Told You So

The writing on the wall -- and the bottle, the box, the stroller, the doe...

EARLIER this year legislators in the state of Washington, led by a representative named Mark Miloscia, introduced a bill that would require a cautionary label on credit cards, analogous to the labels that already appear on cigarette packs and liquor bottles. The message would read, "Warning: Failure to research interest rates and credit cards may result in personal financial loss or possible bankruptcy." The Washington initiative, which foundered in committee, is not the only one of its kind. Congress has considered incorporating a similar requirement into its overhaul of the U.S. bankruptcy code. Although the idea was rejected in the House, it will be taken up again when the bankruptcy bill moves to the Senate.

The idea of warning labels on credit cards is unlikely to recede in a country where last year banks sent out 3.5 billion unsolicited offers of pre-approved plastic, and where more than a million people a year declare personal bankruptcy. Taking no initiative, I have been borne through the ranks of Gold and Platinum membership in various credit-card communities, and a few days ago was informed of upgraded entitlement to a new Titanium card, with a credit line of $100,000. Ultimately there could be a Uranium card, with a debt load whose half-life is 700 million years.

In all likelihood the call for warning labels of some sort will become more insistent. As a stopgap measure, the National Center for Financial Education, a nonprofit group, is already making available a do-it-yourself version: an adhesive-backed label bearing the words "Warning: Overuse Can Be Dangerous to Your Wealth!"

* * *

That Americans harbor an ambivalent attitude toward risk is almost a truism. On the one hand, people fight for the right to drive without seat belts and to ride motorcycles without helmets. On the other, they insist on being protected from every remote or capricious form of woe. Unhelpfully, the public's risk assessments are badly skewed: people become agitated about mechanisms of injury that are relatively minor or unlikely (Alar, vaccinations) while shrugging off those that are serious and prevalent (downhill skiing, driving to the store). Participants in a recent conference on the subject of how fear distorts science, sponsored by the Independent Women's Forum, lamented the ascendancy of what they called the Precautionary Principle: the idea that "no risk should be taken until all its ramifications can be known." In theological terms, people afflicted with the same hobbling incapacity are said to have a "scrupulous conscience."

Illustration by Chris Sharp

The only printed warnings I can remember from childhood are BEWARE OF DOG and the cloth tag on mattresses that was never to be removed, under penalty of law. Today warnings are virtually a design feature of any product. To be sure, many cautionary announcements are essential. Hong Kong's televised "Falling Objects Kill" campaign, which portrays what can happen when a refrigerator tossed from an apartment window lands on a schoolgirl riding a bike, is an urgent necessity in a city of high-rise congestion and laissez-faire sensibilities. At the other end of the spectrum is the warning label on those accordionlike cardboard sun-blockers that stretch above the dashboard: "Do not drive with sunshield in place."

In between are hundreds of thousands of labels, flashing various shades of alarm. Some give indications of that scrupulous conscience (or of fears of litigation). On cans of deodorant: "Do not spray in eyes." On an infant's wheeled conveyance: "Remove your child before folding baby stroller." Other warnings are more understandable. On products that contain olestra: "Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools." On Viagra: "An erection that lasts longer than four hours requires prompt medical attention." A few labels elicit genuine surprise. On toothpaste: "If you accidentally swallow more than that used for brushing, seek professional help or contact a poison control center immediately." Some wildlife managers foresee a need to put warning tags on deer: as an experimental population-control measure, herds in a number of places have been inoculated with contraceptives, and if the practice spreads, deer taken by hunters may no longer be fit for consumption.

Warning labels are fast venturing into fresh domains -- not just things but people and relationships. In Oregon, state law requires that warning signs be placed outside the homes of sex offenders released from detention. A judge in Massachusetts has sought to compel people convicted of driving while under the influence to display a bumper sticker to that effect. In Pennsylvania a state representative has submitted legislation that would put an anti-battery advisory on all marriage licenses: "The laws of this Commonwealth affirm your right to enter into this marriage and, at the same time, to live within the marriage free from violence and abuse." Court documents reveal that in their evaluations of visa applicants State Department personnel abroad have employed an in-house warning-label system using a secret code -- LR for "looks rough," TP for "talks poor." In recent years a number of lawsuits have been filed alleging malpractice by members of the clergy, which suggests that consumer advisories may soon need to be posted on vestments and pews. In this connection it will be instructive to see whether a new subsurface platform jutting into the Sea of Galilee, designed to allow tourists on millennial pilgrimages to simulate the miraculous experience of walking on water, will display any warning labels. The walking-on-water story is the one in which Jesus admonishes Peter with the words "O ye of little faith," so a warning label might seem a bit ironic (though lifeguards and patrol boats are already planned for the attraction).

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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