of your problems on unseen others is never a way to solve your problems.  It solves nothing.   And yet people do it all the time, blaming the "Wall Street Fat Cats" or the "Welfare Queens" for mysteriously draining their bank account.   And people who hang out in casinos even tell me these stories - they lost all their money, it seems, but it was the fault of "those folks in Washington!" and not the slot machine in front of them.

Now to be sure, where someone runs you over with a car or steals your stuff - where you have a direct line of causation and a case worth litigating, then you should go after them - and settle for a reasonable amount.   But the key words are "worth litigating".   Mrs. Palsgraf, it turns out, was not really injured much, other than she claims she was "bruised slightly" and "shocked" by the incident, which she claimed caused her to stammer.  PTSD!  It ain't a new thing, as it turns out.

And you thought specious personal injury suits were a modern invention!   Mrs. Palsgraf was hoping to win litigation lottery and she lost.   And now, generations of law students have to suffer as a result.

Sometimes in life, shit happens, and a scale falls on you, and you are slightly bruised.  It ain't fair, to be sure, but you can dust yourself off, get up and go on with life.   Or you can pretend you were shattered by the experience and hire a lawyer and lose twice.  Mrs. Palsgraf had to pay $350 in legal fees when it was all said and done - about a year's wages for her.   Maybe we should go back to that system, eh?

On the other hand, generalized externalization, where people blame their problems on others - without some direct line of causation - is just bullshit.   "Welfare Queens" have no direct line to draining your bank account.   And "your taxes" - if indeed you pay any at all - go to a lot of things, including your own Social Security and Medicare.   Rather than using something like that as an excuse not to succeed, just vote instead.   And by the way, "Welfare Queens" were abolished when Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law - you can't collect welfare for more than five years in your lifetime.  The idea of generations of people being born, raised, and dying on welfare is a myth.

Oh, and the people who want to "Make America Great Again"? - they are the most likely to be filing sketchy disability claims.  Ahhh... but white people on welfare don't count, right?

But getting back to topic, causation does make a difference in your life when you do things which cause reactions - or fail to do things.   Railing against vague chains of causation is just loser-talk, and giving yourself an excuse not to examine what you did to cause your own problems.   And that right there is why people do this.   It is the most painful thing in the world to say, "Gee, I screwed up.  I was wrong.  What I did caused me grief!"

But it is also the most instructive thing, too.   Because if you can learn from the experience, you no longer experience Learned Helplessness.