Archives for unintended consequences



The Cobra Effect

Season 4, Episode 4

If you want to get rid of a nasty invasive pest, it might seem sensible to offer a bounty as a reward. But the problem is: nothing backfires quite like a bounty. In this episode of Freakonomics Radio, we look at bounties on snakes in Delhi, India; rats in Hanoi, Vietnam; and feral pigs in Fort Benning, Georgia. In each case, bounty seekers came up with creative ways to maximize their payoff – and pest populations grew. Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt talk about how incentives don’t always work out the way we expect them to. Later in the hour, if you want to write a book about Winston Churchill, you are going to have to pay. The Churchill estate is intensely protective of Sir Winston’s copyright, so much so that if you write a book about him, you are likely to go into the red. Stephen Dubner talks about who owns words, and what it will cost you to write a book about Churchill.



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.



The Cobra Effect: ‘Zine Edition

Our Freakonomics Radio podcast “The Cobra Effect” looked into the unintended consequences of bounties. In one story, producer Katherine Wells described what happened at Fort Benning in Georgia, which was overrun with feral pigs. A listener in London, Alex Foster, turned that segment into a nice ‘zine comic. “Got to say,” Alex writes, “I didn’t expect this from a uni project.” Read More »



Will Florida’s Python Hunt Get Hit By the Cobra Effect?

A number of readers — an astonishingly high number, in fact — alerted us to a story about Python Challenge 2013, an effort by Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to “enlist both the general public and python permit holders in a month-long harvest of Burmese pythons” for the sake of “[i]ncreasing public awareness about Burmese pythons and how this invasive species is a threat to the Everglades ecosystem.”

The hunt, starting Jan. 12, offers a cash prize of $1,500 for “the participant harvesting the most Burmese pythons” and $1,000 for “the participant harvesting the longest Burmese python.” (There are actually two prizes of each amount: one for the General Competition and one for the Python Permit Holders Competition.) Read More »



Behind the Iron Dome

Absolutely fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal, by Charles Levinson and Adam Entous, about Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile-defense shield. Nothing I can excerpt here will do justice to the article; it reads like a cross between an HBR case study and a Tom Clancy novel. Perhaps not so surprising from a startup nation. Meanwhile, there are unintended consequences of having built such strong aerial defense; see this one in particular.



What Happens When You Put a Bounty on Houseflies?

Our recent podcast “The Cobra Effect” continues to draw listener/reader mail, with further examples of bounties-gone-wrong. This one, from Dan Banks in Indiana, may be my favorite:

How about a failed bounty on houseflies?

I run a group home for criminal youth.  They are generally manipulative and not too smart.  We have a “point” system where they do work to earn points that they can spend on various tangibles and intangibles.  It’s a great system as we print all the “currency” we want and exchange it for labor.

One summer we seemed to always have houseflies in the home.  A frustrated staff offered 5 points for every fly carcass that was brought in and handed out flyswatters to the kids.

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The Cobra Effect: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest  Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “The Cobra Effect.” (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player in the post, or read the transcript below.) The gist: when you want to get rid of a nasty pest, one obvious solution comes to mind: just offer a cash reward. But be careful — because nothing backfires quite like a bounty.

This is a story-filled episode that looks at the unintended consequences of trying to control everything from traffic to rodent populations to dangerous gases. If you’ve been hanging around these parts for a while, you will have noticed a similar theme in our “Misadventures in Baby-Making” podcast or the section of the film Freakonomics wherein Steve Levitt tries to potty-train his daughter.

The episode begins with Vikas Mehrotra, a finance professor at the University of Alberta, who is visiting Bogota, Colombia, and notices a strange traffic pattern. (You may remember Mehrotra from our “Church of Scionology” episode.) If you want to do some further reading on the story Mehrotra tells, check out “Rationing Can Backfire: The ‘Day Without a Car’ in Mexico City” (abstract; PDF) and “The Effect of Driving Restrictions on Air Quality in Mexico City” (abstract; PDF).  Read More »



Consuming More Energy in the Pursuit of Saving Energy

Next week, we’ll be putting out a Freakonomics Radio podcast called “The Cobra Effect.” Without spilling the details now, I’ll tell you that it’s about unintended consequences, the kind of stuff that happens when clever-seeming incentives are let loose on an even cleverer public.

With that in mind, I was intrigued by the following e-mail from a reader named Eugene Kim:

My locality in Virginia has mandated biennial emissions inspections for automobiles before registrations can be renewed on those years. Since mine is expiring at the end of this month and it’s been two years since my last emissions test, I took my car to the service station this morning. They don’t seem to actually measure any emissions; they merely check the OBD computer for stored readings.

Here’s where it gets stupid. I don’t drive a lot. I take the train to work so I only drive on weekends, if that. (If you’re wondering why I even have a car, I bought it when I lived in the Midwest and needed it, but moved to the East Coast shortly thereafter and was upside-down on my loan. Plus I feel strangely vulnerable without a car.) Anyway, my car is idle a lot while the battery charge depletes slowly. And apparently, if it drops to a certain point the computer loses all those readings. I didn’t think it had gotten that low since the car hasn’t had any problems starting.

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