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.
Dean of Students John Ellison gets an A for initiative, a B-minus for execution, and extra-credit for stoking a useful debate.
When I was a heretical student at a Catholic high school deciding where to apply to college, I thrilled at the prospect of an educational institution where free inquiry would reign supreme and forceful debate would never be hemmed in by dogma.
A letter like the one that University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison sent last week to incoming first-year students––reminding them of the school’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression," and affirming that those admitted to it “are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship”––would have struck me as a glorious affirmation: that robust intellectual communities truly did exist; that I would finally be free to follow my brain; that college would be a crucible that tested the strength of all my beliefs.
The San Francisco quarterback has been attacked for refusing to stand for the Star Spangled Banner—and for daring to criticize the system in which he thrived.
It was in early childhood when W.E.B. Du Bois––scholar, activist, and black radical––first noticed The Veil that separated him from his white classmates in the mostly white town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He and his classmates were exchanging “visiting cards,” invitations to visit one another’s homes, when a white girl refused his.
“Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows,” Du Bois wrote in his acclaimed essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk. “That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads.”
A Hillary Clinton presidential victory promises to usher in a new age of public misogyny.
Get ready for the era of The Bitch.
If Hillary Clinton wins the White House in November, it will be a historic moment, the smashing of the preeminent glass ceiling in American public life. A mere 240 years after this nation’s founding, a woman will occupy its top office. America’s daughters will at last have living, breathing, pantsuit-wearing proof that they too can grow up to be president.
A Clinton victory also promises to usher in four-to-eight years of the kind of down-and-dirty public misogyny you might expect from a stag party at Roger Ailes’s house.
You know it’s coming. As hyperpartisanship, grievance politics, and garden-variety rage shift from America’s first black commander-in-chief onto its first female one, so too will the focus of political bigotry. Some of it will be driven by genuine gender grievance or discomfort among some at being led by a woman. But in plenty of other cases, slamming Hillary as a bitch, a c**t (Thanks, Scott Baio!), or a menopausal nut-job (an enduringly popular theme on Twitter) will simply be an easy-peasy shortcut for dismissing her and delegitimizing her presidency.
In its early days, the first English settlement in America had lots of men, tobacco, and land. All it needed was women.
“First comes love, then comes marriage,” the old nursery rhyme goes, but historically, first came money. Marriage was above all an economic transaction, and in no place was this more apparent than in the early 1600s in the Jamestown colony, where a severe gender imbalance threatened the fledgling colony’s future.
The men of Jamestown desperately wanted wives, but women were refusing to immigrate. They had heard disturbing reports of dissension, famine, and disease, and had decided it simply wasn’t worth it. Consequently, barely a decade after its founding in 1607, Jamestown was almost entirely male, and because these men were unable to find wives, they were deserting the colony in droves.
An immediate influx of women was needed to save the floundering colony; its leaders suggested putting out an advertisement targeting wives. The women who responded to this marital request and agreed to marry unknown men in an unfamiliar land were in a sense America’s first mail-order brides.
The talk-radio host claims that he never took Donald Trump seriously on immigration. He neglected to tell his immigration obsessed listeners.
For almost a decade, I’ve been angrily documenting the way that many right-wing talk-radio hosts betray the rank-and-file conservatives who trust them for information. My late grandmother was one of those people. She deserved better than she got. With huge platforms and massive audiences, successful hosts ought to take more care than the average person to be truthful and avoid misinforming listeners. Yet they are egregiously careless on some days and willfully misleading on others.
And that matters, as we’ll come to see.
Rush Limbaugh is easily the most consequential of these hosts. He has an audience of millions. And over the years, parts of the conservative movement that ought to know better, like the Claremont Institute, have treated him like an honorable conservative intellectual rather than an intellectually dishonest entertainer. The full cost of doing so became evident this year, when a faction of populists shaped by years of talk radio, Fox News, and Breitbart.com picked Donald Trump to lead the Republican Party, a choice that makes a Hillary Clinton victory likely and is a catastrophe for movement conservatism regardless of who wins.
Practices meant to protect marginalized communities can also ostracize those who disagree with them.
