The Law of Stupid Consequences


Unintended consequences: outcomes of a purposeful action that are not intended or foreseen.

~American Sociologist Robert K. Merton

To understand the law of unintended consequences, look no further than the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (obviously named by someone who did not appreciate the value of a catchy acronym like CARES) or “stop and frisk.”  Both had legitimate goals, bringing down the crime rate, especially in inner cities where Black Americans were more likely to be the victims of violent crimes.  However, these purported beneficiaries, in too many instances, instead became casualties of misguided or overzealous law enforcement, leading to the current push for criminal justice reform and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Then, what is the difference between unintended consequences and stupid consequences?  When it comes to stupid consequences, regardless of a law’s initial objective, proponents should have known there would be negative outcomes prior to passage or implementation.  How?  History!  The same adverse aftereffects were observed and documented in a similar situation once before.

Which brings me to the most recent example, Donald Trump’s rescinding of an Obama-era rule to combat housing discrimination.  Yesterday, during a speech in Midland, Texas, he laid it out in black and white (pun intended).

You know the suburbs, people fight all of their lives to get into the suburbs and have a beautiful home.  There will be no more low-income housing forced into the suburbs. … It’s been going on for years. I’ve seen conflict for years. It’s been hell for suburbia.

First, for any action to be subject to the law of stupid consequences, it need not be worthy to start with.  Definitely the case in this “bullhorn” to Trump’s base.  Of course, as with don't confuse the issue with facts - Willy Wonka | Meme Generatormost Trump claims, the facts undercut his argument.  First, the July 2015 rule said nothing about forced low-income housing.  It clarified data requirements to determine whether there was persistent housing segregation within a jurisdiction.   Any deficiencies in data collection needed to be addressed if the city or county sought additional federal housing assistance.  Second, and more damning, the median housing value since announcement of the rule has risen from $215,715 in July 2015 to $271,768 in July 2019.  (Can you say 25.9 percent?  I knew you could.) Does anyone want to guess where the price of housing has risen the most?  Ooo! Ooo! Call on me: I know, I know.  Suburban America.

Believe it or not, that isn’t what makes Trump’s war on low-income housing stupid.  The unintended victims of this policy are (drum roll) suburban households. How I do I know this?  In 1996, I was part of the team at the National Governors Association that worked with the Clinton Administration and Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson to identify potential barriers to implementation of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, more commonly known as welfare reform (because the vice-president for acronyms had that day off also).

At the time, my title was policy studies director for economic development and commerce.  Participation by someone with those substantive responsibilities made sense.  Without more jobs it would be difficult to justify terminating public assistance to current welfare recipients if there were no jobs for them to fill.  Some things are obvious.  What was less conspicuous were some of the added employee expenses if the available jobs were located some distance from their homes.  You know, like in the suburbs.  In particular, transportation and child care.

These facts of economic life have not changed in the 24 intervening years.  If there is not affordable suburban housing, inner-city residents working at suburban based businesses are still strapped with transportation costs and the additional child care expenses associated with the time it takes to commute from home to work and back.  Those costs are often subsidized by the employers and (you guessed it) passed on to the consumer.

Ask white suburban residents if they think it makes sense for them to pay higher prices to subsidize inner-city residents’ child care and transportation costs.  My guess is most would say, “Of course not; that would be stupid.  Why would I ever do that?”

Because Donald J. Trump doesn’t want minimum wage employees to live anywhere near their places of work.  Maybe there’s an acronym for that.  How about IDIOT (Intellectual Dereliction In Our Times)?

For what it’s worth.