In the 1840s, a French economist named Frederic Bastiat wrote:
In the economic sphere, an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen. There is only one difference between a good economist and a bad one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those which must be foreseen.
In layman's terms, this is the law of unintended consequences, and it plays out, like Murphy's Law, in more spheres than just economics. And while not all unintended consequences are negative, we notice most when an attempt to improve something ends up with an unexpected counter-effect. The saying "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions" refers not only to those who think of doing good but don't act, but also those who think they're acting to a good end but end up causing harm.
The conundrum of the law is that, in many cases, the two types of effects are too closely linked to separate out cleanly. Eliminating the unintended negative consequence would require eliminating the positive effect, as well.
The first time I went to Sudan, for example, I interviewed aid workers and pilots who were flying relief supplies into regions of the country that had been decimated by 18 years of civil war. Without the supplies, people would die. But the local population had also grown dependent on the handouts, and some of the aid was being stolen by troops and helping to support continued fighting. What do you do in a situation like that? In that case, the need to stave off death by starvation was deemed more important than the subtler problems of stolen food and long-term economic impact.
But the issue gets stickier when the "seen" effect isn't addressing a need that's quite so dire or immediate. Take the case of a second-hand bookseller in Salisbury, England who claims he was put out of business by Oxfam--a non-profit organization that, ironically, was one of the organizations sending supplies into war-torn Sudan.
Oxfam does a lot of good work in the world. The United Nations camps for Darfur refugees I visited a couple of years ago in eastern Chad had been set up and were being run by Oxfam personnel who were sacrificing a lot to be there. Doing that work, of course, requires money. U.N. contracts supply part of the organization's operating budget, but Oxfam also relies heavily on charitable donations. According to a recent New York Times article on the subject, Oxfam also receives $500 million a year in support from the British government. Like many chartitable entities, from Goodwill to local hospital foundations, Oxfam also runs a series of shops where it sells donated goods. The proceeds help to support its development and aid programs around the world. It's a win-win for everyone -- donors get a tax break, starving children in Africa get food and clean water.
But here's the sticky part. Oxfam has opened up 130 used book stores around Europe, which bring in a reported $32 million a year ... and are competing with small, mom-and-pop used booksellers in the same neighborhoods. Oxfam has renovated, clean, and similarly-designed and decorated storefronts ... which it can afford to invest in, because it has government support, volunteer workers and tax-deductible, donated products. So it has a market advantage because of its special status as a non-profit organization--an advantage that at least a couple of booksellers claim has put them out of business.
The Oxfam spokesperson quoted in the Times article seemed a tad insensitive, at best, when he shrugged and quipped "Independent candle makers don't have the business they once had either. And if someone's business model is so marginal that an Oxfam shop opening nearby decimates it, then we are not the problem." This, mind you, from an organization that deals almost exclusively with people around the world whose "business models" are so marginal that they would not survive at all without outside assistance.
Marc Harrison, a former Catholic priest who had to close his second-hand bookstore when he couldn't pay his mortgage this past summer, accused Oxfam of "destroying lives here to save them elsewhere."
It's true, of course, that Oxfam's proceeds go to a good cause, instead of personal pockets--although part of its operating budget is the salaries of its worldwide personnel. It's also hard to argue that a former priest who has to close his second-hand bookshop because he can't pay his mortgage is a greedy capitalist. I would wager, in fact, that one doesn't open a second-hand bookstore for the golden profits it's going to garner, any more than people open animal shelters for the good, easy money involved. It's more about preserving something considered precious and finding orphans good second homes. And while the world is not fair, and businesses often have an edge over a competitor because of more favorable loan or other business terms, the Oxfam case does seem to represent particularly unfair competition.
It's an argument that has been raised before, in many different sectors. In trade negotiations in the aerospace industry, Boeing argued that Airbus had an unfair edge because of its government subsidies; Airbus argued back that Boeing had benefitted from NASA's research, which was a subsidy of a different sort. And NASA itself has been accused of unfair competition in soliciting new business to try to shore up its ever-changing and unsteady Congressional funding. NASA had always allowed private corporations to use its test facilities for a fee, but the fee used to be less than what other commercial test centers charged, because much of the overhead was covered by civil-servant salaries. Private industry objected, and NASA ceded the point, changing to a system of "full cost accounting" which put its costs at a more comparable level to that of private entities.
