Was it Newton who came up with the theory that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction?
I’m thinking that’s the guy. Well it still works, but sometimes it’s more than a little difficult to judge exactly what that opposite reaction might be. That’s when we get the law of unintended consequences—like when you bounce a ball against a wall, and it ricochets back and hits you in the eye.
It’s a law of physics perhaps, but not exactly what you had in mind when you turned the ball loose.
Works in politics, too.
For instance, several states have enacted rather draconian laws cracking down on illegal immigrants and those who employ them. The legislation, I’m sure, was well-intentioned. We need to gain more control over our borders, know who’s coming into the country and for what purpose.
The unintended consequence with some of these laws, however, assures us that certain industries—agriculture, landscaping, construction—are hard-pressed to find labor to do work that no one else is willing to do. Instead of risking being arrested and sent back to their own country, potential workers skip those states and go elsewhere, some place with less stringent immigration laws.
So vegetables don’t get picked, lawns don’t get mowed and homes don’t get built. Unintended consequences occur.
The same works for some of the recommendations to cut the federal budget. When cuts come up, agriculture programs always present an easy target, regardless that farm programs, including the lion’s share that goes to nutrition, represent a miniscule portion of the overall budget and that cuts will make no significant dent in the debt.
Farm bill spending accounts for only 1.8 percent of the total U.S. budget. And commodity programs, where the bull’s-eye is painted, accounts for only 0.25 percent of the budget. Eliminating the entire expenditure would make no significant difference in the national debt. But farmers make up such a small percentage of the U.S. population, 2 percent or less, fewer people would be angry at Congress for cutting out farm programs.
But eliminating the farm safety net would cause serious damage to the well-being of farmers who operate differently from other businesses that have the option of passing along production cost hikes to consumers. Farmers may be enjoying some good prices now, but their production costs have eaten up much of that gain. They also face some dire weather challenges with this year’s (and other years’) crops.
And, according to a recent National Cotton Council report, some of the budget trimming will undo an agreement that has so far prevented Brazil from exacting retaliatory measures against the United States, allowed under a WTO ruling against aspects of the cotton program.
If that agreement is undone, the cost to American business will be far greater than the paltry savings they’ll get from cutting the agriculture budget. Unintended consequences indicate that our farm families will be put in jeopardy and that some other U.S. industries will be harmed by tariffs, loss of trade protections and other retaliatory actions.
I’m not an economist. I’m not a trade negotiator. I’m not an expert on immigration. But it seems to me that Congress and some state legislatures are slinging a ball against a wall with no idea of where it’s going to bounce.
Most Americans, I suspect, would like to see the debt tamed and probably approve of immigration reform. But targeting one industry for deep cuts and exacting harsh laws without adequate consideration of what less labor will mean to productivity creates a perfect climate for unintended consequences.