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.
When President Obama left, I stayed on at the National Security Council in order to serve my country. I lasted eight days.
In 2011, I was hired, straight out of college, to work at the White House and eventually the National Security Council. My job there was to promote and protect the best of what my country stands for. I am a hijab-wearing Muslim woman––I was the only hijabi in the West Wing––and the Obama administration always made me feel welcome and included.
Like most of my fellow American Muslims, I spent much of 2016 watching with consternation as Donald Trump vilified our community. Despite this––or because of it––I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration, in order to give the new president and his aides a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America's Muslim citizens.
Moonlight won Best Picture, but only after La La Land was mistakenly announced as the winner.
A largely predictable Oscars ceremony ended in the most stunning way possible, as Moonlight was named Best Picture—but only after the producers of La La Land took the stage, gave their speeches, and then were interrupted with the news that the wrong envelope had been opened. The final moments of the 89th Academy Awards are likely to be pulled apart and obsessed over for generations; it was the epitome of live television, the kind of epic screw-up that dreams are made of. Perhaps it was fitting for such a surprising win: For most of the night, La La Land’s victory seemed obvious as it collected six trophies, including Best Director.
But it was Moonlight that won the final trophy of the evening, snagging three Oscars in all (including Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali and Best Adapted Screenplay). Its victory represents a hugely unexpected triumph for the writer/director Barry Jenkins, and the indie studio A24. That a film about a young gay African-American boy growing up in Miami, made for $1.5 million by a filmmaker with only one minor feature to his name, could break through over a throwback showbiz musical that has grossed $140 million and counting at the box office was unanticipated, to say the least.
Two of the world’s three richest people extol the virtue, and relevance, of optimism in the age of Trump—and predict a comeback for fact-based discourse.
Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, and Warren Buffett, the third richest, are—not entirely coincidentally—two of the most unremittingly optimistic men on the planet. So when I met the two of them in New York recently to talk about the state of humankind, and about the future of American democracy, I had a clear understanding of my mission, which was to pressure-test their sanguinity at every turn.
I tried, and failed, though not completely. Both men appear to doubt some of President Trump’s innovations in rhetoric and policy. Both men have warm feelings about immigrants, and also about facts, and so are predisposed to react skeptically to recent developments in the capital. When I asked whether they believed America needed to be made great again, Buffett nearly jumped out of his chair: “We are great! We are great!” And when I asked about the Trump Administration’s problematic relationship with empiricism, Gates said, “I predict a comeback for the truth.” He went on to say, “To the degree that certain solutions are created not based on facts, I believe these won’t be as successful as those that are based on facts. Democracy is a self-correcting thing.”
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
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An Oscar-nominated film explores possible war crimes in the country after World War II.
Had the Allies landed on the Western coast of Denmark on D-Day, the Nazis would have been ready. The German forces had built up the defensive Atlantic Wall, which stretched along the European coast from the top of Norway to south of France, to protect against an invasion launched from Britain. With Denmark offering a short route to Berlin, an invasion there seemed likely, and the Axis power prepared by planting between one and two million landmines along the Nazi-occupied nation’s shores.
Invaded by German forces in April 1940, Denmark was spared harsh treatment during most of its occupation. For the first few years, the Danish government chose to negotiate and cooperate with its German occupiers to avoid further aggression and hardship, and Danish government opposition only began in earnest in 1943 once Germany cracked down on civil unrest and made moves to deport Denmark’s Jews. When the war ended in 1945, those millions of deadly, undetonated mines remained, along with the question of who would clear them—and how.
“No… it’s a magic potty,” my daughter used to lament, age 3 or so, before refusing to use a public restroom stall with an automatic-flush toilet. As a small person, she was accustomed to the infrared sensor detecting erratic motion at the top of her head and violently flushing beneath her. Better, in her mind, just to delay relief than to subject herself to the magic potty’s dark dealings.
It’s hardly just a problem for small people. What adult hasn’t suffered the pneumatic public toilet’s whirlwind underneath them? Or again when attempting to exit the stall? So many ordinary objects and experiences have become technologized—made dependent on computers, sensors, and other apparatuses meant to improve them—that they have also ceased to work in their usual manner. It’s common to think of such defects as matters of bad design. That’s true, in part. But technology is also more precarious than it once was. Unstable, and unpredictable. At least from the perspective of human users. From the vantage point of technology, if it can be said to have a vantage point, it's evolving separately from human use.
The Bureau has long defended “Judeo-Christianity.” Minority groups have not fared as well.
Historians have looked harshly on the FBI’s legacy in dealing with religious groups. The Bureau famously investigated and threatened Martin Luther King Jr. at the peak of the civil-rights movement. A 1993 standoff with a group called the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, ended with a massive fire, killing more than six dozen men, women, and children. And since the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Bureau has repeatedly been accused of illegally surveilling and harassing Muslim Americans.
The story of the FBI and religion is not a series of isolated mishaps, argues a new book of essays edited by Steven Weitzman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Sylvester A. Johnson, a professor at Northwestern University. Over its 109 years of existence, these historians and their colleagues argue, the Bureau has shaped American religious history through targeted investigations and religiously tinged rhetoric about national security.
Priming kids to expect rewards for good behavior can harm their social skills in the long term.
After working with thousands of families over my years as a family psychologist, I’ve found that one of the most common predicaments parents face is how to get kids to do what they’re asked. And one of the most common questions parents ask is about tools they can use to help them achieve this goal.
One such tool is the sticker chart, a type of behavior-modification system in which children receive stickers in exchange for desired behaviors like brushing their teeth, cleaning their room, or doing their homework. Kids can later “spend” their accrued stickers on prizes, outings, and treats.
Though data on how widely sticker charts are used (and when and why they became so popular) is difficult to find, anecdotal evidence suggests that these charts have become fairly commonplace in American parenting. Google searches for “sticker chart,” “chore chart,” and “reward chart” collectively return more than 1 million results. Amazon has more than 1,300 combined product results for the same searches. Reddit, too, is teeming with forums for parents asking each other about the merits of the charts and discussing specific strategies.
The president has faced pressure to condemn anti-Semitism, but does not face the same demands to condemn anti-Muslim sentiment.
Last week President Trump condemned attacks against American Jews, which is good. So why won’t he condemn attacks against American Muslims? Why is there so little political pressure on him to do so?
Numerically, the problem appears roughly similar. In the ten days following Trump’s victory, the Southern Poverty Law Center chronicled one hundred attacks—or threatened attacks—against American Jews and 49 against American Muslims. In its survey, which encompassed the period between election day and February 9, the liberal blog Think Progresscounted 70 anti-Jewish incidents and 31 anti-Muslim ones.
The ratio of anti-Jewish to anti-Muslim incidents, in other words, appears slightly over two to one, which mirrors the ratio of Jews to Muslims in the population. According to a 2014 Pew Research Survey, 1.9 percent of Americans are Jewish; 0.9 percent are Muslim . That means that, if the SPLC and Think Progress tallies are correct, Jews and Muslims have a roughly equal chance of being victimized. In fact, Muslims are more likely to suffer an actual assault. Of the 70 anti-Jewish incidents that Think Progress catalogued, only one involved physical attack. (The large majority were bomb threats). Of the 31 anti-Muslim incidents, by contrast, nine did.