Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Our Litigious Society

It seems that everybody’s suing someone these days. Too fat from eating too many Happy Meals? Sue McDonald’s. Can’t quit smoking? Sue the tobacco companies. Think you paid too much for that software? Sue Microsoft. Didn’t like that politically incorrect joke you heard at the office? Sue your boss. It seems that nobody wants to take any personal responsibility for their own actions anymore, and everyone wants their cut of all of that “free money.” Unfortunately, people don't seem to realize the social repercussions of our litigious society.

Just today I experienced an example of how the mere threat of litigation can negatively impact society. My daughter had a school field trip scheduled for today. She had been looking forward to this field trip for weeks, and I volunteered to be a chaperone for the excursion. But the weather forecast called for the possibility of a thunderstorm, so the school called the trip off. Was it because the school administrators were looking out for the best interests of the children? Certainly not. They were so afraid of the possibility of litigation that they decided to cancel the trip entirely, as opposed to adapting to the change in circumstances. What did this teach the kids? It taught the kids that in the face of adversity, you should pack your bags and go home. The kids learned that it’s better to quit than to adapt, overcome and improvise.

Any trial lawyer who reads this will disagree with me vehemently. They’ll say “Those who take unnecessary risks should be punished.” “Those big corporations don’t care about you, all they care about is money.” “We’ve got to stick it to the man, and teach them that we won’t take their greed anymore.” Of course as they say this, they’re lining their wallets with cash, and giving the “injured parties” the scraps that are left over after the lawyers take their cut. They say this because they’ve got a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

The single biggest reason that our society is so lawsuit happy is because the laws of our society are created by politicians who overwhelmingly started out as attorneys. They start out as lawyers, become politicians, and create more complex, convoluted and unnecessary laws, strictly designed to perpetuate their interests and agendas. They couldn’t care less about the needs of society as a whole; they merely care about their personal well-being.

We’re turning into a society of wimps, and we’re losing our willingness to take risks. As we continue down this path of litigiousness, other countries are taking risks, innovating, and becoming more productive. To an increasing extent, we’re losing our competitive edge in the world. Why? Because everyone is so afraid of getting sued that they’re unwilling to act on new and innovative ideas.

What ever happened to the pioneering spirit on which Americans used to pride themselves? It’s lying on its death bed, tied up in the court system. Could you imagine what would have happened if our society was this litigious 150 years ago? We never would have settled the west, because the pioneers would have been too afraid of being sued if Indians attacked the wagon trains. We never would have had the industrial revolution, because the factory owners would have been too afraid of getting sued for environmental damage. Countless medical cures would have never been created because they’d be afraid of being sued by people who weren’t happy with the side effects of constipation and dry mouth. Electricity wouldn’t be in every American home, because of the fear that the homeowner would be electrocuted.

We’ve got to change our mentality. We’ve got to get our edge back. We’ve got to relearn how to take risks. If we don’t our children will suffer. They’ll continue to live in this culture of fear and safety, while the rest of the world continues to innovate. Our jobs will continue to go overseas, because corporations will locate the jobs to places where they can’t get sued over stupid shit.

In order to get our edge back, we’ve got to do two things. We as a society need to raise the threshold for what constitutes a frivolous lawsuit, and we as individuals need to stop taking part in lawsuits about stupid shit. We need to break this cycle from the top and from the bottom. If we don’t, then things will continue to deteriorate for us as a society. We’ll continue to pay more for goods and services, because the cost of litigation will continue being built into the cost of these goods and services, and our kids will continue being unable to go on field trips just because of the threat of a little rain.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Looking Forward to Vacation

As a kid, I used to camp and canoe quite a bit. Sometimes it was with my family, sometimes with my Boy Scout Troop. But time went by, life got in the way, and eventually I found myself no longer doing this type of activity, which was a shame because I really enjoyed it. One day back in 1994 or so, some of my friends and I started lamenting how much we all missed camping, hiking, canoeing, cooking over an open fire, and so forth. One of us realized that we couldn’t do anything about the years that we missed, but that we could start doing it again. Next thing we knew, we were planning a canoe trip.

We decided to do a three-day run on what's considered the most scenic river in the state. It had been a long time since any of us had done this sort of trip, so we were under prepared in some areas (I neglected to bring a raincoat), but we improvised (I cut holes in an extra trash bag that I had brought along and used that as my raincoat), and had a blast. We had so much fun in fact, that we determined that we’d do it again the next year. Not long after, it turned into an annual tradition.

