The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It


When I was growing up, a cartoon appeared in one of the evening New York newspapers entitled, “There Oughta Be A Law.”  It was a one panel piece which depicted some of the stupid things that people do.  Perhaps I should substitute the term “nonsensical” for the word stupid.

The cartoon ran for quite a few years.  Apparently there is no limit to the goofy stuff of which mankind is capable.

Some of the idiotic things in which these people engage are caused by those who seem to live there lives by using as little of their gray matter as they possibly can.  Most of their activities merely inflict disaster on themselves.  But, occasionally, they take their ineptitude into the public sphere where they have the ability to impact any innocent citizen who has the misfortune of being in their presence.  An obvious example is people who drive drunk or use cell phones or text while driving.

To protect ourselves from these people how does our society respond?  Our answer, as in the cartoon is, “There oughta be a law.”  And we do just that – we pass laws and hope that will solve the specific problem addressed in the legislation.

Certainly, until such point that each of us is innately a good citizen, a caring person, a responsible individual, (that day is far in the future), we will need laws so that those who are irresponsible may be punished when they infringe on the rights of their fellow citizens.  But those need to be good laws – laws which truly offer deterrence to misbehavior.  Merely passing a law does not, in and of itself, resolve the behavior we are trying to discourage.

Allow me to offer a simple example.

We all wish that disease did not exist.  I have never met anyone who felt otherwise.  If someone in Congress were to propose a law banishing disease from the United States, I am sure that it would pass unanimously in both houses and would be swiftly signed into law by the President.  Would disease miraculously disappear as a result of this enactment?  Of course not.

The first two years of President Obama’s administration produced two laws, The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and Dodd/Frank (intended to make sure that we never again faced a similar banking crisis to the one we endured).  Both laws, as they have been presented to voters seem, on the surface, to be good things.

I come from the K.I.S.S. school of management (Keep It Simple Stupid).  Both of these laws exceed two thousand pages – hardly what anyone would consider to be simple.  In fact, they are so complex that to date no one, including those who voted to adopt them, knows what they actually contain and for what they provide.

Why are these two laws so important?  Because, if you listen to the voices of small businessmen, not understanding their implications is the primary reason that they have been reluctant to hire new workers.  And that is the reason that our economy is still sputtering along at a 1.3% growth rate rather than the 4.0% rate that President Obama predicted as a result of his stimulus plans.

Should this matter to any of us?  Well it certainly matters to those who are still actively seeking work and continue to be unemployed.  And to those of us who are fortunate to have a job it matters because it is one of the primary reasons that our national debt load (what each man, woman and child owes) now exceeds $200,000 per person.

I have no doubt that these laws were passed with the best of intentions.  Nevertheless, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

This entire concept might be lost on the average person – particularly if he or she does not own their own business.  So let me offer an example of how laws can affect real people.

Many years ago in Chicago I was approached by a gentlemen whom I knew from the neighborhood.  Pete was a real estate agent, but his interest was less in selling houses than in trying to develop run-down properties and turn them to productive use.

One such property housed several small retail stores but the major tenant was a package liquor store.  Together with a number of merchants who operated their businesses in a part of Hyde Park known as Harper Court, which was directly behind this row of buildings, we were able to buy this property.

The buildings had become rundown and the liquor store was a haven for people who would panhandle outside it from anyone walking by – hoping to collect enough change to buy a cold quart of beer or a pint of alcohol.

The constant presence of these people, sometimes they were very aggressive and would follow a possible donor down the street until the person gave in and “contributed,” meant that the police spent a lot of their time patrolling the area and asking these people to move along.  Robberies near this property were frequent.

When we acquired the property the package liquor store’s lease was six months from expiration.  We chose not to renew it.  We performed all the maintenance which had been deferred, spruced up the outside and found a new anchor tenant to rent the space which the liquor store formerly had occupied.  It was an upscale restaurant which became one of the more popular, nicer places to eat in the neighborhood.  The neighborhood saw a significant improvement in terms of appearance and safety and the investors got a decent return on the capital which we had risked.

With that background, when Pete came to me with another real estate venture, I was naturally interested.  But this project was significantly bigger in scope and size.

Hyde Park had a fairly high percentage of the elderly – so many so that a number of residents coined the phrase to describe it as, “The Florida of the North.”  While there was one “old age home” in the neighborhood, run by the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, it was small and insufficient to accommodate all the elderly who lived alone and would benefit from being in a more closely-supervised environment should they take an unexpected fall or experience a medical emergency.

Pete knew that there was a large apartment building for sale in east Hyde Park.  It needed extensive renovation and work to bring it back to its former standards.  But it would have been an ideal place to situate a retirement home/skilled nursing care facility.  This was a big project and so Pete presented it to those of us who had invested in his first project, as well as a number of new potential investors.

Pete had, as in the first case, done his homework.  He had prepared detailed financial projections for the cost of acquisition and renovation and had secured a guarantee of financing from the Hyde Park Bank.  We were enthusiastic about the project.  Most of us knew elderly people who lived alone and we saw the need for this kind of facility.  There was only one possible fly in the ointment.

