FREAK-TV: Is the Law of Unintended Consequences the Strongest Law Around?


The Americans with Disabilities Act was considered landmark legislation. Here’s a summary of the law from the Department of Justice Web site:

The Americans with Disabilities Act gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, State and local government services, and telecommunications.

How much did the A.D.A. actually improve the lot of America’s disabled workers? That’s the question posed in our most recent video quiz. You may want to pause the video before the answer is revealed and take a look at this paper by Daron Acemoglu and Joshua Angrist.


For those who may be hearing impaired or otherwise unable to hear the audio, below is a transcript:

Hi, I’m Stephen Dubner. In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, or A.D.A., which was meant to strengthen the rights of workers with physical or mental handicaps.

How did this legislation affect such workers? Here are four guesses:

(a) Their employment levels rose 30 percent.
(b) Their employment rose 15 percent.
(c) Their employment levels were unchanged. Or
(d) Disabled workers were actually hired less often than before.

The correct answer is (d).

After the A.D.A. went into effect, there was actually a sharp drop in employment among disabled workers, apparently because employers, now concerned that they wouldn’t be able to discipline or fire incompetent workers who happened to be disabled, simply chose to not hire disabled workers in the first place.

The A.D.A. was a powerful law that became a classic example of an even more powerful one — the law of unintended consequences.


Larry (#10): You're right: The first curb cuts were done -- under cover of darkness -- in 1970 in California. They are now universal, largely because of the ADA. This doesn't mean that they're sensibly designed. I see a lot of curb cuts which were installed exactly at the corner, even if that means everyone's wading through three inches of muddy water every time it rains. Imagine how this affects a person whose disability means "walks with two canes" instead of "rolls in a wheelchair." I'm looking forward to the day that the planning commissions can envision a physical disability other than paraplegia.

David in Brooklyn

Regarding fuel efficiency standards having encouraged sprawl (#18), the solution to the problem Davey brings up is obvious: We don't throw out CAFE, but do impose a hefty gas tax. In hindsight, CAFE was only a half-measure.

We see similar opportunities wasted in our deliberately inflationary economic system. The inflation that benefits us in some ways (surely it must, or we wouldn't encourage it?) renders our pocket change and paper bills more useless by the year. Meanwhile, the cost of manufacturing physical money increases. We can either revalue our currency (e.g., ten old dollars for one new dollar) or re-denominate our coins & bills. (Goodbye penny. Goodbye nickel. Goodbye dollar bill. Goodbye five. Hello, five-dollar coin.)


In a race between the Law of Unintended Consequences and Murphy's Law, which would finish first?


I have been on disability for more than 8 years now and I'm earning less than 20% of what I was making before my disability. My own experience is that companies have avoided this issue by citing other factors to decline employment for the disabled. It is not overt but you can sense it when they ask if you need special accommodations for your disability and turn around later saying that you are over-qualified for the position.

Another unintended consequence of this law is that some greedy lawyers have used it to extort from small businesses who can't afford to comply with the law requiring access ramps, disabled parking, etc. Even the court system was not immune from this law when someone sued the court for not providing an elevator for a disabled man. Common sense and common courtesy have been swept to the dumpster when dealing with the issue. I still wonder why drive-up ATMs have braille keys that probably drive up the cost of the machine. We end up paying for those extras with added ATM fees.



#18 Davey:

Your argument consists of: 1) declaring a poster of using emotionalism and 2)asking what purpose does poster #1 (me) have in an economics forum.

#18 Davey: Do you not see the blatant hypocrisy in your statements... injecting emotionalism (this is objective economics!) and demanding I show my economic colors... that doesn't strike you in the least bit Janus oriented? Your response aims to A) discredit my response for emotionalism which apparently is supposed to be some cultural faux pas and B) to promulgate corporate fascist ideologies railing against government intervention within the means of production.

I sincerely pray you read more and develop a larger hermeneutic horizon (Gadamer).

Regarding your one piece of evidence- CAFE- what did CAFE do? It mandated a set of regulations that industry has consistently resisted further increases and allowed those corporations who created more energy efficient cars to enter the marketplace. Amazing what happens with economic systems when the authority system which grants permission for corporations to exist actually does its job...

And please, don't mistake sarcasm for emotionalism. Because then you might mistake disdain for say, defeatism. : / And you wouldn't want to be wrong in this totally objective ideologically driven worldview of yours, you know?



Regarding "impose a healthy gas tax". The problem with this sholuld be obvious, we'd be putting another source of money into politicians hands. Unfortunately, these are the same people were hope to persuade to reduce fuel use. More tax money, while that is likely not your intenton, will do persuade them to do just the opposite.


This is great. There is not enough work done on the practical effects of laws like this, or the relationship between law and practice.