Last week, the University of Chicago’s dean of students sent a welcome letter to freshmen decrying trigger warnings and safe spaces—ways for students to be warned about and opt out of exposure to potentially challenging material. While some supported the school’s actions, arguing that these practices threaten free speech and the purpose of higher education, the note also led to widespread outrage, and understandably so. Considered in isolation, trigger warnings may seem straightforwardly good. Basic human decency means professors like myself should be aware of students’ traumatic experiences, and give them a heads up about course content—photographs of dead bodies, extended accounts of abuse, disordered eating, self-harm—that might trigger an anxiety attack and foreclose intellectual engagement. Similarly, it may seem silly to object to the creation of safe spaces on campus, where members of marginalized groups can count on meeting supportive conversation partners who empathize with their life experiences, and where they feel free to be themselves without the threat of judgment or censure.
Which is a different way of asking: Can a bot commit libel?
Facebook set a new land-speed record for situational irony this week, as it fired the people who kept up its “Trending Topics” feature and replaced them with an algorithm on Friday, only to find the algorithm promoting completely fake news on Sunday.
Rarely in recent tech history has a downsizing decision come back to bite the company so publicly and so quickly.
Education experts offer their thoughts on how—if at all—schools should assign, grade, and use take-home assignments.
This is the third installment in our series about school in a perfect world. Read previous entries here and here.
We asked prominent voices in education—from policy makers and teachers to activists and parents—to look beyond laws, politics, and funding and imagine a utopian system of learning. They went back to the drawing board—and the chalkboard—to build an educational Garden of Eden. We’re publishing their answers to one question each day this week. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Today’s assignment: The Homework. Will students have homework?
Rita Pin Ahrens, thedirector of education policy for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center
Homework is absolutely necessary for students to demonstrate that they are able to independently process and apply their learning. But who says homework has to be the same as it has been? Homework might include pre-reading in preparation for what will be covered in class that day, independent research on a student-chosen topic that complements the class curriculum, experiential learning through a volunteer activity or field trip, or visiting a website and accomplishing a task on it. The structure will be left to the teachers to determine, as best fits the learning objective, and should be graded—whether by the teacher or student. Students will be held accountable for their homework and understand that it is an integral part of the learning process.
What looks at first glance like an opening up of possibilities is actually an attack on the human imagination.
You might not like what I’m about to say about the multiverse. But don’t worry; you’ve already had your revenge. If there are an infinite number of parallel universes, there will be any number of terrible dictatorships, places where life has become very difficult for people who like to string words together. Somewhere out there, there’s a society in which every desperate little essay like this one comes with a tiny, unremarkable button: push it, and the author will be immediately electrocuted to death.
Maybe your hate is more visceral—you already know I’ll die some day, but you want to see it happen; you need to see me groveling. You can if you want. Fly upwards from the plane of our solar system, keep on going, through the endless huddles of galaxies, never forgetting your purpose, until space and time run out altogether. Eventually you’ll find yourself in another universe, on a damp patch of grass and broken concrete, unwatched by whatever local gang or galactic empire rules the city rising in foggy shapes beyond the marshes. There, you’ll see a creature strangely similar to yourself, beating me to death with whatever bits of scrap are lying around.
We asked education experts how much time they think kids should spend in class. Here's what they had to say.
Nothing is perfect, but what if it could be?
Back-to-school season is in full swing, and despite the crispness of new notebook paper and the allure of Friday night lights, it’s hard to ignore the serious inequities, debates, and issues currently hampering America’s education system. Students will walk down hallways they haven’t seen since June with questions of segregation raging around them. Teachers will greet their pupils as public-school systems around the country are flailing. And administrators will continue on as innovative ideas about how best to reach learners emerge. And so, it’s no surprise that many are entering the school year with both aspiration and trepidation.
With that in mind, we asked a variety of prominent voices in education—from policy makers and teachers to activists and parents—what their vision of a perfect school system would be. We asked them to look beyond laws, politics, and funding to imagine a utopian system of learning. We wanted to know how these men and women would critically examine the most macro and micro aspects of school and reform these elements in a perfect world. They went back to the drawing board—and the chalkboard—to build their educational Garden of Eden. We’ll be publishing their answers to one question every day this week. The responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.