January 21, 2003
Big House Pet Is Watching You!!

One of the approaching "wonders" of the information age: Big House Pet Is Watching You!!


Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things: Happy-fun-law island Singapore may begin implanting microchips in cats and dogs in an effort to curb the nation's growing pet abandonment statistics, which one government minister pegs at around 19,000 animals a year. The potential penalty for abandoning a pet without "reasonable cause" under Singapore's current laws: US $5,757, or 12 months in jail, or both. No word yet on whether or not abandoning a dog because he chews gum or spits on the subway would be considered "reasonable cause."

Posted by DeLong at January 21, 2003 02:32 PM | Trackback

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Does it make sense to mock the Singapore government for everything they do? Is it a priori a stupid decision for a society to decide that they would rather punish people who spit in public spaces or abandon their pets than allow them to do these things? (Especially since there may well be good reasons for thei actions. A problem with public spitting in Africa is transmission of tuberculosis. A problem with public spitting all over Asia is that the spit comes from a mouth that has been chewing betel and covers whatever it hits (eg clean white walls) with red slime.)

It is by no means clear to me that the path that American society has chosen to go down, one that puts the rights of the individual absolutely ahead of everything, even in apparently trivial situations, is sustainable. It basically freezes society into the mold of the 50's to 70's since anything that is too different is likely to give rise to some sort of lawsuit in the name of individual rights (think nuclear power, think water usage in the West, think new types of contraceptives).

Posted by: Maynard Handley on January 21, 2003 04:28 PM

>>Is it a priori a stupid decision for a society to decide that they would rather punish people who spit in public spaces or abandon their pets than allow them to do these things?<<

That's not the point, Maynard. The fear is the coming of age of a society that has nothing to envy to 1984... If you can monitor where my pet is, you can monitor me on many more occasions than in the unlikely occasion I abandon it.

(Not that this is a great innovation, all American cell phone users can be pinpointed by the US government... I wonder when those big white balls will start coming out of DARPA.)

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns (Number #349) on January 21, 2003 05:22 PM

This seems like an Urban Legend, but there's another referrence to it here: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/30330/1/.html

Is this really cost effective? If it's too expensive to track displaced animals why would it be cheaper to track all of them? Presumably owners will have to pay for the microchips. How, then, would you verify whether or not they were complying?

In Buenos Aires and Montevideo they toss poisoned meat on the ground where dogs congregate. They have no dog catchers, and I presume that they have no animal shelters. And why would they? Poisoned meat does the work of a hundred men!

Posted by: Saam Barrager on January 21, 2003 05:39 PM

I just realized that there would be less concerns about privacy if the chips can't be used to track the animal but just identify the owner. If amount of the fine wasn't so draconian and the length of the prison term wasn't just so out of proportion, then it might not be such a bad idea after all.

As a matter of fact, I wouldn't mind my cat to have a chip, just in case it gets lost (provided that following a judicial mistake I wouldn't find myself a year behind bars...) My pet can't stand any regular id tag, and the thing here in CA is that if you don't visit all possible shelters within three days from the time your pet has been picked up, chances are it's been put down.

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on January 21, 2003 05:56 PM

Well, my dog has already been chipped...

Children next!

Posted by: Brad DeLong on January 21, 2003 07:52 PM

Minor nit ... I don't believe gum will be available in Singapore until FreeTradeAgreement with US has been signed (and not sure as to that status).

But the general principle is _should the government ignore a mechanism to control negative externalities_? I'm not exactly sure what aspect is being disapproved of (happy-fun-law??), perhaps it is the objection that one societry treats pets as chattels requiring electronic tagging instead of fun loveable 'lifelong companions'. However, some places have problems with ferel animals (cf cats in Australia preying on native wildlife without such predator historically in food-chain).
If the goal is to internalise the costs and put responsibility back onto the person most in control of the situation, then matching problem with owner makes logical sense.

There may be issues about implementation (cf external decree vs social peer-pressure) but in general, establishing a (legally verifiable) electronic chain of custody would seem a way to reduce these negative externalities. For comparison, I'd note that US statute (eg CA) requires that all commercial bulk-email have a valid reply-to address and a person to respond to opt-in complaints. Is anyone in favor of increasing spam by removing the address tag (ie disclaiming ownership) and thus responsibility? Substitute "wild dogs" for spam and "chipping" for "address tags" and think about the analogy. For an interesting side-discussion, google Professor Radin's property theories on personhood (Margaret Jane Radin, Property and Personhood, 34 STAN. L.REV. 957 (1982)) on why children are unlikely to be permanently chipped.