In college, I had to write a paper comparing the effect of libel law in the U.S. and Britain (where libel laws are much more stringent), and it was almost impossible to find studies that discussed something other than legal precedents, much less gave me information that I could use to compare the two. I ended up concluding that the difference was negligible, although since I didn't have the resources or time to do any sort of original study, it's a very debatable conclusion. It did, however, convince me not to become a lawyer, since I concluded that the law's impact on norms was so indirect.


Because of the ADA, when I became partly disabled, my employer was required to accommodate me. They bought me some furniture for my office which made it possible for me to continue working despite my disability. I am grateful to the law. It gave me my working life back.

Curb cuts have good unintended consequences as well as bad. People pushing babies in strollers or baby carriages can use them. Wish there had been curb cuts when my kids were little -- I'd have gotten back into shape much sooner.

Anecdotes from angry people provide a distorted picture of the consequences of these laws. How about researching the kind of things I mention here?


ATMs have braille keys keep costs down.

Most ATMs are not drive-through. All of those non-drive-through ATMs are [at least seemingly] required to have braille keys. The ATM manufacturer's choice to create one type of ATM (with braille keys) regardless of whether a particular ATM is destined for walking or driving customers is a cost-conscious and cost-saving decision.


That they were hired less often is interesting, but is not meaningful by itself. There are at least 2 obvious explanations:

1) Disabled workers stayed just as long at their jobs but were hired less often, so the employment went down.

2) With ADA protections, disabled workers kept their jobs longer (or stayed in the jobs they had upon becoming disabled), so there fewer unemployed workers to hire. That is, there could be fewer hires because of longer tenures leading to higher employment.

Are the answers in the paper? In a vacuum, that number is not meaningful.


i'd be surprised if something similar didn't play itself out with respect to sexual harassment lawsuits. the case against isiah thomas and MSG leads me to believe that anucha browne sanders' case will ultimately lead to fewer women being hired.


Let me second the remark: "okay that apple chopping noise is WAAAAAAAAAAAY louder than the rest of the audio. plz 2 normaliz"


Dang, Silvanus, (or should I call you by another name, Ignatius J. Reilly, perhaps?) Them are some big words, but let me try to respond.

Getting emotional over economic findings is sort of like getting mad at a calculator because it tells you your checking account is overdrawn. Makes no sense. And I don't recall asking you to "show your economic colors" whatever that means. However, I think you did just that with this quote, "promulgate corporate fascist ideologies railing against government intervention within the means of production." That has a positively Marxist ring to it.

And then you ask me a question that I already gave my answer to, "Regarding your one piece of evidence- CAFE- what did CAFE do?" I told you one of the things that CAFE did. And why does it matter whether or not the auto makers resisted compliance. In the end, they complied, maybe because of the regulation or maybe because of market forces. It really doesn't matter why, it only matters that they did. And if American car makers were dumb enough to ignore the realities of the marketplace, (and they were), then they pay for it, which they are currently doing. Again, why the emotional need from so many that the car makers have to say to the government, "Thank you, Great Father, for the regulations to guide us. We will immediately and gratefully comply. Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Again, your preference for government-directed societal management sounds Marxist.

And finally, there is this phrase: "totally objective ideologically driven". What the? Objective but driven by idealogy? Dang, that's an oxymoron, ain't it? Janusian, even.

Hey, it's an economics forum. The Steves give us a topic (Thank you, Great Fathers!) and we try to tease more understanding out of the topic using a Freakonomics worldview. Your emotional reaction to the data is on a par with the right-wing, and left-wing, nutcases that went ballistic over Dr. Levitt's findings about the correlation between the advent of legal abortion and the drop in crime.

Dude, it's just a blog.



Oh come on! Davey (#18) has posted one of the most absurd statements in written history and no one has questioned it's validity?!?

CAFE had nothing (not a thing, zippo, not even 0.0000001%) to do with the movement of the population from the urban to suburban setting. It's silly to even think this. The migration was made possible by the construction of the Interstate system that allowed people to travel quickly (I assume) to the city (to work) and back to the suburbs (to live).

The thought that millions of people rationalized moving to the suburbs based on a saving of gasoline (heck, a months worth of savings might amount to $5 if one really commuted a long way back in the 60's) leaves me in stitches...


Hey Michael,

I didn't make the statement, I merely repeated one that I had read.

You asked for it: Skip straight to the reference to Tietenberg in the Conclucion

And then there is this:

Fuel Efficiency Standards and Feebates
Some Energy Conservation and Emission Reduction strategies cause motorists to purchase more fuel efficient vehicles than they would otherwise. Fuel Efficiency Standards (such as Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency or CAFE standards) require vehicle manufactures to produce and sell vehicles that meet certain minimum fuel efficiency. Feebates are surcharges on the purchase of fuel inefficient vehicles with revenue used to provide rebates on the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles. These strategies are intended to encourage energy conservation and reduce Climate Change Emissions (Greene, 1998; Jansen and Denis, 1999; Greene, et al, 1999; Small and Van Dender, 2005).

