Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Warning: May contain nuts

It's been more than fifteen years since the lids on our take-out cups began telling us that hot coffee is, well, hot.

We have one Stella Liebeck to thank for that warning label and countless others that trail in its idiotic wake. While it's tempting to blame greedy lawyers alone for this sort of thing, we all know what's at the root of it: a fundamental lack of responsibility.

There's the personal irresponsibility of ninnies like Ms. Liebeck, opportunists who refuse to be accountable for their actions and instead pursue frivolous complaints. There's the professional irresponsibility of many attorneys, along with the official irresponsibility of judges and juries who repeatedly hand out exorbitant awards.

Then there's our collective irresponsibility -- yours and mine -- for allowing this system to exist.

We tacitly endorse it with our apathy and our silence. And some of us actually help our government promote irresponsibility.

Every four years, the citizens of New York City choose a special "Public Advocate" -- essentially a Whiner-in-Chief elected to represent the people to their elected representatives (no kidding) and the city's bureaucracy. The current Public Advocate, Betsy Gotbaum, typically handles 12,000 complaints each year.

The latest high-profile
whine-fest involves rubber safety mats installed at playgrounds throughout the city. Even though the soft material probably has prevented millions of injuries, some parents complain that the black mats get so hot under the summer sun that they can burn children's bare feet.

In a city of eight million people, hospitals report having treated just ten barefoot kids for burns. Three lawsuits have been filed. (Natch.) A watchdog group advises, "Playgrounds should be designed with canopies."

You just can't make this stuff up.

As for Public Advocate Gotbaum:
"It’s unacceptable that children suffer severe and completely avoidable injuries due to equipment installed and maintained by the city. How many burn cases will it take before the city wakes up and acts? Signs warning against bare feet on the playground are not sufficient to ensure children’s safety. The city needs to do more to protect children, and in the interim, ensure the signs are actually helpful in warning and informing parents of small children about these dangers."
If New Yorkers truly value personal responsibility and are committed to putting this circus out of business, they'll snatch Ms. Gotbaum from her cushy office and deposit her unceremoniously in the unemployment line. They'll likewise boot every bureaucrat and elected official who doesn't pledge to eliminate the Public Advocate position from the city's charter -- and they'll demand accountability directly from their elected representatives.

Most important, they'll make sure that every parent who allows a barefoot kid to use a city playground is publicly humiliated or, better yet, jailed for being dumber than a sack of hair.

Venting aside, and acknowledging that we can't eliminate epidemic irresponsibility by snapping our fingers, it's clear that we have some serious work to do.

First, each of us has to demand responsibility from ourselves -- I can't very well require others to be accountable if I'm the picture of irresponsibility. Second, we must dedicate ourselves to raising the next generation to accept personal responsibility for everything they say and everything they do.

No excuses. No whining.

Finally, we need to tell the truth -- out loud -- every single time we see a Stella Liebeck or a Betsy Gotbaum parading their irresponsibility and raiding our oxygen supply.