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June 06, 2005

Unintended Consequences

Because a butterfly wing flapping in China can cause a hurricane in Florida or, as Thomas Wolfe put it more poetically “our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern because a London cutpurse went unhung”, because change is chaotic, the world is full of unintended consequences.

Viagra is saving the rhinos.

No, not by overcoming erectile disfunction in wrinkled old rhinos but rather by reducing the demand for rhinoceros horn as an aphrodisiac in Asia since a more effective alternative has been available. 

The passage of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) led to wheels on suitcases.

ADA mandated that there be wheelchair ramps alongside stairs and built into curbs at every crosswalk.  These ramps made it practical to drag suitcases on wheels along behind us.  First wheeled frames for existing suitcases appeared; this generation of suitcases has wheels built in.

Military need for a nuclear-attack-resistant network led to the Internet.

Hats off to the engineers including Vint Cerf who decided that encasing a traditional network in a mile-deep concrete conduit was NOT the answer and went for simplicity.  Although they didn’t have today’s almost infinitely scaleable consumer Internet in mind, their design decisions and the inexorable intersection of Moore’s and Metcalfe’s laws made today’s pervasive communication happen.

Legislating fuel economy led to SUVs.

The fuel economy law set separate fleet economy standards manufacturers had to meet for all the cars they produced and for all the trucks.  The idea was that this would lead to a proliferation of small cars; instead it led to a proliferation of small trucks since trucks were allowed to burn more fuel per mile than cars.  These small trucks are called SUVs (not to mention pickups).

(full disclosure: we own an SUV and are not going to unilaterally disarm.)

Campaign finance reform led to PACs (Political Action Committees).

Ostensibly to make the political process more open, a limit was enacted on the size of contribution any individual can give any candidate.  This led to the creation of PAC groups so that the flow of money to candidates would not actually be interrupted.  But PAC giving is much less transparent than individual giving and the influence that PACs wield is a detriment to democracy.  Or was this an unintended consequence?

(full disclosure:  I have contributed both to “clean government” groups and one PAC.)

Wartime wage freezes during WWII led to today’s third-party (non) payer health insurance mess in the US.

The way I understand the story, one of the few ways companies could legally compete for scarce labor during WWII was to offer health benefits so they did.  Before that, people used to actually pay the doctor when they went for a visit.  Some people had “major medical” insurance to cover medical emergencies.  The health benefits persisted partially because the premiums which pay for them are tax free income to employees.  Now we have a health payment system in which hospitals only expect to collect 50% of what they bill to insurance companies, a health insurance industry which imposes enormous cost on its customers (us) and the medical system by aggressively declining to pay unless all astrological signs are aligned AND and an appeal is filed, and a total lack of accountability either for cost or appropriate treatment. 

(full disclosure: I’m still involved in straightening out the results of an accidental – the computer did it – period when my carrier didn’t pay my bills.)

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» Unintended Consequences from Musings
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