Unintended consequences

February 8th, 2013 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Ramesh Ponnuru at AEI writes:

Conservatives often point out that laws, no matter how benign they may appear, have unintended consequences. They can reverberate in ways that not many people foresaw and nobody wanted: Raising the minimum wage can increase unemployment; prohibition can create black markets.

The efforts in many cities to discourage the use of plastic bags demonstrate that such unintended consequences can be, among other things, kind of gross. 

San Francisco has been discouraging plastic bags since 2007, saying that it takes too much oil to make them and that used bags pollute waterways and kill marine animals. In 2012, it strengthened its law. Several West Coast cities, including Seattle and Los Angeles, have also adopted bans for environmental reasons. The government of Washington, D.C., imposes a 5 cent plastic-bag tax. (Advocates prefer to call it a “fee” because taxes are unpopular.) Environmental groups and celebrity activists, including Eva Longoria and Julia Louis- Dreyfus, support these laws.

So what happened?

Most alarmingly, the industry has highlighted news reports linking reusable shopping bags to the spread of disease. Like this one, from the Los Angeles Times last May: “A reusable grocery bag left in a hotel bathroom caused an outbreak of norovirus-induced diarrhea and nausea that struck nine of 13 members of a girls’ soccer team in October, Oregon researchers reported Wednesday.” The norovirus may not have political clout, but evidently it, too, is rooting against plastic bags.

Warning of disease may seem like an over-the-top scare tactic, but research suggests there’s more than anecdote behind this industry talking point. In a 2011 study, four researchers examined reusable bags in California and Arizona and found that 51 percent of them contained coliform bacteria. The problem appears to be the habits of the reusers. Seventy-five percent said they keep meat and vegetables in the same bag. When bags were stored in hot car trunks for two hours, the bacteria grew tenfold.

That study also found, happily, that washing the bags eliminated 99.9 percent of the bacteria. It undercut even that good news, though, by finding that 97 percent of people reported that they never wash their bags.

And the impact?

Klick and Wright estimate that the San Francisco ban results in a 46 percent increase in deaths from foodborne illnesses, or 5.5 more of them each year. They then run through a cost-benefit analysis employing the same estimate of the value of a human life that the Environmental Protection Agency uses when evaluating regulations that are supposed to save lives. They conclude that the anti-plastic-bag policies can’t pass the test — and that’s before counting the higher health-care costs they generate.

It is a good reminder about the law of unintended consequences.

Unintended consequences

February 10th, 2012 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

Shabham Dastgheib at Stuff reports:

The mandatory bicycle helmet law has cut the number of cyclists in half and contributed to 53 premature deaths per year, new research says.

The research, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal today, found a 51 per cent drop in the average hours cycled per person from the 1989-90 period when compared to 2006-09.

Colin Clarke, the honorary secretary of the Yorkshire Region’s Cyclists Touring Club in England who produced the research, has worked as a safety instructor and cycled in more than 20 countries including about 8000 kms in New Zealand.

Clarke estimates the 1994 law has translated to about 53 premature deaths per year (through adverse health effects from not cycling) and promotes discrimination in accident compensation.

He said safety should be improved through policies supporting health, the environment, and without the legal requirement to wear a helmet.

I actually think people have the right to risk themselves. Hence they can bungy jump, climb mountains, swim, work as salvors etc. That right should extend to wearing no helmet while cycling, and no seatbelt while driving.

With cycling, people should be able to judge for themselves whether the extra enjoyment they get from cycling without a helmet outweighs the probability of more severe damage if they crash. If you cycle 10 hours a week, and you have say only a 5% chance of a serious crash over your cycling life, then it is may be a reasonable decision to not wear a helmet.

Now some may argue that the decision is not one of people’s rights to take risks, but an economic one. That as we have a socialised health system, we should force people to minimise their chances of disease and injury, as otherwise we end up having to pay for their bad choices.

I have some sympathy for that argument, but it can be slippery end of the slope. You could use economics to justify making condoms compulsory for sex to reduce the prevalence of STDs.

But this story above, is a nice reminder that even if you do accept the economic argument to reduce risk by say banning cycling without a helmet, you run the risk of unintended consequences. In this case, the unintended consequence is alleged to be fewer people are cycling, and hence unhealthier, which has actually led to more premature deaths and a greater cost to the economy.

This is another reason why we should be extremely reluctant to interfere with people’s personal choices. You may have the best of motivations, but you don’t know what the impact will be.