Sunday, April 3, 2011

Couldn't We Celebrate St. Civility?

On St. Patrick’s Day, I did something incredibly stupid. I walked past Penn Station in New York City at 5:00 PM. This was stupid because it combined all the people who came from New Jersey to drink, all the people with day jobs who were going out to drink, and a number of spring break revelers who had just woken up and were going out to drink. I have never seen so much kelly green in my life.
NYC is always crowded, and the area around Penn Station is especially bad. But these were unbelievable crowds, even for Penn Station. I was, of course, in my heels, having forgotten how much rubber-tip-destroying pavement existed between two and a half avenues, and not thinking a “quick” run to Quiznos was worth changing into flats for.* I was unaware, however, of how many sidewalk grates existed between me and Quiznos.

If you combine a lot of drunk and soon-to-be-drunk men in kelly green with sidewalk grates, large crowds, and me in high heels, walking becomes difficult. Outside of one pub, I had to ask a group of spring break chuggers to “please move,” so I wouldn’t have to walk on a sidewalk grate with large holes. An emerald twenty-something (but probably not 21-something) jock yelled after me “What? Just because you’re in heels I have to move?”

It was one of those times when I felt very vulnerable. I do my best to not feel at-risk, but sometimes strong drunk guys are mean to you, and you just wish someone would look out for you. Then you wake up and realize you’re in the 21st century, and allegedly part of this whole equality bargain is that guys can treat you like some frat-house buddy since you’re “equals now.” It’s the argument that feminism means equal rights and equal rights kills chivalry and chivalry means decency. In other words, the social rules have changed.

When the rules of the game change in economics, you lose equilibrium, because people aren’t sure what to expect. After the Enron scandal, Congress passed Sarbanes-Oxley, which required additional audits for companies, in order to avoid another “cooked books” fraud for the American consumer. In the long run, it hurts honest businesses, who will follow the additional stipulations, even at a cost to their bottom line, while dishonest companies will continue to be dishonest and will either ignore the extra audit requirement or pay someone off. Enron, after all, had an outside corporation (Arthur Andersen) auditing their books. After changing the rules of the game and spending more money, the consumer may not be any better off. Doing business is now just more expensive.

Still, there are good ethical reasons to have regulations, even knowing that the dishonest groups won’t follow them (theft is still illegal, even though there will always be burglars — without the law, there would be more burglars). Part of the law’s job is to teach society what is and is not acceptable behavior. As an economist I look for hidden costs and unintended consequences. As a human, I am also concerned with societal well-being and ethical standards. There is a tricky balance in having enough laws to teach what’s expected, and having so many laws that businesses or others are needlessly harmed.

The rules of the game have changed for male/female interactions, and for many, chivalry is gone (along with general civility). When I walked by, no one helped me over the modern-day puddle — instead, I was made to feel intrusive and threatened. Gender equality is certainly a positive change. But with it has come an attitude that says it is socially acceptable for men to not only not help me, but to be rude and somewhat threatening. But equality and civility do not have to be mutually exclusive. Sometimes, the law's teaching function (be nice to people trying to walk down the sidewalk) trumps the inconvenience or larger cost (having to move). The trade-off is far more expensive.

I walked by rude revelers in:
Grayish pencil skirt, berry cami, bright, patterned crop sweater with gold brooch, purple hemp hoops, lemony green zipper cuff, and teal suede pumps.
*I change into flats not out of some crazy respect for my lower back, but because I hate having shoes reheeled after NYC sidewalks have shredded them.