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.
What J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit still has to offer, 80 years after its publication
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” So began the legendarium that dominated a genre, changed Western literature and the field of linguistics, created a tapestry of characters and mythology that endured four generations, built an anti-war ethos that endured a World War and a Cold War, and spawned a multibillion-dollar media franchise. J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is probably best remembered today by the sword-and-sandal epic scale of The Lord of The Rings films, but it started in the quiet, fictionalized English countryside of the Shire. It started, 80 years ago in a hobbit-hole, with Bilbo Baggins.
Although Tolkien created the complicated cosmological sprawl of The Silmarillion and stories like the incestuous saga of Túrin Turambar told in The Children of Húrin, Middle-earth itself is mostly remembered today as something akin to little Bilbo in his Hobbit-hole: quaint, virtuous, and tidy. Nowadays, George R.R. Martin’s got the market cornered on heavily initialed fantasy writers, and his hand guides the field. High and epic fantasy are often expected to dip heavily into the medieval muck of realism, to contain heavy doses of sex and curses, gore and grime, sickness and believable motives and set pieces. Characters like Martin’s mercenary Bronn of the Blackwater are expected to say “fuck.” Modern stories, even when set in lands like A Song of Ice and Fire’s Essos that are filled with competing faiths, tend toward the nihilist, and mostly atheist. Heavenly beings are denuded of potency and purity; while the gods may not be dead, divinity certainly is.
The president’s latest comments shouldn’t be surprising—but his deliberate inflammation of tense situations is no less stunning.
During last year’s presidential campaign, I conducted a running feature called the “Trump Time Capsule.” Its purpose was to chronicle the things Donald Trump said or did that were entirely outside the range of previous presidents or major-party nominees. This, in turn, was meant to lay down a record of what was known about this man, as the electorate decided whether to elevate him to presidential power.
By the time the campaign ended, the series had reached installment #152. Who Donald Trump was, and is, was absolutely clear by election day: ignorant, biased, narcissistic, dishonest. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in our current issue, everyone who voted for him did so with ample evidence about the kind of person they considered the “better” choice, or even as a minimally acceptable choice for president. Almost nothing Trump has done since taking office should come as a surprise.
At a game played in London on Sunday afternoon, many of their fellow Ravens and Jaguars took a knee.
Before the Lions met the Falcons in Detroit on Sunday, Rico LaVelle sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And then he took a knee.
They were replicating the gesture of Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who, starting in 2016, had been kneeling during the pre-game singing of the national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick explained. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Kaepernick’s 49ers teammates, Eric Reid and Eli Harold, took a knee. The Beaumont Bulls, a high school team, took a knee. Their collective protests, however, had been limited—deviations from the norm.
The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.
It is insufficient to statethe obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
Colin Kaepernick and other athletes have a better claim on the United States’s symbols and their meaning.
President Trump apparently slept on it overnight and woke up early on Sunday morning thinking: “Yes, I will fight a cultural war against black athletes.”
In two Sunday morning tweets, Trump urged a boycott of the National Football League until owners punished players who refused to stand for the national anthem, in protest of police brutality and racial injustice—capping a weekend of taunting and trash-talking that began at his Alabama rally Friday night. He’s now created a situation in which it will seem almost unmanly for black athletes, and not only football players, not to take a knee during the anthem. If they stand for the anthem, they will seem to do so at Trump’s command. How can they not resist?
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
A new film details the reason the star postponed her recent tour—and will test cultural attitudes about gender, pain, and pop.
“Pain without a cause is pain we can’t trust,” the author Leslie Jamison wrote in 2014. “We assume it’s been chosen or fabricated.”
Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” unpacked the suffering-woman archetype, which encompasses literature’s broken hearts (Anna Karenina, Miss Havisham) and society’s sad girls—the depressed, the anorexic, and in the 19th century, the tubercular. Wariness about being defined by suffering, she argued, had led many modern women to adopt a new pose. She wrote, “The post-wounded woman conducts herself as if preempting certain accusations: Don’t cry too loud; don’t play victim.” Jamison questioned whether this was an overcorrection. “The possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it,” she wrote. “Pain that gets performed is still pain.”
Thirty minutes. That’s about how long it would take a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched from North Korea to reach Los Angeles. With the powers in Pyongyang working doggedly toward making this possible—building an ICBM and shrinking a nuke to fit on it—analysts now predict that Kim Jong Un will have the capability before Donald Trump completes one four-year term.
About which the president has tweeted, simply, “It won’t happen!”
Though given to reckless oaths, Trump is not in this case saying anything that departs significantly from the past half century of futile American policy toward North Korea. Preventing the Kim dynasty from having a nuclear device was an American priority long before Pyongyang exploded its first nuke, in 2006, during the administration of George W. Bush. The Kim regime detonated four more while Barack Obama was in the White House. In the more than four decades since Richard Nixon held office, the U.S. has tried to control North Korea by issuing threats, conducting military exercises, ratcheting up diplomatic sanctions, leaning on China, and most recently, it seems likely, committing cybersabotage.
One reason the president cannot resist commenting on every issue in American life is that he seemingly cannot stand the actual work of American politics.
In a flurry of comments historically unsuited to any head of state, yet hardly shocking for the current American president, Donald Trump this weekend targeted the two most popular sports in the country and elicited sharp criticism from some of their most important figures.
On Friday, Trump encouraged franchise owners in the National Football League to fire players who protest during the national anthem. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired,’” the president said at an Alabama rally.
Trump’s comment provoked Roger Goodell, the typically reticent commissioner of the NFL, to issue a strong statement condemning the president’s divisive language. The comment was particularly surprising, since most NFL owners who elect the league commissioner are staunch Republicans. Many of the most prominent owners donated to the Trump campaign.
Its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of other treatments more effective.
J.G. is a lawyer in his early 30s. He’s a fast talker and has the lean, sinewy build of a distance runner. His choice of profession seems preordained, as he speaks in fully formed paragraphs, his thoughts organized by topic sentences. He’s also a worrier—a big one—who for years used alcohol to soothe his anxiety.
J.G. started drinking at 15, when he and a friend experimented in his parents’ liquor cabinet. He favored gin and whiskey but drank whatever he thought his parents would miss the least. He discovered beer, too, and loved the earthy, bitter taste on his tongue when he took his first cold sip.
His drinking increased through college and into law school. He could, and occasionally did, pull back, going cold turkey for weeks at a time. But nothing quieted his anxious mind like booze, and when he didn’t drink, he didn’t sleep. After four or six weeks dry, he’d be back at the liquor store.