Words of wisdom

Friday, January 29, 2010

Unintended consequences

I'm going to post these as I come across them.  Mostly they are people's otherwise good intentions and sometimes, surprisingly, well implemented as well.  But you can never second-guess the American citizenry.

[early December 2009]
Da Gubment in our area did a smart thing: they put large overhead signs on the main interstates telling drivers about accidents up ahead, road closings, construction, anything that may impact people's drives to wherever they may be going, also advising them to take alternate routes or to not travel during certain hours.  The unintended consequence that da Gubment did not anticipate: the sheer stupidity of the drivers, in that they feel compelled to slow down from the mandated 65 mph speed limit to, oh, say, 30 mph so they can read the damned sign.  Note that this is not necessary --- da Gubment strategically placed these signs so that drivers could see them and read them for at least 30 seconds as they drive up to and under them.  They put some thought into a good idea.  Hunh ... But as it turns out, the signs which are intended to speed up people's travels end doing just the opposite.  An unintended consequence of an otherwise good and well implemented idea (well, except for the citizen stupidity factor).

[early December 2009]
In my blog on the useless penny and the just-plain-dumb paper dollar, I mentioned a Wall Street Journal article titled "Miles for Nothing: How the Government Helped Frequent Fliers Make a Mint".  I also mentioned at the time that the article subject was irrelevant, but interesting.  I am now recanting, but just for this blog.  The subject was how the U.S. Mint was doling out rolls of newly-minted collectable coins with free shipping.  Nice for the coin hobbyists.  What they didn't foresee was the unintended consequence: Some really creative people used this to up, for free, their frequent flier miles.  They ordered the coins, say $10,000 worth of them, and paid exactly $10,000 (remember the free shipping) on their favorite frequent flier credit card.  When the coins arrived they immediately drove them to the bank, deposited them and then wrote a check back to their credit card company to pay it off.  All for free, and they received 10,000 frequent flier miles because they used their frequent flier credit card.  I LOVE THAT!!!  I am a credit card perks freak (just ask my wife).  Unfortunately they did this on da Gubment's dime and to the dismay of the true hobbyists.  It was a nice gesture on the part of the Mint, however I disagree with da Gubment paying for something like this to help promote a hobby.  If you have a hobby, fine.  But expect to pay for it.  The article said that some of these people were so organized that they had the UPS guy put the boxes of coins from their UPS truck right into their own car trunks so they could take them immediately to the bank for depositing.  I don't know how much $10,000 in coins weighs ... The Mint put and end to this "freebie" as soon as they found out about the ruse.  Again, unfortunate for the true hobbyists, but ... oh well ...

[added 29 January 2010]
A few years ago, back in the mid-aughts, New York City mandated that if fast food joints were going to put the calorie and fat and other counts on their big menus, the ones up on the walls behind the counters, then they had to do so in the same sized letters in which the food entries were shown.  So the fast food joints decided to take off the calorie and other counts altogether, since they took up way too much room on the menus.  That is an unintended consquence.  But not to anyone who might have thought this through at least a little bit from the beginning.

[added 31 January 2010]
I saw an article in one of last week's Wall Street Journals.  What was of interest, however, wasn't the title, but the sub-title:
Lawyers Set Aim at Toyota
Claims for Lower Vehicle Values, Rather Than Injuries, Expected to Dominate
Notice that sub-title.  I actually read it several times when I first saw it to make sure that I got it right.  This is saying that an unintended consequence of the Toyota accelerator problems is that people's vehicle values may go down and therefore they plan to sue about this issue.  So this issue hits two sets of people.  First, the more obvious, Toyota would of course get hit by lots of lawsuits simply because of our litigious society.  That is absolutely expected.  Wrong, but expected.  If people have valid injury claims then fine, sue.  But people are going to sue because the values of their cars are (or may be ... who knows) going down?  That brings us to the second set of people being hit by this issue: litigious idiots.  Very few people wander into a Toyota dealership with the intent of purchasing a new Toyota as a collector's item.  Therefore the majority of people (can we just go ahead and say all of them?) buy Toyotas to drive around town for ten years, and resale value is waaay down on their priority list.  They don't purchase them so that their resale value will enable them to ... I don't know ... do whatever their resale value may allow them to do.  When you purchase a car you go in wanting something reliable, comfortable, something that fits you just right, and is made with quality in mind.  Where in that list is resale value?  This goes directly to that entitlement feeling that oh so many Americans feel about everything that they have, own and do.  It is wrong.  It is idiotic.  We happen to own a Prius.  We happen to be proud owners of our Prius (as proud as a Prius owner can be, anyway).  We haven't had any issues with it whatsoever aside from normal maintenance.  When we next bring it to our service guy we'll ask him to take a look at the accelerator equipment to be sure that nothing in the mechanism is sticking.  I have already made sure that our car mats are the originals and are in the correct places and do not obstruct the gas pedal.  I have also carefully experimented with the car, trying various very-slow-speed experiments by braking, shifting into neutral while accelerating, etc.  It is easy, and there is nothing out of the ordinary about stopping our car.  And our resale value may just go down a bit.  But who gives a shit?  Oh yeah, the litigious idiots do.  I really hope that gets chucked out of the courts quickly.

[added 10 February 2010]
Washington D.C. tried in January (law passed last July) to do away with disposable plastic shopping bags.  The city imposed a 5 cent-per-bag charge.  Per a Wall Street Journal article, the charge "applies to anything sold at any store that sells food".  Problem is: "deciding what constitutes a food store is easier said than done".  Some book stores, for instance, sell chewing gum or mints.  These are food, and therefore if a customer comes in to buy a bunch of books and wants a bag, they get taxed.  An "adult toy store" sells edible ... adult stuff.  This too is food.  So people coming in for a vibrator or furry handcuffs, who usually would like a plain paper bag to hide their newly purchased ... adult stuff also get charged.  Once again a Gubment tries to do the right thing (which I am not so sure is "right" this time, but that's a different discussion) and screws itself in the butt.  Writing laws is difficult, to say the least.  You have to make sure that you take into account the entire universe of things that can go wrong with your new law, from the innocent bystanders (i.e. the above-mentioned book stores, adult toy stores and many, many others) to those that intentionally will try to run around the law's outskirts.  Not easy, but this one was just done ... stupidly.  Any store that sells any food will have to tax any customer for these bags who buys anything.  Think about that ... Yes, this is an unintended consequence, but only in the "didn't really think it through" category ...

[added 25 July 2010]
San Diego messed up.  The Wall Street Journal article titled Floatopia's Last Hurrah in San Diego? City Banned Beach Drinking, Now Moves Against Rubber Rafts(http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703954804575380652536796866.html) says that the city council passed a law a while back, which the residents then made permanent, making illegal drinking any alcoholic beverages "on the beach".  Problem is:
"The ban defines 'beach' as 'the sand or land area bordering the water of an ocean or bay.' The wording inadvertently created a drinkers' haven in the water."
So everyone got out their floaties and drank just a few feet from the beach, in the water.  And as the article says:
"San Diego's float parties are a case study in the law of unintended consequences."
Perfect.  Why is it so hard to think these things through?  Yeah, people are generally stupid, however when it comes to their own entitlements (Americans anyway ...), enjoyments and the like, they suddenly and amazingly get very bright.  This one is no different.

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