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.
She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.
The condition has long been considered untreatable. Experts can spot it in a child as young as 3 or 4. But a new clinical approach offers hope.
This is a good day, Samantha tells me: 10 on a scale of 10. We’re sitting in a conference room at the San Marcos Treatment Center, just south of Austin, Texas, a space that has witnessed countless difficult conversations between troubled children, their worried parents, and clinical therapists. But today promises unalloyed joy. Samantha’s mother is visiting from Idaho, as she does every six weeks, which means lunch off campus and an excursion to Target. The girl needs supplies: new jeans, yoga pants, nail polish.
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At 11, Samantha is just over 5 feet tall and has wavy black hair and a steady gaze. She flashes a smile when I ask about her favorite subject (history), and grimaces when I ask about her least favorite (math). She seems poised and cheerful, a normal preteen. But when we steer into uncomfortable territory—the events that led her to this juvenile-treatment facility nearly 2,000 miles from her family—Samantha hesitates and looks down at her hands. “I wanted the whole world to myself,” she says. “So I made a whole entire book about how to hurt people.”
Isabel Caliva and her husband, Frank, had already “kicked the can down the road.” The can, in their case, was the kid conversation; the road was Caliva’s fertile years. Frank had always said he wanted lots of kids. Caliva, who was in her early 30s, thought maybe one or two would be nice, but she was mostly undecided. They had a nice life, with plenty of free time that allowed for trips to Portugal, Paris, and Hawaii.
“I wasn’t feeling the pull the same way my friends were describing,” she told me recently. “I thought, maybe this isn’t gonna be the thing for me. Maybe it’s just going to be the two of us.”
At times, she wondered if her lack of baby fever should be cause for concern. She took her worries to the Internet, where she came across a post on the Rumpus’ “Dear Sugar” advice column titled, “The Ghost Ship that Didn’t Carry Us.” The letter was from a 41-year-old man who was also on the fence about kids: “Things like quiet, free time, spontaneous travel, pockets of non-obligation,” he wrote. “I really value them.”
The office was, until a few decades ago, the last stronghold of fashion formality. Silicon Valley changed that.
Americans began the 20th century in bustles and bowler hats and ended it in velour sweatsuits and flannel shirts—the most radical shift in dress standards in human history. At the center of this sartorial revolution was business casual, a genre of dress that broke the last bastion of formality—office attire—to redefine the American wardrobe.
Born in Silicon Valley in the early-1980s, business casual consists of khaki pants, sensible shoes, and button-down collared shirts. By the time it was mainstream, in the 1990s, it flummoxed HR managers and employees alike. “Welcome to the confusing world of business casual,” declared a fashion writer for the Chicago Tribune in 1995. With time and some coaching, people caught on. Today, though, the term “business casual” is nearly obsolete for describing the clothing of a workforce that includes many who work from home in yoga pants, put on a clean T-shirt for a Skype meeting, and don’t always go into the office.
The question isn’t whether a president can directly control the bureau—it’s whether other institutions, and the public, are going to let him get away with it.
Donald Trump is leading this country into new and dark places. At each new reveal, administration critics ask their version of the question satirically posed by Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che playing NBC’s Lester Holt: “Did I get him? It’s all over?” But no, as the punchline confirms, it’s not over—and a fascinating Friday Twitter exchange shows why not.
I eagerly await the flood of experts explaining why Donald Trump firing Comey to obstruct justice is not obstruction of justice. 😐
Famed defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz has emerged as one of Donald Trump’s most full-throated defenders first in the Russia matter, then in the Comey firing. In so doing, he has devised a bold argument, already rapidly being taken to heart by other Trump defenders: an astonishing and novel claim of the president’s absolute personal control over the FBI.
The story of a decades-long lead-poisoning lawsuit in New Orleans illustrates how the toxin destroys black families and communities alike.
Casey Billieson was fighting against the world.
Hers was a charge carried by many mothers: moving mountains to make the best future for her two sons. But the mountains she faced were taller than most. To start, she had to raise her boys in the Lafitte housing projects in Treme, near the epicenter of a crime wave in New Orleans. In the spring of 1994, like mothers in violent cities the world over, Billieson anticipated the bloom in murders the thaw would bring. Fueled by the drug trade and a rising scourge of police corruption and brutality, violence rose to unseen levels that year, and the city’s murder rate surged to the highest in the country.
Instead, the Netanyahu government is nervous about the new administration.
In Tel Aviv on Monday, Donald Trump will not receive a gleaming gold medal or join a boisterous sword dance. But his 28-hour stop in the Holy Land should have been the highlight of his first foreign tour as president of the United States. Israel’s ruling right-wing greeted his election with glee, and for good reason: The new president seemed ready to fulfill its deepest wishes.
During Trump’s campaign and transition, he vowed to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. (The United States, like most countries, keeps its mission in Tel Aviv to avoid wading into the dispute over the contested holy city.) He nominated a U.S. ambassador, bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, who supports Israeli settlements—not only in his words, but as the president of a foundation that donated millions to Beit El, an ideological settlement outside of Ramallah. Trump said he would be open to a one-state solution, a statement that seemed to casually discard decades of bipartisan U.S. policy. Several hawkish lawmakers even started drafting a bill to annex large chunks of the West Bank, a step that would permanently foreclose a two-state outcome. “The era of a Palestinian state is over,” Naftali Bennett, the leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, cheered at the time. “Obama is history. Now we have Trump,” Miri Regev, Israel’s populist culture minister, declared.
Firsthand accounts from the Clinton White House during Kenneth Starr’s inquiry may offer a preview of what’s to come for President Trump’s staff.
If Donald Trump’s staff thinks that life in the White House has been hard the last four months, they ain’t seen nothing yet.
From Watergate to the Valerie Plame affair, the layering of a major independent investigation on top of the normal travails of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has always added an excruciating set of complications to one of the world’s most challenging work environments. Now that former FBI Director Robert Mueller has taken over the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, current White House staffers are joining this exclusive, if undesirable, club. Perhaps the best way to see how the administration’s inner life will look in the coming months is to reflect back on a presidency that was practically defined by such investigations: Bill Clinton’s.
An image of the president inaugurating a counterterrorism center with the Saudi and Egyptian leaders went viral.
President Trump’s visit this weekend to Saudi Arabia was largely hailed as a success: He appeared to enjoy himself on his first foreign trip as president; he announced billions in Saudi investment in the U.S.; and his speech on terrorism was well received. But it was one photograph Sunday that got much of the attention online:
In the image, Trump, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi have their hand on an orb that lit up upon their touch, an image that immediately drew humorous comparisons online with comic-book villains, Star Warsprotagonists, and Star Trekmind control—not to mention references to the Illuminati and Lord of the Rings. Saudi news reports set the record straight, saying the illuminated orb was, in fact, a globe, and that by placing their hands on it, the three leaders “officially activated the” Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh, a facility that will monitor extremist messaging in real time.
The president’s assertion he didn’t reveal Israel as the source of intelligence he shared with Russia gives his critics ammunition.
President Trump said Monday he “never mentioned the word or the name Israel” in his conversation with Russian officials at the White House during which he is said to have revealed sensitive intelligence from an ally about ISIS.
His remarks in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during which he stopped the press pool from leaving the room in order to clarify the incident, are all but certain to revive the controversy Trump had left behind in Washington last week when he departed for his first foreign trip as president.
Consider this incident over? POTUS: "I never mentioned the word Israel" in convo w/ Lavrov. Bibi: "The intelligence cooperation is terrific" pic.twitter.com/9Gyku1XG0c