However, these efficiency gains reduce per-mile vehicle operating costs, which encourages increased per-vehicle annual mileage, resulting in a takeback effect. For example, if these incentives causes motorists to choose vehicles that are 10% more fuel efficient, this does not usually result in a full 10% fuel savings (Greene, Kahn and Gibson, 1999). Because a more fuel-efficient vehicle costs less per mile to drive, there is a Rebound Effect, which is typically 20-30%. This reflects the elasticity of vehicle travel with respect to fuel price (Transportation Elasticities). As a result, a 10% increase in fuel efficiency actually provides a 7-8% net reduction in fuel consumption and a 2-3% increase in vehicle mileage. For example, a program that increases average fuel efficiency by 10% might reduce the average cost of driving from 10¢ to 9¢ per mile, causing motorists to increase their annual mileage from 12,000 to 12,300.

Although there is still a net reduction in fuel consumption, the increased vehicle mileage tends to exacerbate other transportation problems, including traffic congestion, road and parking facility costs, crashes, pollution and URBAN SPRAWL (my emphasis). Ignoring these Rebound Effects tends to overstate the benefits of fuel efficiency standards, and undervalues TDM as an emission reduction strategy (Litman, 2002).

Full article here:

Just Google this phrase "CAFE standards effect on urban sprawl" and you'll find that there is plenty of work done on this effect.

Neener, neener.

And by the way, back then, $5 would buy you a full tank of gas.


Bruce Hayden

One of my favorite ADA examples is the requirement that the ski huts here in CO be wheelchair accessible, despite the fact that those in wheelchairs cannot get there legitimately at all during the winter when the huts are mostly used (motorized vehicles are typically prohibited w/i the vicinity of the huts).

That said, I believe that I have benefitted from the ADA, when my boss tried to fire me for a disability, despite it not affecting my job output or performance. As this was a law office, my citing to the ADA was sufficient to end the debate. The reasonable accommodations were to continue as before, and just look at my job output, and not at how I did it (which was that I just worked more hours than anyone else, but also produced more).

To this day, I wonder whether this little incident helped keep our VP from getting the top job, esp. after I pointed out that the company had been on constructive notice for several years of my situation.



well i happen to be disabled im a little person i stand only 2 foot and 10 inches tall im glad that people with disabilities can get hired now but also they are still hired less. i understand the reasoning for it but come on its just pathetic if someone doesnt hire you because they are worried that you will sue them for firing you then sue them for not hiring you. another thing is the disabled person should go into that job but be well aware that they may be fired its a risk that they have to take so im sort of on both sides here

Rod Guilmette

Those curb ramps...

I sometimes wonder if these curb ramps are creating new handicapped people.

Before ramps, kids on bicycles and skate boards had to prepare to negotiate the curbs to cross the street. That meant at least a little more awareness of an obstacle to be overcome. Not now.

Are there any statistics relating to an increase in injuries to kids at intersections vis-a-vis cars?

In other words, curb ramps may be creating more injuries and permanent handicaps than they are helping the already handicapped.


Jake (#30), the paper says that the rate of disabled people *being employed* is lower in the post-ADA era than it used to be.

I believe that it's generally true that a mobility-impaired person changes jobs less frequently than a nondisabled person, but that doesn't seem to be a sufficiently large effect to compensate for the hiring deficit. (Making similar statements for a mentally disabled person is much more complicated.)


#18 & #33: Davey

European scholars note that positivistic (empirical) research is essentially autistic due to being unable to holistically place the phenomena under study. This autism is made possible by punting on axiology, ontological and praxis issues. Claiming objectivism is claiming "I have no perspective! This is an empirical study!" and is ludicrous- these people have no idea what empiricism actually means (read back to Aristotle the empiricist [I only know what I experience through my senses] and Plato the idealist [there are universal ideas]).

Are you suggesting that Marx was not an economist? Are you suggesting that because a common phrase, such as "means of production" is used that anyone who utters it must be under the influence of said economist? If I used the phrase "the invisible hand of the market" must I also be a Randian? (Not a Smithian, since Smith never used that term except as an off example in one page in Wealth of Nations- but the phrase is center stage for Rand). Oh, and there were no fascists in Marx's time- only Right Hegelians (Marx was a Left Hegelian).

Is this a forum or a blog? Which is it? And yes, questioning "why you people come to an economics forum" has rhetorically implied an "other," an "out group" that does not belong.

Here's one more question... If you lay the claim that CAFE made suburbs possible... why did you not even factor in materialism and materialistic cultural impulses into your reasoning... oh yeah, that's what the european scholars call objective autism- being focused solely on your fingernail without placing it within context... exactly what the ADA paper did- they never addressed the reasons for such a law, and the authors pretty much punt on the issue of policy so they don't have to account for ontological issues (shhh! don't criticize, I'm objective dammit!)

Seriously, read a few more books.