Lileks: New laws check in, but they don't check out

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS
  • Star Tribune
  • January 2, 2014 - 6:42 PM

A new year brings new laws, and thank heavens. We all remember the lawless anarchy of 2013.

Fear not: We now have just the right number of laws, and it’s likely the Legislature will look around, think “our work is done” and disband.

People have suggested that for every new law added, one should be subtracted — a reasonable, if symbolic, gesture. It would have to be proportional, of course. “Well, we looked around for something to balance the law that extends the tax credit for municipalities that run public docks and decided to do away with the penalty for murder. Enjoy the year.”

But perhaps the laws should be equal in length: If they pass a law requiring everyone to put compostable material along with the recyclables and the clauses mandate separate bins for organic coffee grounds, fair-trade coffee grounds, shade-grown grounds, etc., you can’t balance it by striking an 1887 law that says simply “It shall be illegal to mummify oxen,” or something else that no longer applies.

Some highlights of the new crop:

Scrap metal dealership cameras will now be required to take pictures of everyone who comes in to sell something, along with pictures of their license plates. This may help catch crooks. Right now, you have to ask:

Where did you get that copper? Uh, I was digging in the back yard and struck a vein. A vein. Of copper pipes. Must be a natural formation. I see. What natural process stamps XCEL on pipes? Oh, I did that. Those are my initials. Xerxes Charles, uh, Electric. Electricson, I mean.

Employers are now banned from asking applicants if they’ve been convicted of a felony or gross misdemeanor until after they’ve been interviewed, although it is still permitted to turn down a job applicant if they commit a felony during the interview.

Reading through the new list is somewhat heartening; if you’re expecting the Omnibus Tighten the Screws and Take More Money Act, it’s not there. But you’ll be disappointed to see that the laws you wanted never get passed.

People who are taking forever at the Redbox DVD machine shall be required to have a clue about what they want because after five minutes, you want to shout IT DOESN’T HAVE “GONE WITH THE WIND” IN VHS, OK?

Following Target’s example, any hacking of the MNsure database entitles you to 10 percent off a major operation, unless it involves kidneys, in which case it’s 50 percent off the second one.

Citizens can be fined for not scraping their sidewalks down to the concrete only after the city has scraped the streets by the same criterion.

Newspaper columnists who trot out their own pet peeves in the guise of suggested laws shall be ignored as irrelevant vestiges of an expiring medium …

WELL, HOLD ON — let’s not go overboard. Surely there are some laws we can complain about with righteous dudgeon.

There are federal laws en route too, including laws about nutritional labeling in snack machines. As it stands now you’re in the dark. “That candy bar — it could be 10 calories. It could be 265 per serving, with three servings per bar. There’s no way to know. Well, that trail mix must be healthy, since people who walk on trails are exercising. So those M&Ms must be whole wheat.”

This is the point where we state the obvious: Such well-intentioned laws are costly for the vendors, probably have no effect on people who turn down “NatureChoice HealthyOption Kale Jerky” for Doritos and represent the expanding realm of the Dietary Scolds. Nanny State!

Yes. But a lot of the restrictions on modern life come from Us, not Them. We think the streets are thick with shabby vans driven by sweaty abductors, so we warn our kids not to wander. We make them wear helmets, as if that’s enough to instill a sense of safety. I learned about bike safety when I tried to do some trick riding on my new golden Schwinn and ended up bouncing my head on a curb, making a sound onlookers described as “a cherry bomb going off inside a watermelon.” I has suffered none ill as after from.

You could say that smoking bans changed behavior by making the habit difficult, but there’s a limit to such bans’ effectiveness. You could push out the “20 feet from the doorway” limit 10 feet every year until people who want to take a smoke break have to take a shuttle bus to a distant lot, and there will still be people who say, “How often does the bus run?” Until, that is, they pass their own personal law and quit.

We still make our own statutes, and those have a greater impact on the details of our daily lives that most of the laws the Legislature conjures.

If next year they pass a law making Redbox label its movies to show how many calories you won’t burn because you’re sitting on the sofa, I take it all back. • 612-673-7858

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