Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Mutiny Because of the Bounty: The Cobra Effect

Today as I was driving I began listening to some of my favorite podcasts. I came across one of the Freakonomics Radio podcasts that I found very interesting. It was the episode concerning "The Cobra Effect". I want to relay the general version of the story below but I also don't want to be completely ripping off the Freakonomics guys because they are great (so you can go here: http://www.freakonomics.com/2012/10/11/the-cobra-effect-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/ for the original podcast that I found so entertaining).

As I have stated before in the blog, I am entertained by the failing of myself and others (for example, here's a post about one of my embarrassing moments: http://ericerdmanmusic.blogspot.com/2012/09/on-other-handthere-humiliation.html )

I guess I find them entertaining not because I believe they should be attempted or anything of the sort. I don't think they have great value in and of themselves. I figure in most of these irreversible embarrassing situations the damage has been done by the time the perpetrator even realizes there is a situation. So I guess at that point I feel like we should study the details of the situation, laugh at the comedically embarrassing elements, then take a life lesson from the aftermath (as to hopefully never repeat the same actions).

The good thing about these embarrassing situations is that they are universal. No one has to feel embarrassed alone, because we have all made glaring embarrassing mistakes at one time or another. Of course each instance has its own ingredients (which also adds to the entertainment value) but they all result in embarrassment for the perpetrator.

Well, now for the bad news. Apparently these embarrassing moments aren't simply limited to individuals. Organizations also make excruciatingly embarrassing decisions. And to take it one step further the organizations and governmental bodies that are specifically designed to fix situations sometimes make the absolute worse mistakes of this kind. I find this type thing riveting, obviously not because I love the outcome, but because I get amazed by how wrong these people and organizations predict a situation. It is like watching a train wreck. Of course it is gnarly and ugly but I can't pry my eyes away.

And that brings us to "The Cobra Effect".

There are tons of examples of "The Cobra Effect". I'll try to briefly describe 2-3, but I believe we should start with the situation that gave "The Cobra Effect" its name.

The term "The Cobra Effect" stems from the time of British rule of colonial India. The British government was concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes. The government therefore offered a reward for every dead snake. It was told to the citizens that if they killed a snake and brought its skin to the designated area (near town hall) they would receive reward money. Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, Indians wised up and began "playing the system". The people around the outskirts of Delhi began to breed cobras. They would then kill the cobras and take the skins to the designated area and collect their reward. 
When this was realized the reward was cancelled. With the rewards no longer available, the cobra breeders immediately had no reason to continue breeding cobras. Once they had no reason to keep breeding the cobras the cobra breeders set the snakes free and the wild cobras consequently multiplied. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation much much worse.

The second example of "The Cobra Effect" causing a bad situation to become extremely worse is in Hanoi during the early 1900's.
During this time Hanoi was under French colonial rule. Well, the French have always been very proud of their lifestyle and they insist on a certain level of elegance. Unfortunately, the model French city they were trying to construct at Hanoi had a sewer system which although high tech for the time, was a breeding ground for rats. The inundation of rats made it hard to keep the French level of elegant society so something had to be done to eradicate the rats.

However the French apparently hadn't heard about the cobra problem in Delhi because the colonial regime basically repeated the error and created a bounty program that paid a reward for each rat killed. To obtain the bounty, people would provide the severed rat tail. Colonial officials, however, began noticing rats in Hanoi with no tails. The Vietnamese rat catchers would capture rats, lop off their tails, and then release them back into the sewers so that they could procreate and produce more rats, thereby increasing the rat catchers' revenue.

In addition to the streets still running rampant with tailless rats and their "soon to be tailless" offspring, there were farms for the creatures springing up around town. Exactly like the Cobras in Delhi, the rats of Hanoi became a way to make money, so the people figured out how to make more rats. This was obviously the exact opposite of the initial intention of the bounty.

I'm sure you are saying , there are thousands of stories of how governments have made mistakes hundreds of years ago. At least we learned from those silly mistakes. Well, one would think.

But in 2007 at Fort Benning in Georgia, the same exact thing happened. This time is was with pigs. 

Fort Benning was simply getting overrun with pigs. The pigs were destroying the lands and needed to be stopped. The attempted solution: bounty on pigs. If anyone killed a pig and brought the tail to the designated area, they got $40. As you would imagine, it didn't take long before there was a racket going on where some of the wiser guys on post would go to surrounding areas, pay local meat processors and butchers a small amount ($3-8 each) for some pig tails, then go trade them in for $40 each. Meanwhile not helping the actual pig infestation at all.

Here's where the Fort Benning pig problem actually qualifies as a "Cobra Effect" problem where the "solution" makes the problem worse: in addition to paying for a lot of tails from pigs that never stepped hoof on Fort Benning, they also allowed the soldiers to take scraps out of the back of the mess hall to bait the hogs. This led to fatter, healthier pigs that produced offspring at a higher rate. So instead of fixing the pig problem at Fort Benning they had actually made it worse. 

The fact that the Fort Benning case was so recent really shocked me. I thought by now we would have learned from our mistakes. 

Although I get a little chuckle thinking about the unstoppable onslaught of too many pigs, I do see where "The Cobra Effect" has had and can have severe detrimental effects on an area or our whole civilization.

For the final example let's leave the animals alone. This example also happened in recent years. And this time it was exacted by the United Nations. I'll directly quote Freakonomics here: 
"United Nations came up with a plan a few years ago to cut down on greenhouse gases. It rewarded companies with carbon credits for disposing of polluting gases, and those credits could be converted into cold, hard cash. Now, the prices were set according to how bad these things were for the environment. And one of the highest prices — one of the highest bounties, really — was for destroying a nasty gas called HFC-23, which is a byproduct of a common coolant. So what happened? Yep — companies began to produce more and more of this coolant in order of destroy more and more of the byproduct waste gas, and collect millions of dollars in the process. The other problem was that the coolant itself was also really bad for the environment."

You can obviously extrapolate from these examples and see how the same ideas/mistakes if repeated could wreak havoc.

They gave a final example of how the Endangered Species list actually qualifies as being a perpetrator of "The Cobra Effect". Basically the Endangered Species List can't just immediately put a creature on the list, there is about a 2 year waiting period (for more research , etc.). The problem here is that, if a land owner, possible developer hears that a certain species Cockatoo that is indigenous to his area may become endangered in 2 years (making his land therefore unable to be developed), he's going to immediate get to deforesting and building in order to beat the Endangered Species List to the punch. But of course surely causing said creature to become even more endangered (or possibly extinct) in the process.

So that's "The Cobra Effect". At first I was getting a good chuckle at the expense of ancient governmental mistakes but then I started realizing that it's still a mistake that is currently being made.

There is no real moral to the story I guess, it just blows my mind that we are still screwing up something that has such a horrible track record. I mean it's like falling for the "Hey, you have something on your shirt" gag for 100 years. Only instead of getting our noses bonked we are destroying significant parts of the planet or tinkering with the ecosystem in highly negative ways.

We all know that if there is a way to "beat the system" there will be folks out there smart enough to figure out how. But it is inexcusable to keep repeating the same error over and over and over. 

So let's collectively agree to not look down when the next bounty/incentive plan comes along and says "Hey, you've got something on your shirt".


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