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 First Lady took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention, and united a divided hall.
Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.
Obama stepped out onto a stage in front of a divided party, including delegates who had booed almost every mention of the presumptive nominee. And she delivered a speech that united the hall, bringing it to its feet.
She did it, moreover, her own way—forming a striking contrast with the night’s other speakers. She did it without shouting at the crowd. Without overtly slamming Republicans. Without turning explicitly negative. Her speech was laden with sharp barbs, but she delivered them calmly, sometimes wryly, biting her lower lip, hitting her cadence. It was a masterful performance.
A 30-step review of the mayhem in Philadelphia, and what Clinton’s convention says about the future of the American political system.
Hillary Clinton, her advisers, and their allies at the Democratic National Committee watched Donald Trump’s nominating convention in Cleveland with smug satisfaction.
Team Trump had insulted Ohio’s governor, approved a Melania Trump speech that plagiarized Michelle Obama, lied about the plagiarism, and allowed Ted Cruz to expose party divisions in a prime-time speech.
“Hey @Reince,” Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz tweeted GOP chairman Reince Priebus. “I’m in Cleveland if you need another chair to keep your convention in order.”
Schultz reflected the Democratic establishment’s false sense of security. Headed to their convention in Philadelphia, Democrats felt more united than Republicans, better organized, and less vulnerable to the long-term disruption of a populist insurgency.
All hell broke loose.
WikiLeaks released 20,000 emails stolen from DNC computers, proof of the worst-kept secret in Democratic politics: The party worked against socialist-populist Bernie Sanders to ease Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination. The FBI said it would investigate whether Russia hacked the DNC to influence the U.S. election.
All hell broke loose.
“Lock her up!” chanted Democratic activists in the streets of Philadelphia. These Sanders supporters carried signs and wore T-shirts that called for Clinton’s indictment, channeling those GOP delegates in Cleveland who drew rebukes for defying old rules of political decorum.
Schultz cut a deal with the Clinton team to resign, effective upon the conclusion of the convention. She planned to open and close the gathering with remarks lauding her leadership.
All hell broke loose.
Addressing delegates from her home state of Florida, Shultz chastised an unruly crowd carrying signs reading “Division!” and “EMAILS.” She said, “We know that the voices in this room that are standing up and being disruptive, we know that is not the Florida we know.”
“Shame! Shame! Shame!” crowd members chanted. Schultz scurried out of the room.
Sanders himself tried to prevent a show of disunity on the convention floor, pleading with his supporters to back Clinton. Having promised his followers “a revolution,” he now fed them bitter pragmatism. “Brothers and sisters,” Sanders said, “this is the real world that we live in.”
All hell broke loose.
While the streets filled with a sweaty mass of angry Sanders supporters—mostly young and white and disconnected from the political system—the Clinton team told Shultz she couldn’t address the convention.
Sanders sent his supporters a text message, urging them not to protest on the convention floor.
All hell broke loose.
As the convention came to order, hundreds of Democrats protested outside. “No, no, DNC—we won’t vote for Hillary!”
Inside, Cynthia Hale mentioned Clinton’s name during the opening prayer. Some delegates booed, others chanted for Sanders.
There would be more protests.
Eventually, Clinton likely will regain control of her convention. Like in Cleveland, the desire to defeat a hated enemy will overcome internal differences. The blues will line up against the reds, Wall Street will support both teams, Clinton will win in November, and the status quo will declare victory over change. Populist unrest will broaden and intensify.
Or Trump will win. He won’t keep his promises, because he never does. He won’t make America any greater than it already is. He might make it worse. The status quo will declare victory over change. Populist unrest will broaden and intensify.
Whether it’s Clinton or Trump, historians will note how a billionaire celebrity took over the GOP with an anti-trade, anti-immigration nativism, setting fire to the political playbook that guided campaigns for the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st.
Today will be long remembered, too. Sanders couldn’t calm the churning of his supporters and, as in a mutiny aboard a pirate ship, the deckhands have seized control from the captain.
This could be the start of something big inside the Democratic Party. What if, for instance, Sanders’s coalition banded together with Black Lives Matters to create Tea Party-like takeover of the Democratic Party?
People have witnessed disruption in the retail, entertainment, and financial industries—in virtually every institution except for government and politics. In an era of choice and technological efficiency, the American voter is given a binary choice and gridlocked government.
Most Americans want something better than what the Democratic-Republican duopoly crams down their throats.
They’re mad as hell and, as evidenced in Cleveland and Philadelphia, they’re just starting to realize how powerful they are. They don’t need to take it anymore.