Over the years, our trips have changed considerably. Some years we’ve had six to eight people on the trip, other years it’s been the “core four” of us. The trips got progressively longer – we’re up to weeklong trips now. We moved from open canoes to whitewater kayaks, and we’ll probably go back to open canoes on flat water before long, because one guy says that he's "too fat to kayak," and another one’s got problems with his wrists that prevent him from whitewater kayaking. We started doing our trips over Memorial Day weekend instead of Labor Day weekend. We’ve stopped being completely self-contained, which requires us to set up and tear down camp every day, instead choosing to “homestead” in a state campground and taking day trips. We’ve kept going a little farther from home each time. We’ve hit around fifteen different rivers in three different states. Our tents have gotten progressively bigger, in order to accommodate an ever-increasing inventory of camping gear, designed to make our lives a little easier. We’ve gone from sleeping in tiny sleeping bags in pup tents, to sleeping in big fluffy sleeping bags, on top of cots, in huge three-room Taj-ma-tents.

One thing however, is always the same. We have a grand old time. There’s too much beer, too much food, plenty of laughter, playing practical jokes on one another, retelling old stories from past trips, creating new stories for future trips, reminiscing about things we miss from our childhood, sharing hopes and dreams for the future, and always wishing we had “just another day or two” when the trip inevitably comes to an end (yet secretly looking forward to a hot shower, a soft bed, and a massage from the Mrs.).

And these trips always seem to come when they’re most needed. Even in the years when it rains every day, these vacations are a welcome relief from the day-to-day grind of everyday life, providing necessary breaks from work, the hustle and bustle of the city, and the endless list of domestic chores. It gives us a little time away, a chance to appreciate what nature can still offer us, as well as an opportunity to take stock of our lives as a whole – a chance to appreciate what we’ve got in life.

Monday, May 2, 2005

Life is Short

It’s been said thousands of times, but I’m gonna say it again. Life is short. Not only is life short, but time seems to accelerate as you get older. And because life is short, nobody will accomplish everything they want to do. You’ve got to prioritize and do the things that are really important to you. Now at the same time, life’s just long enough that you can’t completely throw caution to the wind and do nothing but what you want to do at the moment. It may work for a little while, but if you live strictly in the moment, chances are that life will catch up with you and you’ll suffer in the long run. Either that, or you’ll die young, in which case my second point is moot.

I’ve got a theory as to why time seems to accelerate as you get older. When you’re two years old, one year is half of your life. Now on a relative scale, waiting half of a lifetime is a long time to wait for anything. When you’re ten years old, one year is only one-tenth of your life, which isn’t as bad when comparing it to one half of your lifetime. When you’re twenty, one year is only one-twentieth of your lifetime… relatively smaller yet. And so it goes as you get older. That’s my belief on why time seems to go by at an ever-faster rate as you age. For each day that you age, a day becomes a smaller and smaller portion of your life experience, so consequently, it doesn’t seem like such a long time. As you get a little older yet, a week doesn’t seem so long. Not long after that, a month doesn’t seem like very much time. Before you know it, you’re planning decades in advance, similar to how kids plan a day or a week ahead.

“It’s not really that life is short, it’s just that death is so long.” The sooner you realize that life is short, the sooner you can get into living it. As you begin to get a little life experience under your belt, the sooner you realize what’s important and begin to act accordingly. It seems that when you’re young, it’s all about the instant gratification. As you hit your adolescent years, life becomes a huge sense of right and wrong. It’s not fair that you can’t stay up until 11:00, when your friends can stay up until 11:30. As you hit your early 20’s it becomes a combination of both, as you begin to explore your newfound freedoms… hitting the bars, becoming politically active, etc. But you still take the little things too seriously.

It’s only as you get the experience that you realize that life isn’t about instant gratification, material possessions, or who’s got the most toys. Life isn’t a contest, an event or a struggle. Life’s a journey. Yes, there will be events, struggles and contests along the way, but life is more than the sum of its parts, and the journey is about balance. A little bit of excess, a little bit of conservation. A little bit of outlandishness, a little bit of reservation. A little bit of give, a little bit of take. A little bit of love, a little bit of hate. It’s okay to live in the moment, but don’t be consumed by it. It’s great to plan for the future, but not to the exclusion of today. It’s okay to be angry, but don’t be consumed by the hate. It’s okay to want and desire, but not to covet and obsess. It’s good to be content with your lot in life, but not to the point of stagnation. Strive to keep growing. Endeavor to keep learning. Continue to take on new challenges. But remember to take time to appreciate what you’ve got while you’re on this journey. Repeat as necessary. If you completely gaff this tidbit off, you’re too busy living in the moment. If it rules your life, you’re too focused on what’s yet to come.