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Great moments in unintended consequences (Vol. 9)

Great moments in unintended consequences—when something that sounds like a great idea goes horribly wrong. Watch the whole series.

Part One: Antwerps

The year: 1585

The problem: The Spanish army is besieging Antwerp, shelling approaching merchant ships and causing food prices inside the city to rise.

The solution: Enact strict price controls on food!

Sounds like a great idea, with the best of intentions. What could possibly go wrong?

It turns out merchants don’t like risking their lives, ships, and cargo—especially when their goods fetch the same prices at ports without incoming cannon fire. Artificially low prices also fueled demand, causing food supplies inside the city to plummet.

It wasn’t long before Antwerp surrendered, given that the city government blockaded itself far better than any army ever could.

Food for thought? Well, it’s the thought that counts.

Part Two: Change of Hearth

The year: 1662

The problem: King Charles II needs more money!

The solution: a hearth tax! Since the number of fireplaces in a building is considered a proxy for wealth, this progressive property tax scheme was sure to be a hit.

Sounds like a great idea, with the best of intentions. What could possibly go wrong?

It turns out people don’t like paying taxes! They also don’t like petty constables and subcontractors entering their homes to count stoves. Many stopped up their chimneys to avoid the taxes. One intrepid baker even knocked through the wall from her oven to access her neighbor’s chimney—causing a fire that destroyed 20 homes and killed four people.

And since the revenue generated was less than expected, it wasn’t long before the hearth tax also went up in smoke.

Part Three: Clunk and Disorderly

The year: 2009

The problem: a recession! And we need to save the environment! And domestic manufacturing! Plus, something about economic inequality! And, you know, maybe juice the reelection campaign. All that. All that was the problem.

The solution: Give away $1 billion in incentives to U.S. residents who destroy their old cars for more fuel-efficient new ones!

Sounds like a great idea, with the best of intentions. What could possibly go wrong?

It turns out people like free money! The program blew through the original allocation in less than a month. So Congress approved an additional $2 billion. The next month, that money was gone too.

Turns out the boost in vehicle sales was fully offset by a falloff once the program ended. Same for the boost to gross domestic product.

The government spent $1.4 million on the program for every job created.

And apparently destroying an entire generation of used cars causes remaining used car prices to rise. But hey, those are just the kind of vehicles less affluent people buy. The kind donated to charities or sold to poor countries where they replace even older, less fuel-efficient vehicles.

What about helping U.S. car manufacturers? Nope.

Only two of the top 10 models sold as part of the program were domestic brands.

As for the environmental impact?

The program did increase average fuel economy in the United States by…err…0.65 miles per gallon. But people like using new cars way more than old ones. New vehicles are driven as much as three to five times more than genuine clunkers.

And about that reelection campaign? Ehhh…

Great moments in unintended consequences: good intentions, bad results.

Written and produced by Meredith and Austin Bragg; narrated by Austin Bragg


November 2022