Perverse ConsequencesPublished 4 February, 2013
I’m not sure why, but I sort of love perverse consequences. The example I like to use is the story that they tell to tourists taking a tour of The Rocks part of Sydney, Australia. Around 1900, Sydney was fighting the plague, and it was known that the disease was spread by rodents. So, in an effort to reduce the number of rodents – and thus the spread of the plague – a bounty was offered for the lifeless bodies of the responsible critters. Providing financial incentives is a good, if not perfect, way for governments to alter people’s behavior, but in this case, the policy fueled people’s imaginations for ways to produce as many rodent carcasses as they could. It wasn’t long before people started breeding rats.
There are any number of such stories. For instance, back in 1999, Santa Monica enacted a law designed to redress what was seen as an unfair practice, banks charging non-customers to use their ATMs. I’ve never really understood why this practice was seen as unfair, but it was, and the municipality solved this problem by passing a law prohibiting banks from imposing this charge. As soon as the law went into effect, banks simply stopped letting non-customers use their machines. So, banks lost some revenue and Santa Monicans had to drive an extra few blocks to withdraw cash.
My home state of Pennsylvania has a lot of rules about who may and may not sell alcohol, many of which can be traced back to the American puritanical desire to ensure that other people don’t have too much fun. Once consequence of these rules is that organizations that want to have alcohol at their events, for instance, can find it hard to arrange a system of alcohol sales that conforms to state laws, so instead they simply host an open bar – allowed because no money is changing hands – which in turn incentivizes people to drink more than they would if they had to pay for drinks. The consequences of open bars include people getting more drunk than they otherwise would and my nephew William.
Of more global significance, China’s one child policy, which somehow leads to approximately one and a half children per woman, has important demographic effects. A number of people have pointed out that the policy has led to an imbalanced sex ratio, with many more males than females, and some have worried about what all these extra men might mean in the medium term. Recently the Economist pointed out two additional effects: first, a demographic shift of fewer working age people participating in the Chinese economy as the one-child-policy-generation works through their working years and, second, a demand for male-child-snatching in China, as families without male offspring find ways to circumvent the government policy.
Returning to southern California and the lighter side, the citizens of Los Angeles recently passed “Measure B,” which requires that performers in pornographic films wear condoms, an idea not driven by the puritanical desire to ensure other people don’t have too much fun, but rather as a means to reduce the spread of sexually-transmitted infections, a testimony to how deeply the people of California care about the health and welfare of its performing artists in the pornography industry. Readers may be excused for taking a moment to dap any tears welling up in their eyes before continuing. (Also note that some pornographic film makers have filed a suit in county court, claiming that the law violates first amendment freedom of speech.)
Aren’t the performers concerned enough about their own health and welfare to wear condoms without prodding from the state? They probably are, but their decisions are tipped by the fact that consumers of pornography like their performances condom-free, preferring an unencumbered look at the male performer’s penis. Because consumers of pornography don’t like to consume condom-cluttered porn, performers have a dilemma: wear a condom, which reduces the risk of infection but brings less money, or perform without, effectively earning a premium for the increased risk.
Well, they used to face that dilemma. Now they face a different dilemma because unsheathed-penis performances are greyed out. News stories coming out of SoCal indicate pretty clearly what, predictably, is going to happen: Larry Flynt and other porn producers are going to pack up and take their naked penises elsewhere. There are, to be sure, some advantages they’ll be sacrificing by leaving the Los Angeles area – the presence of the non-port entertainment industry ensures a good supply of makeup artists, lighting techs, and writers to pen the scintillating dialog consumers expect from their porn – “Hi pizza delivery guy, I can’t pay for the pizza, but maybe my roommate Candy and I can work something out with you…” – but such advantages are mobile, and ultimately appropriate talent can be found or will move elsewhere.
All of which raises the interesting question. While it’s not hard to understand why men enjoy watching reproductively valuable women perform various sexual acts, why do men prefer an unobstructed view of other men’s penises?