The Vermont senator closed the first night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia with a show of unity, but his supporters weren’t necessarily with him.
After a contentious start to the Democratic convention, Bernie Sanders took the stage at the end of the night on Monday, to an adoring crowd. By the time he left, he did not seem to have succeeded in convincing his most ardent supporters to stand with Hillary Clinton.
Sanders framed the election as a clear choice between the threat of Donald Trump in the White House, and the far better outcome of a President Hillary Clinton. “We need leadership, which brings our people together and makes us stronger—not leadership which insults Latinos, Muslims, women, African Americans, and veterans and divides us up,” Sanders warned. “By these measures, any objective observer will conclude that—based on her ideas and her leadership—Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States. The choice is not even close.” The line met with loud cheers and applause.
Hillary Clinton is running as the candidate of continuity—but Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and most white Democrats think America is headed in the wrong direction.
Many commentators, watching the two party’s conventions, have noted that Democrats and Republicans seemed to describing different countries. But if you listened carefully last night, you heard two groups of Democrats describing different countries too.
The night began with Michelle Obama, who said, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters—two beautiful intelligent black young women—play with the dog on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all of our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States. Don't let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great. That somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth.”
The president’s belief in policies that can benefit all Americans is being repudiated by voters, in favor of a vision of politics as a zero-sum game.
The 2016 presidential race represents a vivid rejection of the Obama style. This is easy to miss: His approval ratings are climbing, and Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary by running as his successor. But the two most dramatic and portentous campaigns of the year, Donald Trump’s vertiginous win and Bernie Sanders’s astonishing insurgency, both flew in the face of the Obama era’s premises.
The Obama style had two pillars. He brought to apotheosis the American political tradition of redemptive constitutionalism. This is the creed of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and Lyndon Baines Johnson’s nationally televised speech on the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, in which he promised, “we shall overcome.” Redemptive constitutionalism holds that democracy and equal freedom really are the nation’s foundations, that slavery and Jim Crow were terrible deviations from these principles, and that, if we manage to take them seriously, to live by them, Americans will finally be free together.
Ask yourself, is all that wasted time really rewarding? And other tips from Charles Duhigg, who wrote the book on productivity.
Why is it that the more work I have to do, the more the Internet beckons me into its endless maw of distraction? Oh Lord, I will say, appealing both to myself and to whatever blog-God might be listening, I have an hour to finish this article.
But first, isn’t this Tasty video fascinating? I’ve never thought about making buffalo-fried cheese nuggets before, but now that I’ve watched a pair of disembodied hands prepare them so expertly, I should definitely head over to Amazon and Prime me some buffalo sauce.
This is how I found myself, exhausted after leaving work at 8 p.m. one day recently, flopping onto my bed, still in my pencil skirt, and clicking open a horrific, traffic-mongering slideshow linked from the bottom of an article I was reading. It was about Stars Without Makeup or What Child Stars Look Like Now or some other rancid meat for my hungry lizard brain.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.
It’s known as a modern-day hub of progressivism, but its past is one of exclusion.
PORTLAND, Ore.— Victor Pierce has worked on the assembly line of a Daimler Trucks North America plant here since 1994. But he says that in recent years he’s experienced things that seem straight out of another time. White co-workers have challenged him to fights, mounted “hangman’s nooses” around the factory, referred to him as “boy” on a daily basis, sabotaged his work station by hiding his tools, carved swastikas in the bathroom, and written the word “nigger” on walls in the factory, according to allegations filed in a complaint to the Multnomah County Circuit Court in February of 2015.
Pierce is one of six African Americans working in the Portland plant whom the lawyer Mark Morrell is representing in a series of lawsuits against Daimler Trucks North America. The cases have been combined and a trial is scheduled for January of 2017.
As the Democratic National Convention prepares to kick off, a massive leak of hacked emails renews old questions about how the Clintons and their associates operate.
PHILADELPHIA—What’s with Hillary Clinton and email? The Democratic presidential nominee who shattered her credibility over a rogue email system while serving as secretary of state now must deal with an electronic snafu at the Democratic National Committee.
Among 20,000 DNC emails posted by WikiLeaks on the eve of Clinton’s nominating convention, there are scores in which party employees criticized and mocked Bernie Sanders during his primary campaign against Clinton. (Caveat: We don’t formally know the emails are authentic).
The email dump jeopardizes Clinton’s ability to unify the party in Philadelphia and avoid the public fratricide that spoiled Donald Trump’s convention in Cleveland. While some of the DNC emails criticized Clinton, the overwhelming number of anti-Sanders correspondences create an indelible impression that the DNC violated its oath of neutrality.