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.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
The June 23 vote represents a huge popular rebellion against a future in which British people feel increasingly crowded within—and even crowded out of—their own country.
I said goodnight to a gloomy party of Leave-minded Londoners a few minutes after midnight. The paper ballots were still being counted by hand. Only the British overseas territory of Gibraltar had reported final results. Yet the assumption of a Remain victory filled the room—and depressed my hosts. One important journalist had received a detailed briefing earlier that evening of the results of the government’s exit polling: 57 percent for Remain.
The polling industry will be one victim of the Brexit vote. A few days before the vote, I met with a pollster who had departed from the cheap and dirty methods of his peers to perform a much more costly survey for a major financial firm. His results showed a comfortable margin for Remain. Ten days later, anyone who heeded his expensive advice suffered the biggest percentage losses since the 2008 financial crisis.
The results of the referendum are, in theory, not legally binding.
Lest we think the Euroskepticism displayed this week by British voters is new, let me present a scene from the BBC’s Yes, Minister, a comedy about the U.K. civil service’s relationship with a minister. The series ran from 1980 to ’84 (and, yes, it was funny), at a time when the European Union was a mere glint in its founders’ eyes.
The Europe being referred to in the scene is the European Economic Community (EEC), an eventually 12-member bloc established in the mid-1950s, to bring about greater economic integration among its members.
In many ways, the seeds of the U.K.’s Thursday referendum on its membership in the European Union were sown soon after the country joined the now-defunct EEC in 1973. Then, as now, the ruling Conservative Party and opposition Labour, along with the rest of the country, were deeply divided over the issue. In the run-up to the general election the following year, Labour promised in its manifesto to put the U.K.’s EEC membership to a public referendum. Labour eventually came to power and Parliament passed the Referendum Act in 1975, fulfilling that campaign promise. The vote was held on June 5, 1975, and the result was what the political establishment had hoped for: an overwhelming 67 percent of voters supported the country’s EEC membership.
The Internet caused my addiction, but it also helped me find a cure.
About a year ago, I was regularly seeing a therapist. During one session, I mentioned the niche porn I had watched and how I was unsure whether or not I wanted to embrace some of the "kinkier" fantasies, like rape and incest, through role-play in my real sex life. It was the only time I could remember her telling me that certain fantasies--not acted out in real life, just imagined--could be "wrong" or considered a "sickness." In retrospect, understanding my condition as an illness might actually have been empowering if explained differently, but at the time, it shut me right up. I never brought it up to her again.
I'm not alone in feeling silenced. Every day it prevents a lot of people from recovering. From porn.
American society increasingly mistakes intelligence for human worth.
As recently as the 1950s, possessing only middling intelligence was not likely to severely limit your life’s trajectory. IQ wasn’t a big factor in whom you married, where you lived, or what others thought of you. The qualifications for a good job, whether on an assembly line or behind a desk, mostly revolved around integrity, work ethic, and a knack for getting along—bosses didn’t routinely expect college degrees, much less ask to see SAT scores. As one account of the era put it, hiring decisions were “based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics.”
The 2010s, in contrast, are a terrible time to not be brainy. Those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so. Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement.
Patrick Griffin, his chief congressional affairs lobbyist, recalls the lead up to the bill’s passage in 1994—and the steep political price that followed.
For those who question whether anything will ever be done to curb the use of military grade weaponry for mass shootings in the United States, history provides some good news—and some bad. The good news is that there is, within the recent past, an example of a president—namely Bill Clinton—who successfully wielded the powers of the White House to institute a partial ban of assault weapons from the nation’s streets. The bad news, however, is that Clinton’s victory proved to be so costly to him and to his party that it stands as an enduring cautionary tale in Washington about the political dangers of taking on the issue of gun control.
In 1994, Clinton signed into law the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, placing restrictions on the number of military features a gun could have and banning large capacity magazines for consumer use. Given the potent dynamics of Second Amendment politics, it was a signal accomplishment. Yet the story behind the ban has been largely forgotten since it expired in 2004 and, in part, because the provision was embedded in the larger crime bill.
A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.
On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.
Never before had an ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s being married. The papyrus’s lines were incomplete, but they seemed to describe a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles over whether his “wife”—possibly Mary Magdalene—was “worthy” of discipleship. Its main point, King argued, was that “women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.” She thought the passage likely figured into ancient debates over whether “marriage or celibacy [was] the ideal mode of Christian life” and, ultimately, whether a person could be both sexual and holy.
Thoughts on the first episode of ESPN’s five-part documentary
Every fall Sunday, when I was a kid, half an hour before the pre-game shows and an hour before the games themselves, I would tune into the latest offering from NFL Films. This was the pre-pre-game show—an assembly of short films derived from the massive archive of professional football. Steve Sabol, whose father founded NFL Films, would preside. He’d offer and then throw it to Jon Facenda or Jefferson Kaye, who would narrate the career highlights of players likeGale Sayers, Earl Campbell, or Dick “Night Train” Lane.
“Highlights” understates what NFL films was actually doing. The shorts were drawn from some the most beautifully shot footage in all of sports. It wasn’t unheard of for NFL Films to go high concept—this piece on football and ballet, with cameos from Allen Ginsberg and George Will, may be the definitive example. Great football plays would be injected not with the normal hurrahs, but with poetry. When Facenda, for instance, wanted to introduce a spectacular touchdown run by Marcus Allen, he did so in the omniscient third person: “On came Marcus Allen—running with the night.”