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.
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
After a five-month delay, Loretta Lynch made history last week. On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Lynch as the next U.S. attorney general, the first African American woman ever to hold this Cabinet position. Her long-stalled nomination sometimes seemed in doubt, held hostage to partisan jockeying between Democrats and Republicans. But one political bloc never gave up, relentlessly rallying its support behind Lynch: the black sorority.
During her initial hearing, the seats behind Lynch were filled with more than two dozen of her Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters arrayed in crimson-and-cream blazers and blouses, ensuring their visibility on the national stage. These Delta women—U.S. Representatives Marcia Fudge and Joyce Beatty among them—were there to lend moral support and show the committee that they meant business. The Deltas were not alone. The Lynch nomination also drew support from congressional representatives from other black sororities: Alpha Kappa Alpha members Terri Sewell and Sheila Jackson Lee took to the House floor to advocate for a vote while Sigma Gamma Rho members Corinne Brown and Robin Kelly and Zeta Phi Beta member Donna Edwards used social media and press conferences to campaign on Lynch’s behalf.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
I’m not a dog person. I prefer cats. Cats make you work to have a relationship with them, and I like that. But I have adopted several dogs, caving in to pressure from my kids. The first was Teddy, a rottweiler-chow mix whose bushy hair was cut into a lion mane. Kids loved him, and he grew on me, too. Teddy was probably ten years when we adopted him. Five years later he had multiple organs failing and it was time to put him to sleep.
When I arrived at the vet, he said I could drop him off. I was aghast. No. I needed to stay with Teddy.As the vet prepped the syringe to put him to sleep, I started sobbing. The vet gave me a couple minutes to collect myself and say goodbye. I held Teddy's paw until he died. Honestly, I didn't think I was that attached.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal early on Saturday, centered 10 miles below the surface, less than 50 miles from the capital of Kathmandu. At least 2,200 are already reported to have been killed by the quake and subsequent avalanches triggered in the Himalayas. Historic buildings and temples were destroyed, leaving massive piles of debris in streets as rescue workers and neighbors work to find and help those still trapped beneath rubble. Below are images from the region of the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Nepal in decades. (Editor's note, some of the images are graphic in nature.)
This week we have images of a Chilean volcano, migrants shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, the "Blue Forest" in Belgium, Kim Jong Un atop Mt Paektu, the Boston Marathon, Orcas hunting on a Patagonian beach, Saudi attacks on Yemen, tule elk along California's coastline, and much more.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.
In the fall of 2011, the U.S. Secret Service orchestrated a sting operation. The target was a Vietnamese man named Hieu Minh Ngo. Investigators believed he was a big-time identity thief who sold packages of data known as “fullz,” each of which typically included a person’s name, date of birth, mother’s maiden name, Social Security number, and e-mail address and password. Criminals could buy fullz from Ngo for as little as eight cents and then use them to open credit cards, take out loans, or file for bogus tax refunds. They could also pay Ngo for access to a vast database of people’s personal records.
As part of the operation, an agent attempted to buy the identities of hundreds of U.S. citizens. In such illegal transactions—be they for drugs, guns, or stolen identities—finding a payment system that both sides trust can be tricky. Cash is safest because it leaves no record. But handing over a briefcase stuffed with bills isn’t an option when the parties are on opposite sides of the planet. Ngo suggested an alternative. In an e-mail to the agent, he offered simple instructions: “Please pay to our LR: U8109093.”
Soon, thousand of police officers across the country will don body-worn cameras when they go out among the public. Those cameras will generate millions of hours of footage—intimate views of commuters receiving speeding tickets, teens getting arrested for marijuana possession, and assault victims at some of the worst moments of their lives.
As the Washington Post and the Associated Press have reported, lawmakers in at least 15 states have proposed exempting body-cam footage from local open records laws. But the flurry of lawmaking speaks to a larger crisis: Once those millions of hours of footage have been captured, no one is sure what to do with them.
I talked to several representatives from privacy, civil rights, and progressive advocacy groups working on body cameras. Even among these often allied groups, there’s little consensus about the kind of policies that should exist around releasing footage.