1. According to the New York Post: “The NYPD is pulling detectives from homicides and other investigations to help deal with the endless barrage of anti-cop protests in the city, law-enforcement sources told The Post Monday.” 2. The anti-police protests are, in one way at least, rewarding the very police officers whom the protestors wish to punish, with nearly $23 . . .
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.
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.”
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.)
Our recent podcast “The Cobra Effect” continues to draw listener/reader mail, with furtherexamples 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.
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.
In SuperFreakonomics, we catalogued some of the collateral costs of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, including roughly 1,000 extra traffic deaths in the U.S. in the three months after 9/11, the result of so many people driving instead of flying:
Such trickle-down effects are nearly endless. Thousands of foreign-born university students and professors were kept out of the United States because of new visa restrictions after the September 11 attacks. At least 140 U.S. corporations exploited the ensuing stock market decline by illegally backdating stock options. In New York City, so many police resources were shifted to terrorism that other areas — the Cold Case Squad, for one, as well as anti-Mafia units — were neglected. A similar pattern was repeated on the national level. Money and manpower that otherwise would have been spent chasing financial scoundrels were instead diverted to chasing terrorists— perhaps contributing to, or at least exacerbating, the recent financial meltdown.
The Wall Street Journal now reports on a most unlikely unintended consequence of the attacks and the ensuing hunt for Osama bin Laden:
My name is Mauricio Castro, I have a social communications degree and teach interface design and multimedia systems.
I have a story I’d like to share with you guys.
I live in a nice neighborhood in the city of Vitória, Brazil. Being close to the beach, the city code forbids tall buildings in order to maintain sunlight in the sand all time. The maximum floor number is three.
So it’s only natural that most buildings here don’t have elevators. Even some new ones are presented only with stairs, especially those built for the younger customers.
So I went to the health clinic the other day and the nurse was telling me about the rising numbers of youngsters suffering from strokes. There are lots of explanations for these numbers rising, but mostly lifestyle and drug abuse.
I’m lecturing at the University of Essex and going from office to office chatting with people about their research. This is hard physical labor — I repeatedly go down one or two flights of stairs in this rabbit warren, walk down a hall, up the stairs in the adjoining building, then back down another hall. What a waste — why?
Reusable grocery bags may be unsanitary but at least they’re quiet. The same cannot be said for Frito Lay’s new environmentally friendly SunChips bag. The bag is so noisy that the company, after lots of consumer backlash (including Facebook campaigns), is ditching the effort.
The conclusion couldn’t be any starker: “Indiana lawmakers say the state’s driver education program isn’t working, citing a fractured system administered by three separate agencies and statistics that put the program’s usefulness in doubt.”
It seems to make all the sense in the world. You are WPMI-TV, the NBC affiliate that covers southern Alabama and some of the Florida Panhandle, and you rent a big electronic billboard to promote your nightly news and weather team.
The island of Kiribati began to subsidize coconut harvesting in the hopes of encouraging fishermen to switch to the coconut trade and thereby help preserve Kiribati’s reefs from the ravages of overfishing.
We tell quite a few stories about unintended consequences in SuperFreakonomics, including what happens when governments add or increase a trash-collection tax — like this one and this one.
But I don’t think any stories we tell are quite as interesting as the following one, sent in by a reader named Jack Crichton in British Columbia:
International children’s rights advocates focus significant resources on eliminating child labor in developing countries, often advocating consumer boycotts and international regulation. Despite all these efforts, however, child labor is still prevalent throughout the developing world. Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti think all that international pressure may actually be worsening the child labor problem.
Sustainably produced local food is not accessible by all. In general, only the elite few with the time and material resources to capitalize on such environmental munificence have the time and money to benefit from transparently sustainable farms. As a result, the preconditions are inadvertently established for something that generally tends not to bind diverse communities into a cozy whole, but to fragment them: exclusivity.
A very common ailment in Korean summers and falls is pinkeye (conjunctivitis), and the problem had been getting much worse in the past two years. My Korean co-author tells me, however, that the H1N1 virus has created a positive externality in Korea.
Two physicists and a computer scientist used Google maps to study traffic in Boston, London, and New York, and found that when people use real-time driving maps to try to pick the fastest routes, traffic slows down.
Two French firefighters admitted to starting brush fires on the island of Corsica on July 8 and July 14. Their motivation: overtime bonus pay of 19 euros for nighttime work (July 8) and 38 euros on July 14, for Bastille Day.
In a column we wrote a while back about the unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation, we highlighted one of the failures of the Endangered Species Act: in the lag time between when an animal’s habitat is announced to be under consideration for the E.S.A. and the protection actually goes into effect, landowners have incentive to prophylactically destroy the habitat.
Photo: Library of Congress There is a review of Kat Long‘s The Forbidden Apple in last Sunday’s New York Times. The review describes a number of incidents where efforts to ban or restrict transactions in one market spilled over with negative consequences into a related market. To eliminate drinking on Sundays, New York City restricted it to hotels. In response, . . .
| To ring in the new year, Tropicana rolled out a weird, minimalist, futuristic redesign of its iconic orange juice cartons. Sales immediately plunged 20 percent, and after just two months on the market, Tropicana scotched the redesign. The quick rollback is all but unprecedented. Why did people react so negatively? After all, the design switch, from an image of . . .
| “I think we will look back in 10 years’ time and say we should not have done this, but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that that which is true in the 1930’s is true in 2010.” That’s Sen. Byron Dorgan (D.-North Dakota), from a 1999 Times article on the repeal of the Glass-Steagall . . .