Saturday, April 27, 2013

If Everything Is A Threat, Then Nothing Is

from the government-created-'ad-blindness' dept

The government's neverending quest to make America "safer" has turned on itself, making Americans less safe. This isn't solely an issue with the government's obsession with "security," although that is a large part of it. It's the constant onslaught of warning messages, applied to nearly every product sold by retailers and any area frequented by the public. Most of the warnings are of the CYA variety. These are used to deflect future legal complications and satisfy the endless requests of regulators.

David Henderson, writing for Econlog, suggests that years of government-mandated warnings are resulting in a sort of "warning blindness" in Americans. He begins by discussing California's infamous Proposition 65, a law that requires warning labels to be affixed to any product that might possibly contain chemicals the state has determined "cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm." Like any bit of overweening governmental concern, it has its heart in the right place. In practice, it's a nightmare.

Nearly every product sold in California contains this warning label. And it's not just products. A majority of businesses in California feature signage containing this warning. (One example: a parking garage may have to post the warning sign because of the exhaust cars produce.) This has led to Californians ignoring the label completely, even if the product in question actually contains harmful substances. Why? Because the warning label is omnipresent. If something's everywhere, on everything, it's obviously meaningless. (The old adage: if everyone's special then no one's special applies here.)
Californians have learned to ignore Proposition 65 labels because they are white noise: they don't communicate anything about degrees of danger or probabilities.
The problem here is created by the government itself. By declaring a majority of places and products "dangerous," it has lessened the effectiveness of the labels. This sort of self-defeating behavior goes much further than product labeling. It also carries over into other areas controlled by the government, undermining various agencies' non-stop efforts to portray this country as being in imminent danger at all times.
When I went through the San Jose airport Saturday morning in a long line at TSA, we passengers were subjected to John Pistole's warning, on an infinite loop, of the dangers of terrorism. We've all seen enough to know that it's not that dangerous. So we tend to ignore government warnings.
The government wants to be taken seriously and yet, it can't help but get in its own way. It gets in its own way because it wants to micromanage the lives of Americans. It loves control. It "knows better." On the rare occasion the government has something important to communicate, it can't find many people willing to grant it much credulity.
So when there really is a high-probability threat and the government warns us, we tend to dismiss that too. Government cries wolf way too often.
If the Homeland Security Advisory System moves from "elevated" to "high," is that up or down in terms of severity? Does anyone outside of the DHS know or even care? If we suddenly went to "severe," would it affect the daily lives of Americans outside of more hassles at airport checkpoints? The public doesn't really seem to know what these phrases mean in terms of an actual threat. And most Americans have long since stopped caring about "yellow alerts" or "orange alerts." It's meaningless and it conveys no useful information.

How meaningless? The alert system has never dropped below Yellow ("Heightened" [as compared to what?]) in its existence. (We have always been at war with terror.) In fact, a 2009 Task Force report suggested removing the two lowest tiers and making "Heightened" the baseline. If that's the baseline, then the government has won and the terrorists have won. Americans will remain awash in a sea of government-generated ambiance just loud enough to be noticeable but not annoying enough to grant it their full attention. It's a steady supply of junk "info" that generates resigned complacency, rather than heightened vigilance, and it does little more than make the government feel better about its monotonous efforts.

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