Friday, June 8, 2012

Of Side Mirrors and Sugar

I'm not one prone to the alarmist school of political ideology--more often than not it's not real and does more harm than good anyway--and, likewise, I'm not too fond of that logical fallacy known as the "slippery slope." They are both the lazy man's way of working up an emotional appeal to get their presumably otherwise weak point across.

So it's with trepidation that I, today, I write about the overreaching arm of the government in our daily lives, in what I am going to call the blatantly alarmist phrase of "microfascism."

The biggest example of recent government intrusion is Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed ban on sugared drinks over 16oz. Exactly how this would work is still up for debate, since it seems to be largely unworkable. Would fountain pop dispensers be effectively banned, since they are self-serve? Or are all cups, regardless of sugar content going in them, going to be shrunk to the 16-oz level? Are refills banned? Is there going to be a one-sale-per-person policy in effect? There are so many ways to get around the ban it's ridiculous.

Of course, compliance isn't the problem here. It's the fact that the government is trying to do it in the first place. Unlike alcohol or tobacco, there's no immediate negative externalize on other people (second hand smoke and acting like an asshole) if you're downing a Big Gulp. The goal to get people to lose weight is admirable, of course, but this is an incredibly inefficient way of doing so; in the process, it artificially reduces people's personal choices. If there's no harm to other people, the prevailing right is for people to make this choice themselves.

The next example is that of information, so on the face of it it's not so horrible. But it's still a particularly ham-fisted way of solving an easily solvable problem. The Obama administration has recently met with many colleges and university representatives concerning student loans. The goal is to force each institution of higher education to present an identically formatted "fact sheet" that shows the terms of the finances at their school.

Not horrible, of course, but the stated goals seem very...unfortunate. The need for this is that apparently many people don't know the difference between a grant and a loan, and plenty of college students are apparently under the impression that they are getting a full scholarship when in fact they are not. Of course, all of this information is already available (and in most cases already required); it's just split up in several different sources.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that the myriad of terms and conditions on any sort of financial transaction can go over my head...but the items in question are pretty fundamentally easy things to 1) know in the first place, or 2) find out in a matter of minutes of asking people or online searching. It seems like a low threshold to set--if you can't figure this out, or aren't able to take the responsibility from your parents to find out, it's possible that you're going to have trouble living on your own at school.The main drawback is that there are true differences in how schools operate--so what column A means in the standard form for a school might mean something different in another school, but this standardized form won't let them make any sort of distinction; doing so would negate the purpose of the sheet in the first place.

Finally, there comes the news of an inventor who has developed a perfectly reasonable mirror for cars that eliminates the blind spot. It does so by creating a series of small mirrors within the mirror to mimic a curved mirror. The problem is that in a curved mirror it distorts how far things are away, so while you gain a larger field of vision, that vision is distorted. (This is where "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear" comes from.) Flat mirrors are a better representation but they cause a blind spot.

This invention greatly reduces that problem; not only is the field of vision increased to 45 degrees (from the normal 15-17 degrees), but the objects mostly stay the same relative size, effectively eliminating the one drawback of a curved mirror.

You would think this would be a perfect innovation--it will most likely save lives and reduce accidents, but it does so at an almost imperceptible cost. But, of course, the government will have nothing to do with making things better. Curved mirrors are no longer allowed to be added to cars on the manufacturing line because people couldn't handle objects being closer than they appear. Even if the curved mirror in question no longer has that problem, the government will have none of it--flat mirrors for everyone! Thankfully, there's a workaround; you can still buy and use the mirror as long as it doesn't come originally with the car.

Are any of these things revolution-worthy? Obviously not. They are small, petty things that can for the most part be easily overcome. But these act as a reminder that there are thousands, probably millions, of ways that the government is restricting your choices (or making certain choices more expensive) for absolutely no reason whatsoever--or that reason is to control what you do with your life. You don't have to necessarily agree with the examples from above, but it won't take a lot to discover many others.

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