There oughtta (NOT) be a law!

April 2018

About 60 years ago, there was a program on TV (black and white only) called “You Asked for it.” They did a lot of whacky things on that show, but the one I remember was their offering someone $1,000 if they could walk the streets of New York for an hour without breaking the law.

I figured that jaywalking would be the big problem, and if the contestant could avoid that, he should have no trouble getting the money (it would be about $10,000 today). Turns out he lost the money, not because he jaywalked, but because when he bought a pack of cigarettes, he failed to rip off the tax stamp they used to seal every pack to prove federal taxes had been paid.

I didn’t know that was a law, and neither did the contestant. I wondered how many laws there were like that: Unknown, unenforced, useless. Turns out there are a lot of them, more every day. And I think they are a big mistake.

Teaching ourselves to ignore laws.

Nothing teaches disrespect for the law better than passing laws – or regulations – that are not enforced. Yet we do it every day.

Think of the traffic laws. I bet no one can drive more than a few miles without breaking a traffic law. Nearly everyone speeds, as ten minutes on Route 6 will tell you. Most of us cross solid white or yellow lines when we shouldn’t, and speed up when we see an orange light. And how often do we fail to stop for pedestrians on the side of the road? If we got fined every time we did one of these things, we’d all be poor.

And we all know that jaywalking is a way of life in Massachusetts. The fact that it’s illegal makes no difference so far as I can see.

We are the perpetrators of many violations of unenforced laws and regulations. And we are the victims of many others. Most of those robo calls we all get offering super low interest rates, a free “wellness package” or other deals that are too good to be true, are illegal. The FTC has received hundreds of thousands of complaints about them but they seem to be unable to stop them.

Even worse are the people who call pretending to be the IRS and threatening to put you in jail if you don’t send them money right now. This is extortion, a serious crime, but no one arrests them.

Debt collectors are out of control.

There are probably more unenforced laws and regulations in debt collection than any other business area. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is very specific about what debt collectors can and cannot do, but it is seldom enforced.

For example, debt collectors are not supposed to say they are going to turn you over to their lawyers unless they really intend to do that.

Debt collectors are not supposed to threaten any action they aren’t planning to do.

Debt collectors are limited as to when they can call you, and what they can say.

Debt collectors are supposed to provide you with the details of the debt they are trying to collect. You are entitled to know where and when it was incurred, and for what.

If you refuse to deal with a debt collector, they are legally required to stop bugging you except to tell you about a legal action they have taken.

Debt collectors often violate all of these rules. They will say anything they think might make you send them some money, legal or not. They often threaten legal action but unless large sums are involved, it’s not worth their while to pay lawyers. They often ignore your “cease and desist” letter.

The fact is that there aren’t enough people in government to enforce all the laws and regulations we have passed. Thousands of them are largely ignored, teaching all of us that there is no need to respect the law.

Since I moved to Cape Cod twenty years ago I have volunteered at the Consumer Assistance Council, a non-profit mediation service working in cooperation with the Attorney General’s office.

One of my early cases was, I thought, a mail fraud (this was before the Internet). I suggested to the man who sent it in that he might want to report the situation to the Postal Inspectors. He said he was a postal inspector himself, and he knew that they didn’t have enough people to handle a case like his. He was hoping we could help him!

Other ways to modify behavior.

Passing laws or regulations that are too expensive to enforce is not the answer to our problems. We need to look for better ways to modify behavior.

For example, we can use the relatively new science of behavioral economics to find what they call “nudges.” Deposits on soda bottles are an effective nudge. Widespread availability of litter barrels accompanied with publicity is much more effective than the threat of fines. Having people opt out of something like a 401k rather than making them opt in is much more effective.

Another important suggestion is to make small claims court more effective. We have this huge system of small claims courts that is underutilized because the maximum award is too small and it is hard to collect when you win.

After many years of Judge Judy type programs, I think more people will be willing to file complaints in small claims court if we change a couple of things:

Raise the maximum amount that can be awarded to, say, $50,000.

Require that any company doing business in the state produce a bond which can be used to pay off any small claims court awards if the company is unable or unwilling to do so. For most small businesses such a bond might cost a couple of hundred dollars a year, with reductions in premium for every year they had no claims.

Better ways to enforce criminal laws.

Almost everything we’ve talked about so far is civil law, but we also have unenforced criminal laws. One of the most frequent unpunished criminal acts is breaking and entering for purposes of stealing whatever they can. Police respond to all of these incidents and set up a file, but they don’t have the resources to do much more than that. So these crimes usually go unpunished.

My suggestion is that instead of treating every crime like this equally, the police should randomly select a small percentage of these crimes to get a complete treatment. Dust for fingerprints, canvas the neighborhood for CATV and witnesses, distribute lists of items that might be fenced, and pursue all leads.

Most people who do these crimes do a lot of them, so it won’t be too long before one of them is on the list for full treatment and the chances of getting caught go way up.

Something like this was tried in a city in California some years ago. The city paid for burglar systems and cameras to be put in a random sample of homes, chosen by the city. Homes that had the systems were not identified, so a burglar didn’t know which houses to avoid.

Burglaries went way down to close to nothing. The bad news is that the burglars moved into neighboring towns, which were none too happy about that. So the experiment ended.

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