Unintended Consequences.

July 16, 2013

Nothing of value in this life has been or will be accomplished sans Risk. Risk is to existence what Arthur Fonzerelli was to Richie Cunningham.
While greatly misunderstood, Risk has never killed anyone. Nor bankrupted anyone. Risk, in fact, is as necessary to the endeavor of human progress as the oxygen we breath. For the lack of either would cause us to stop dead in our tracks.
Every great love, success, adventure, victory or transaction of which you will ever be a part will involve Risk. If the undertaking is worthwhile, Risk will be lurking nearby. James Dean-like, jeans and black jacket, leaning coolly against a streetlamp.
Risk has not much to say. He's quite passive, actually. But, when he acts, he does so boldly and with purpose.
So, why does Risk get such a bad name? Perhaps due to its association with Risk's second cousin, Unintended Consequence.
Now, there's trouble.
All those protagonists unlucky enough to have been bestowed with posthumous Darwin Awards? Risk didn't lift a finger. Unintended Consequences mauled them.
Risk tees up opportunity. Unintended Consequence releases the hounds. Risk is the spice of life. Unintended Consequence is the salt in a wound.
Risk can be calibrated. Chanced. Taken. Managed. Unintended Consequence collapses on you like wet drywall. Messily. Painfully. Unexpectedly.
The social sciences define Unintended Consequences as those outcomes that are not those intended prior to a particular action. Though these can be positive or negative, they never are. Positive, that is.
When situations result in positive outcomes, they are defined as such. This allows the actors to receive, indirectly, some credit for what has transpired. As if they saw sorta it coming. An anticipated surprise.
When that same situation blows up in their faces, tossing chaos like confetti, then consequences quickly become unintended.
It's a natural hedge. Humans love credit. Hate blame.
Political economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, understood Unintended Consequences. Eventually, Neville Chamberlain understood them, as well. But, once the bombs start falling, nearly everything becomes unintended.
The Law of Unintended Consequences, akin to Murphy's Law, states that any intervention in a complex system always creates unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes. Funny how undesirable so often equates to unintended. Personally, I would rather be thought of as unintended. But, that's vanity for you.
According to Princeton University, Unintended Consequences can be roughly grouped into three forms:
1. Positive, unexpected benefits.
2. Negative, unexpected detriments.
3. Perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended.
Numbers two and three sound painful. Number one? Sounds unlikely. Mostly good, but... rather like getting a GED. In prison.
This week the Obama administration will begin the first round of negotiations over a new trade agreement with the European Union. The talks, massively important for both economies, may be dead on arrival (article here).
Why? Unintended Consequences.
The U.S. government was outted for spying on its citizens. And its allies. European diplomats are understandably ticked off. They hardly trusted us before. Now? They feel compelled to wash their hands upon thinking of us.
One of the issues up for discussion? Global copyright regulation. The outcome? Of immense importance to U.S. multinationals. And so the U.S. economy.
Yet, Germany and France are accusing the U.S. of using "cold war"-like tactics. French President Hollande has called for an immediate end to the programs, threatening to call off this week's talks.
Trade agreements? Paramount for the economic and commercial futures of all. They are crafted among friends. From trust. An embrace between nations, reflecting a desire to grow as partners.
Last few weeks, the broadcast networks could not find a single U.S. Senator willing to appear and discuss the NSA surveillance programs. Multiple elected officials denigrated those who dared utter the words "police state," saying that such loose cannons were to be ignored. Which is pretty much what they did to the loose cannons amidst the ascension of Hitler. Stalin. Pol Pot. Hussein. Assad. That is, until they began rounding up the loose cannons. Making them disappear.
Want the definition of scary? Anything that U.S. Senators, constantly seeking airtime, won't denigrate publicly. These guys will float trial balloons in regards to the private predilections of their friends and colleagues, just to gauge public opinion.
But, I digress. Our trade agreements hang in the balance. Our "these-are-not-the-acts-of-a-police-state" tactics have fired an unintended torpedo across the bow of our economy, as well as those of our allies. Our president, who was going to embrace the world, make them love us again, finds himself as unpopular in Europe as his predecessor.
Right as the economic party settled into a rhythm, Unintended Consequences showed up. A ne'er-do-well harboring ill intentions. We'll be lucky to get the stains out.

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