Posted by: LL on January 22, 2003 05:42 AM

I believe that gum will be available but only on prescription. Still there are a lot of doctors there.
Is anyone else amazed that chewing gum delayed the signing of the agreement for over a month?

Posted by: Jack on January 22, 2003 09:01 AM

>>Well, my dog has already been chipped... Children next!<<

I sure hope we won't get there either in Singapore or in the US. But I can tell you that all foreigners in this country are being figerprinted (excluding illegals, of course). It is reassuring to know that if I am abandonned, they will be able to track my owner...

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on January 22, 2003 01:57 PM

"It is by no means clear to me that the path that American society has chosen to go down, one that puts the rights of the individual absolutely ahead of everything, even in apparently trivial situations, is sustainable."

"Sustainable" is a unusual goal. As the Soviet Union proved from 1917-1990, an evil empire can be sustained for long enough that almost no one alive can remember the time before it existed.

Similarly, essentially no one alive today was a taxpaying adult in the days when the U.S. federal government took less than 15 percent of our national income. This is true, despite the fact that our federal government generally took less than *5* percent of the U.S. national income, during peacetime, for the first 150 years of the existence of the U.S. So Big Government is also sustainable.

Slavery in the U.S. was sustained from the 1600's to the 1860's. Chattel slavery was sustained around the world for millenia (and is still practiced in parts of Africa).

An evil empire. Big government. Slavery. All have been proven to be "sustainable"...at least, if a minimum of 70+ years qualifies as "sustainable." But "sustainable" can be "sustainably bad."

"It basically freezes society into the mold of the 50's to 70's since anything that is too different is likely to give rise to some sort of lawsuit in the name of individual rights..."

???? In the 50's to 60's, there was government-enforced segregation in the U.S. South.

"...think nuclear power,..."

OK. (Should be relatively easy for me, since I worked in the industry for several years.)

There would likely never have been a single nuclear power plant built anywhere in the world without substantial government support. In the United States, it's quite likely that no plant would have been built without the Price-Anderson Act's limit on liability for accidents.

Around the world, the nuclear fission power industry is has completely stopped growing. It's quite possible that, by 2060, there won't be a single nuclear fission plant anywhere in the world. That even includes France, where government involvement in nuclear power has been the most complete.

Nuclear power has failed because: 1) no one wants a nuclear power plant (or nuclear waste dump) in their community, unless 2) there would be some sort of "Dutch auction," such that the community would get some heavy-duty money for agreeing to such a plant.

"...think water usage in the West,..."

Don't know enough about that, to figure how "individual rights" gets in the way of more economically efficient usage of water.

"...think new types of contraceptives)."

Yes, U.S. lawsuits against contraceptives (e.g. Dalkon Shield) as well as insulation (asbestos), medical care (e.g. malpractice insurance), and simple ladders (I was told be a ladder manufacturer that some very substantial fraction...I forget how much...of the total cost of a ladder is due to liability insurance) are occasionally significant barriers to both innovation and simple production. But that can't be attributed to putting "the rights of the individual above absolutely everything"...because there are individuals who are the defendants in all those product liability claims. So it's really a matter of putting one individual's rights above another individual's (e.g. the doctor's right to practice medicine without having to be perfect...since no human *is* perfect).

And that support of individual rights "freezes" society is an interesting claim...because conservative communitarians make the exact opposite claim: that support of individual rights encourages too much change:

http://www.cato.org/pubs/policy_report/cpr-18n5-1.html


Posted by: Mark Bahner on January 22, 2003 03:23 PM

"The fear is the coming of age of a society that has nothing to envy to 1984... If you can monitor where my pet is, you can monitor me on many more occasions than in the unlikely occasion I abandon it."

I'm not 100 percent sure, but I don't think these chips will allow people to figure out where the pets are. The chips don't transmit a signal. Rather, the chips are intended to serve as an unremovable dog/cat tag.

When I was growing up, our dog had a collar with:

"Hello, my name is Mistletoe. Return my to...and then our family's address and phone number."

These chips, I think, are a way to make sure that every dog/cat can be correlated with an owner. That would work by someone who actually had the dog or cat running a reader over the implanted chip. I doubt there's some satellite that could read the chips...because that would require the chips actually physically sending a signal.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on January 22, 2003 03:53 PM

Mark, I acknowledged that in my second post. I was mislead by reading that pet chips would be used to "track" them. And then I used my brain ;-)

In any case, Michelin, the tire maker has begun testing a UHF transponder that it adapted for use inside rubber sidewalls. In this case, at least, chips may help protect individuals against society, rather than the other around.

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on January 22, 2003 05:53 PM
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