But it's easier to make those adjustments in a field where business is done by contract pricing. It would be harder to implement that kind of "level-playing-field" shift in the used bookstore market. The used clothing industry--also populated by many non-profit organizations--has a small commercial component, as well, but most for-profit "consignment stores" (the upmarket term for a used clothing outlet) tend to be pickier about the quality of their products to differentiate themselves from the everyday thrift stores. They also offer donors a piece of the profits, to lure customers who might otherwise donate the clothing to a non-profit outlet.
Perhaps booksellers could follow the same model, although the profit margin may not be big enough for that to create much incentive in the used book industry. But regardless, the question of non-profits generating funds through commercial means--while a staple of support for charitable organizations for many years--can sometimes unintentionally cross into some muddy, gray areas of commerce, fairness, and collateral damage. Successfully navigating the lines between good works, self-sustaining funding, and commercial competition and rights is a tough challenge. And a solution that preserves the good benefits while avoiding the negative side-consequences may prove as elusive in Salisbury as it did in Sudan.
Non-profit organizations do a tremendous amount of good in the world. But just as with the work they do around the world, the irony remains that a good intention, and even really good work, can sometimes carry with it "unseen" and unintended consequences. At home, as well as abroad.
The paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.
I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
Has the Obama administration’s pursuit of new beginnings blinded it to enduring enmities?
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.
On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough,and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
Orr: “Sometimes a thing happens. Splits your life. There’s a before and after. I got like five of them at this point.”
This was Frank offering a pep talk to the son of his murdered former henchman Stan in tonight’s episode. (More on this in a moment.) But it’s also a line that captures this season of True Detective so perfectly that it almost seems like a form of subliminal self-critique.
Remember when Ray got shot in episode two and appeared to be dead but came back with a renewed sense of purpose and stopped drinking. No? That’s okay. Neither does the show: It was essentially forgotten after the subsequent episode. Remember when half a dozen (or more) Vinci cops were killed in a bloody shootout along with dozen(s?) of civilians? No? Fine: True Detective’s left that behind, too. Unless I missed it, there was not a single mention of this nationally historic bloodbath tonight.
U.S. officials are turning to Russia for help with Iran and Syria, even as the Ukrainian conflict persists.
If you believe all the talk out there lately, Vladimir Putin is not only duplicitous and hypocritical—the Russian president’s also been pretty damn busy recently. Busy cutting secret deals with the same Europeans and Americans he has been vilifying for years. And if you believe the rumors, the Europeans and Americans have also been busy selling out Ukraine to the Russians.
Not that any of this would be unusual or particularly surprising. Cynicism, duplicity, and hypocrisy are often the reserve currencies of politics, where interests tend to trump values.
There have long been suspicions that the United States and Europe might give Ukraine up in exchange for Russia’s support in securing a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Washington has been seeking Moscow’s backing in securing a managed, orderly, and negotiated exit for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, which would go a long way toward ending the conflict in that country.
This is the third in a series. Readers are invited to send their own responses to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will post their strongest critiques of the book and the accompanied reviews. (The first batch is here.) To further encourage civil and substantive responses via email, we are closing the comments section. You can follow the whole series on Twitter at #BTWAM and read all of the responses to the book from Atlantic readers and contributors.
Several years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates took his son, not yet 5, to see a movie on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As his son made his way off the escalator, a white woman pushed him and said, “Come on!” Chaos ensued. There was a black parent’s rage and a white man’s threat to have the black parent arrested. Coates narrates the incident in cool, steady prose. Ultimately, he writes of the regret he carries: “In seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you.”
Even with the overwhelming recent New York cover story, the women pay a price for speaking out.
Who still defends Bill Cosby? After newly unsealed depositions revealed that the comedian admitted to acquiring sedatives to give to women he wanted to have sex with, his longstanding backer Whoopi Goldberg recanted her support for the man accused of dozens of rapes over the years. The singer Jill Scott, too, said she was wrong when she suspected a media conspiracy against him. And if Cosby’s former costars, including Phylicia Rashad, still believe him to be the target of an illegitimate smear campaign, they haven’t spoken up to say so in a while. Cosby’s lawyer is currently making the rounds in the media to say his deposition has been misconstrued—but that argument, even if believed, doesn’t refute the idea that he used drugs to take advantage of women.