Beware the unintended consequences

Rich Elfers, columnist.

Have you ever done something only to find that your actions caused you unforeseen and unexpected grief? We humans are decision-making creatures. Welcome to the Law of Unintended Consequences. We all have experienced it. The military and our media have named the effect “collateral damage.”

Psychologist and author Stuart Vyses’ article entitled “Can Anything Save Us from Unintended Consequences?” in the April 9, 2017, edition of the “Skeptical Inquirer” relates examples that illustrate this very human tendency along with some remedies.

One major example comes from the Great Recession of 2008, which was a result of complex financial, governmental and personal decisions.

Banks played a major part. In the 1990s, bankers were frustrated by the rising rate of personal bankruptcies so they spent $40 million in campaign contributions and millions more in lobbying Congress to get a bill passed to stiffen bankruptcy laws. It took until 2005 to get a law passed and signed by the president.

One of the major provisions of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act was to increase up-front costs of filing for bankruptcy and thus make the whole process more burdensome. A few years later these tougher laws helped to cause the 2008 crash.

Once the law went into effect, many people who were struggling with debt found that declaring bankruptcy was no longer an option. In reaction to this reality, many debtors solved their dilemma by not paying their bills, especially their mortgages.

Foreclosures replaced bankruptcies for many. These “toxic assets” were bundled and sold all over the world. When the value of these mortgage-backed securities began to plummet, it pulled down the stock market, the employment rate and the economy with it. Had these indebted borrowers been able to declare bankruptcy, rather than have their homes foreclosed on, many could have saved their homes.

Bankers had tried to increase their profits, but the Law of Unintended Consequences kicked in instead. U.S. banks are thought to have lost $500 billion in the 2008 Great Recession, according to Vyse.

There are many other examples, including the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which led to near nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The U.S. invasions of Iraq, and later Afghanistan, have resulted in political and military quagmires after early victories.

The current tit-for-tat threats from the North Koreans and the angry “fire and fury” response from the president may create unintended consequences and the death of millions on the Korean Peninsula, including thousands of Americans, both civilian and military personnel. Neither the North Koreans nor the American government really want a war.

Vyse offers some advice to avoid unintended consequences that we and our president should carefully consider:

• try to adopt an outsider’s perspective on the question;

• deliberately consider the opposite of the decision you are about to make;

• encourage substantive debate on the knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

• spin more than one hypothesis;

• try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours;

• if there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise), not just most of them.

As part of this approach, we must, as Stephen Covey propounded, “Plan with the end in mind.” Thinking long-term is far more important than satisfying one’s ego and vanity in the short-term. Wisdom and forbearance trump “flying by the seat of your pants” on almost every occasion.

Humility, patience and a desire to make better decisions must be part of the decision-making process. Anything short of these can spell disaster as we are entangled in the web of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Let’s hope our president and his advisers are thinking clearly to resolve the brewing crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The lives of millions are at stake as “collateral damage” from unintended consequences.