Is Our Content Too Depressing?

A Freakonomics Radio listener named Sudha Krishna writes with an e-mail titled “Praise and Concern.”

The praise is very nice — she finds the show “informative, entertaining, and lots of fun,” etc. — but it is the concern that most interests me. As she writes:

I confess I often find Freakonomics Radio depressing. While I am a believer in the power of “unintended consequences,” I find your story selection (and I am a consistent and attentive listener) depressing and discouraging. The stories tend to be focused on (and I am being a wee bit reductive) “good intentions leading to bad consequences (or at very least awry).” The consistent lesson of every episode — a nod to the supremacy of the market and the inexorable power of incentives (not sure about that lesson either). Rarely do you explore the opposite — bad intentions resulting in good consequences. Does such an example exist? One curious listener of Freakonomics Radio wants to know. 

I could probably quarrel a little bit with Sudha — at least some of our shows are about some interesting solution to a problem, or at least an explanation for why such a problem exists. And I tend to think that Levitt and I are borderline extreme optimists, at least on many dimensions. But I get her point. The pattern she identifies is definitely a pattern.

So,  in the interest of learning to think more broadly, I would love to identify some great ideas or stories about “bad intentions resulting in good consequences,” as Sudha puts it. Please leave your very best ideas (or even your mediocre ones) in the comments section below. Thanks to you and especially to Sudha.

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  1. Christina Chambronne says:

    The first suitable example of “bad intentions coming to good consequences” that comes to my mind are creation of such countries as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which are consequence of the formation and dissolution of the USSR.

    A more suitable one also comes to mind: Schindler’s forced labor factory helped to save some Jews.

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  2. Shane L says:

    Yeah, I like this question!

    Well for starters the horror of Nazi extermination camps probably went a long way towards destroying the perceived legitimacy of racist narratives in the 20th century.

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  3. Gianteye says:

    Coincidentally I’m reading an article that covers this topic at this very moment Well, I’m typing at this very moment, but you get the picture.

    I think a lot of the potential “unintended consequences leading to positive outcomes” stories will be about shifting money from one party to another in a kind of Keynesian dance and calling it positive by ignoring the losers. I wonder how you might find stories about things that enriched the market, eliminated needless costs, and increased the value of the assets people were holding.

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  4. johnjac says:

    I think economist avoid this line of thought for fear of falling into the broken window fallacy.

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  5. Kyle Whatley says:

    Hasn’t Economics been called “the Dismal Science” since the 19th Century?

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  6. Maureen McCormick says:

    I am thinking of anyone who has experienced a tragedy (someone else’s bad intentions) and turned it into an opportunity for advocacy.

    John Walsh’s son Adam was abducted and killed. Mr. Walsh created the TV show America’s Most Wanted, which helped locate many children and raise public awareness of the problem of child abduction.

    After Candy Lightner’s daughter was killed by a drunk driver, she founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving and raised public awareness of the problem of drunk driving.

    Sarah and Jim Brady became tireless advocates for gun control after Mr. Brady was shot and severely injured.

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  7. Michael says:

    mmm… Trying to use the arms race to collapse the Soviet Union by bankrupting it. The believed that they would be harming Russian people but protecting citizens of the United States. However, it actually liberated Russians in many ways from a very predatory state?

    Torturing Jesus of Nazareth made it possible for humans to be saved from sin (for religious people).

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  8. Matthew Lusk says:

    1) nuclear energy was borne of nuclear weaponry. How many people were killed by nuclear weapons (so far) – how much good has been done by nuclear energy?

    2) The Navstar constellation of satellites was deployed to guide cruise missiles, and now guides hikers

    3) Captain Cook was actually sent on the voyage of discovery during which he found australia, etc., for military purposes. He was to observe Venus’s transit of the sun, so that more accurate celestial models could be created from which more accurate naval maps could be drawn (kind of like #2)

    4) Massive areas of the American west are among the most unmolested places on the continent because they have been cordoned off as military “ranges” and proving grounds”.

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    • James says:

      You do realize that you seem to be applying very subjective standards of “bad” here. Some people think that military objectives can be good, at least in moderation. So we could legitimately “good” military use of GPS systems has led to the “bad” civilian use of in-car GPS systems, which leads to a number of people getting stuck on remote roads, or driving over cliffs and into canals, as people unthinkly follow the GPS instead of using their eyes & brains.

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