The building was sixteen stories tall and had two stairwells servicing its two sections.  It had been constructed in the 1940’s with the solid materials with which buildings at that time were built – real lath and plaster rather than the plasterboard which is used today and the water was delivered to each apartment by copper pipes, not PVC.  It was a rock solid building but needed a new roof and tuck pointing – both very extensive items, the cost of which Pete had incorporated in his analysis.

The fly in the ointment was that the risers in the stairwells did not meet the current city standards for retirement/nursing homes.  They were 1/8” too high.  In order for us to obtain licensing to operate that sort of facility, we would have to rip out 32 flights of stairs and replace them with stairwells that met code.  Despite the involvement of community leaders, all testifying that this project would be a tremendous asset to the neighborhood and would be a great benefit to our many elderly citizens, the city administrator who had responsibility for oversight remained inflexible.  “The law is the law.”

The cost of redoing the stairwells made the project impossible to accomplish.  The building we had hoped to acquire continued to deteriorate to the point where it was an eyesore and it was twenty years before the Episcopal Church replaced “The Church Home” with a new, modern and larger facility when a motel which had fallen into disrepair was purchased and demolished by them.

Think about what was lost through bureaucratic astigmatism.

This could have been a home where 280 of our elderly neighbors would have received first rate care and attention which was denied to them; renovating the building would have meant giving six months’ work to roofers, tuck pointers, plasterers and painters, carpenters and mechanics – all of whom would have been union workers; and we never hired the staff of 60 permanent people who would have overseen the care of the residents and provided for their comfort.

Now think about the illogic of requiring that we gut the stairwells and rebuild them.  The stairwells in a high rise are designed for emergency use.  Most of us would prefer taking the elevator either to climbing or descending 16 flights of stairs unless we absolutely had no other choice.

Because the building was well-constructed, it was unlikely that, should a fire occur, it would spread uncontrolled, requiring the evacuation of the entire building.  But let’s say that were required.  Would a 90 year old with a walker, be any better or worse off with stairs that were 1/8” lower than the ones which had been constructed when the building was erected?

There are laws which we pass that are so complex that they have a negative impact until their specifics are clear.  There are other laws which are so specific that they have a negative impact despite their original good intentions – such as the city ordinance regarding the height of stair risers.

If we feel that “there oughta be a law,” we should be certain that the ones we pass are good ones.  Otherwise, we may wind up getting far more than that for which we bargained.

Comments on: "THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW" (4)

  1. Unfortunately, those who dream up and pass these laws probably feel that they ARE “good ones”. Then, when they are proven otherwise, the dreamers/passers feel so invested in their pet laws that they can’t bring themselves to admit that the laws need to be changed or repealed. Or, if they CHANGE the laws, they just pile error upon error.

  2. You have hit several nails directly on their heads in you comment. One of the fundamental reasons that we have bad laws is that, while our legislators might recognize a problem, they often do not have the personal experience and knowledge to create a law that successfully addresses it without “unintended consequences.”

    As to ego – their personal investment … I think it is telling that former Sen. Christopher Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank both have now chosen to retire from their lifelong business, politics – and we still don’t know what the crown jewel of their legislative careers says. But we do know that it is Dodd/Frank which is one of the main reasons that banks are unwilling to underwrite home mortgages and is a primary reason for our continuing sluggish real estate market which must normalize before any economic recovery occurs.

  3. I grew up in an era where there were not so many rules. Yes we did have our hurts and sad events as a result, but it taught us to get along for ourselves and have a healthy respect for people and society in general. Political correctness is not a rule as such, but it stifles initiative too. We are slowly drifing into a controlled society. We need to take seriously that book Animal Farm where a select few made rules and the rest of their group were enslaved. Those who make the rules somehow feel those rules don’t apply to them.

    • I grew up in the same era. Most of the “rules” I learned were from my parents and grandmother. I didn’t always like them, but they made sense – and even if I preferred to do things my way I realized that these rules were for my benefit and protection. I have no such sense of many of the laws that are on the books.

      Your point about the select few making rules which they impose on others is well taken and correct. The crown jewel of the Obama administration’s first two years in office was passing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The law specifically exempts the members of Congress, the President, the Vice-President, Members of the Supreme Court and 45,000 people in the executive branch from being obligated by it.

      I have consistently tried to reason with people who claim that this law is a great achievement that if it were so, why would the people who enacted it not want to benefit from it? Either they know something we don’t know or they are totally irrational. And who wants lawmakers making laws who are non compos mentis? In fact, if they are less than sane, doesn’t that make one wonder about the value of this specific piece of legislation?

      Alexis de Toqueville wrote, “The great thing about America is that everyone is equally obligated under its laws.” Perhaps that was true in the early 19th century when “Democracy in America” was published. But today we have a President who regularly and blatantly only enforces the laws that suit his philosophy and ignores others which don’t. I don’t know of a better term to describe this behavior than “imperial’.

      When I speak with my fellow citizens about the fact that the Congress and now the President regularly exempt themselves from laws under which we are obligated, the response that I get is, “Well, they always do that.” As though it is alright – which it most certainly is not.

      If the voters continue to allow that behavior, they are fostering a climate where the politicians will keep pushing further and harder to the detriment of the ordinary person. Perhaps only at that point, will people wake up and start to take action. That time is already long overdue.

      If the Founding Fathers were here, I suspect that they would be plotting a Second American Revolution.

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