Thursday, April 3, 2008

Unintended Consequences and the Pill Dispenser

Every action you take or fail to take has consequences, and most consequences, intended or not, are logically foreseeable. Nobody wants people to suffer, the land to get polluted, or people to remain poor. When conservatives raise objections to government action for its remedy, it is usually out of dislike for the unintended but logically foreseeable consequences.

Welfare was meant to get poor and unemployable people out of poverty. Nobody who originally proposed the idea of welfare was intending to crowd out charities, break up families, or lure poor people away from their jobs. However, this is exactly what ended up happening. So now we talk about government proposals to remedy the lack of charitable help, fatherlessness, and multigenerational economic immobility of those on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, which the government caused in the first place.

Worse yet, many of the intended government remedies get overwhelmed by their negative consequences and plain don't work. When I was younger, there were fewer handicapped spots, but they were mostly left alone by the able-bodied populace. Then someone got the idea that more handicapped parking at public places would help even more disabled citizens particiapate in society. Now you can have swaths of the closest parking spaces at any given place be marked with the little blue wheelchair, while the able-bodied can hardly find a place. So now there have been many more instances of people parking illegally in these spots, or using a hang-tag issued to an absent relative, making it just about as hard for honestly disabled people to find a place to park as it was before. So now there is an increased cost of enforcing restrictions on handicapped parking spots, more money spent on educating the public to save these spots, and my aunt with her bad knees still has to luck out to get a spot when she goes Christmas shopping.

Ideas and actions can also have unintended consequences nobody even dreamed of when the idea was first proposed. In the early to mid 90's, all the talk was about "redlining" of minorities. What ended up happening was the formation of the subprime mortgage market. What was logically foreseeable were a lot of defaults, as people often have bad credit for very good reasons. What was not foreseeable were the real estate speculators using the subprime market in order to obtain mortgages on houses in order to rapidly resell them. And now we are all talking about how the government is supposed to save us from the consequences of the government creating the subprime market. So when would we need a remedy from that remedy?

My grandparents took a lot of medications. How one gets from a reasonably healthy middle-aged person who might take a vitamin or two a day to living by the alarm clock and pill dispenser is quite easy. It starts with a prescription for something that starts to slip in old age, such as calcium, cholesterol, sciatica, etc. The side effects of the medication, say, cause insomnia. So now, along with the first prescription, you get a second for insomnia. But that insomnia medication increases your likelihood of getting migraines, so you get yet another prescription for migraines, which can cause ulcers, and in turn....well, you get the picture.

Many older Americans nowadays are starting to find a different approach, where they question the need for that first prescription, and try not to get caught in that cycle in the first place. The conservative approach to government action on social issues is very much the same thing---If we don't do x in the first place, we won't need to do y and z some time down the road to "correct" the effects of x.

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