July 1, 2011
The Law of Unintended Consequences

Or, Of Flat Pack Furniture and Complaints About Instructions

Regular readers of this blog know that Mrs. Prof is pregnant and due in a month or so. As a consequence, Politicalprof has spent a fair amount of time over the last several months readying the house: pulling down wallpaper; painting; removing carpets and the like. More recently, I’ve been putting together a lot of furniture: a crib, a changing table, a side table, a desk for Mrs. Prof’s new office … a lot.

(As an aside, I should say that I know that all of this furniture was made in China, no doubt in sweatshop conditions, but as I was unable to remake the global economy between the time Mrs. Prof got pregnant and the time our son is to be born, I made my peace with this fact.)

Anyone who has done this knows that the instructions for putting such furniture together used to be almost impossible to follow. It was written in so incomprehensible a language that anyone fluent in a regular language had no chance of understanding the written instructions: you looked for the patterns of words you were used to, and they just weren’t there.

Naturally, people complained about these indecipherable instructions.

Well, I am happy to report that this problem has been solved. Instructions for putting flat pack furniture together are no longer incomprehensibly written. Because they basically don’t have any words in them at all.

Which brings me to the law of unintended consequences.

No doubt the people who complained about the poor instructions for assembling flat pack furniture expected that manufacturers would respond by improving their written instructions. One complains to see things improved, after all.

But it turns out there was a simpler way to solve the problem of incomprehensible written instructions: make pictographs, and then you don’t have to use text at all. Voila! The problem of unreadable instructions has been solved!

More broadly, any decision or action has both intended and unintended consequences. No Child Left Behind was going to raise standards across the board, overcoming what George Bush called the soft bigotry of low expectations. On its face, there was nothing wrong with the idea of NCLB: lots of school districts and states have done a lousy job serving at risk students, and if the federal government could coerce them to change, well then lots of kids might start getting a better education. What could go wrong?

Except that there is an easier, less expensive way to deal with NCLB than actually reforming schools and investing resources in building up new skills among our youth: you can teach the test, and only the test. You can make sure low performing students don’t take the test on a given day. And/or, you can make the tests easier. And since NCLB came with sanctions but not incentives—e.g., resources—that’s exactly what happened. People took the easy, cheaper path that got them past the problem in front of them.

This is not just a government problem, of course. The great financial meltdown was in part caused by an essentially unregulated system in which loan brokers actually didn’t care if someone could afford a mortgage or not: they made their money on the fees from making loans, refinances and sales; and in any case they offloaded the debt to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. The incentives were set up to put people in homes. They did. Unfortunately, no one bothered to differentiate between people who actually could afford to live in the home they bought, and those who couldn’t.

So in the end, my profound conclusion is: be careful what you wish for. It’s easy to believe that good things will follow from some decision or action. But sometimes you just end up trying to figure out hieroglyphics in the middle of your living room floor.