Monday, January 16, 2023

Should We Save People From Themselves?

If you see someone about to jump off a bridge, do you intervene?

Suppose you are driving across a bridge and you see someone preparing to "end it all" by jumping off.  It is not an obscure question, as we have an iconic tall bridge and people do jump off it, regularly, and the Police and newspapers don't talk about it much as they are concerned about "copycat" actions.  It took some lobbying on the part of local activists to put up signs with the suicide prevention hotline on them.

But suppose you saw this going down, what would you do?

  1. Stop and forcibly yank them back and stuff them in your car and take them to a mental hospital.
  2. Stop and try to talk to them and tell them life is worth living
  3. Stop and push them off the edge and say, "later, sucker!"
  4. Drive by and do nothing because it's none of your business.

Option #4 is the Libertarian approach.  Options #1 or #2 might be more Christian.  Option #3 is pure evil, but metaphorically speaking, a lot of people engage in that.  Take the guy who owns a chain of payday loans stores, for example...

But of course, there are other things to consider.  Suppose you try to "rescue" someone about to jump off the bridge and when you go to grab them, they turn around and shout, "Hey, idiot, we're bungee-jumping here today!  What's your problem?" and you realize you read the whole situation wrong and were a well-intentioned idiot.

But suppose someone falls off the bridge because there were inadequate hand rails provided - or none at all?  Some Libertarians would argue that government regulations for such things are unnecessary - but are they?  Or would it really be better to settle things like that through endless lawsuits (which would create "case law" anyway)?

On the other hand, I have noted before that you can't save people from themselves and oftentimes, the person driving their car off a cliff thinks they are taking a creative new shortcut to the bottom of the mountain.  When you tap them on the shoulder and point out there is a cliff ahead, they get all annoyed and call you an idiot.  Sort of like these "crypto" and "stonk" investors (gamblers) when you point out the folly of their ways - they call you the idiot!  One loses patience with such people very quickly.  It is tempting to sit at the bottom of the bridge and bring popcorn.

There has to be a happy medium.

We have various government (and even non-government) regulations to protect us from our own ignorance and stupid impulses.  Particularly in a complex and technological society, there needs to be a baseline of rules to protect the uninformed. UL certification of appliances, for example (or ETL or CE or ULC) are not required by the government, but by insurance companies - if you want to sell a product in the marketplace.  And yes, that is sort of a Libertarian approach to regulation.  But there are other dangerous things in our lives - such as investments, for example.

Or take drugs (that wasn't a suggestion).  We came up with the pure food and drug act over a century ago as people were literally dying from adulterated foods and dangerous drugs.  A century later and people are dropping dead of opiates.  Sure, there are lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies, but is that any way to run a country - wait until people die and then sue for a pittance?  Maybe being a bit proactive is a better approach.

We are seeing yet another meltdown in the economy happening today.  We had one in 2008 and it was a doozy.  What 2023 will bring remains to be seen - a minor blip or a major collapse.   But one thing is clear:  If some of the regulations that had been loosened in previous years were still in place - or existing regulations enforced - a lot of this would not have happened.

The whole "tech" sector (and I use that term loosely - delivering food is not "tech"!) is collapsing mostly because a few of these companies were wildly overpriced and their stock values were manipulated by insiders.  Most famously, Elon Musk (who is being sued as a result) made a bold play by announcing on Twitter that he had "secured financing" to buy out Tesla at $420 a share (today trading at about $125 a share).  He knew this would cause the share price to spike, and it did, making him, on paper, the richest man in the world.  There are regulations against this sort of thing, and he was fined for doing it - but the enforcement arm of the SEC has been crippled by politicians in the pockets of business people.  Now you know why Musk turned Republican - that's the fun party for Billionaires!

The class-action suit will be settled on the eve of trial and the lawyers will make tens or hundreds of millions of dollars and the shareholders will get a coupon for $500 off a new Tesla.  That's how class-action suits work.  And the parties involved will chalk it up to the cost of doing business.  It is doubtful they will lose money in the deal.  Or put it this way, I will be surprised (pleasantly) if they do.

I have sort of harped on this throughout the life of this blog, but at one time we were a "kinder, gentler nation" with laws and regulations in place to prevent people from harming themselves.  Gambling was illegal except in Nevada.  Granted, there was illegal gambling going on and people still ruined their lives through gambling, but it wasn't something readily accessible to the average person.  Proponents of gambling argue that most people can have "fun" at a casino and not develop a crippling gambling addiction - and moreover it was unfair to those who could gamble responsibly to outlaw gambling simply because a few "losers" can't control their own urges.

Oddly enough, the same arguments were made in favor of (and opposed to) prohibition.  Drinking is bad for you - and society as a whole - and the "benefits" of it were far out-weighed by the damage caused.  Surely the minor inconvenience of not being able to drink alcohol would be outweighed by the benefits to society?   But the other side would note (and history would bear them out) that making drinking illegal merely drove it underground, and created a whole new business of organized crime.

It becomes a standoff.  People rebel against regulations, even if they are designed to help them.  As the image above illustrates, a guy jumping off a bridge will get into a fight with the people trying to save them.  And if they aren't careful, he might drag them over the edge as well.  That's why I say, when you see someone about to drive their car off a cliff, make sure you are not in the back seat.

That's why I have no sympathy for people who lost money on "crypto" - they were quite certain they knew what they were doing, and were more than willing to run-down anyone who questioned the validity of it.  They wanted to be free of "pesky government regulations" and avoid the "instability" of "fiat currencies."  What regulations were so pesky was never stated clearly, of course, other than laws against trafficking in drugs, guns, or people.

Now it has all come undone, they cry for government invention.  It is like the guy how has jumped off the bridge, screaming on the way down, "Why didn't you try to save me!!!!"   Too late for that, my friend.

I think most reasonable people agree, we should put up signs with the number of the suicide prevention hotline.  And yes, some basic regulations on the height and strength of bridge railings is not a bad idea.  And if we saw someone trying to jump, we should at least try to talk them out of it.  Pushing them over the edge for a laugh isn't very nice, though.  And it seems today a lot of people want to do the latter - if not for a laugh, for profit.

In the "stonk" scam, people are hyping up the price of particular stocks (GameStop, AMC) to get small investors to buy small amounts of shares, and thus drive up the price of the stock.  This, in turn, causes short-sellers to lose their shirts, which the organizers of these schemes profit from by going long.  The small investor who bought a few shares (or worse yet, a derivative) of GameStop?  He ends up with nothing.  They pushed him off the bridge, just for a laugh - and a few bucks.

Such blatant market manipulation is common these days, particularly on social media, but also on regular media.  A famous person just mentions the name of a stock and it will go up in value the next day.  Say, there should be laws against blatant stock price manipulation, doncha think?

On the other hand, the more Libertarian among us would say, "Hey, anyone dumb enough to fall for this deserves what they get!"  And again, the folks buying GameStop stock would call you a moron (or worse) if you tried to point out the folly of paying $60 a share for a stock that was selling for $5 a share just weeks before and was paying no dividends and had no profits.  So maybe you let them drive their car off a cliff - maybe that is the only way they will learn.

Problem is, they don't learn.  Like a poorly programmed neural network, the only thing they "learn" is that whatever went wrong wasn't their faultIt was the system that was screwed up!  And since the system is broken, it needs to be overthrown!  It is the same argument made by gun nuts after a mass-shooting incident - "See?  Gun control laws obviously don't work!"

I am not sure what the answer is, only that it seems we have swung wildly toward the side of  laissez-fair economics.  Perhaps it is possible that we could find a happy middle ground where we are not just pushing people off the bridge for shits and giggles.