Unintended Consequences

Great Moments in Unintended Consequences: Road Noise Meters, San Francisco Red State Boycott, and Pennsylvania's Political Cartoon Ban (Vol. 15)

Good intentions, bad results.


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Great moments in unintended consequences—when something that sounds like a great idea goes horribly wrong. Watch the whole series.

Part 1: Game Engine

The year: 2018

The problem: Too many loud vehicles in the city of Edmonton!

The solution: Erect sound monitoring display boards in various locations in the city, alerting motorists if they are exceeding the 85-decibel level limit by displaying their current noise level.

Sounds like a great idea, with the best of intentions. What could possibly go wrong?

Turns out games are fun! Since the display board went up as part of a pilot program with no accompanying enforcement mechanism, competitive motorists used the scoreboards… er, displays…to see just how loud they could get. As revving engines increased, so did noise complaints. Within weeks the city reversed course and turned off the displays.

Looks like cars aren't the only things that backfire.

Part 2: I Left My Smart in San Francisco

The year: 2016

The problem: States are passing laws San Francisco doesn't like!

The solution: Pressure them to change by prohibiting any city contracts with companies headquartered in states that don't share San Francisco's values.

Sounds like a great idea, with the best of intentions. What could possibly go wrong?

Turns out, competition drives down prices! With limited bidding options, public project costs ballooned by around 20 percent according to city administrators. The ban also created additional bureaucratic costs, totaling nearly half a million dollars in staffing expenses alone, and made it difficult to support like-minded businesses in verboten states.

More and more waivers and exemptions were granted as the list of covered states grew from 4 to 30, which should have been a clue that these expensive pressure tactics weren't exactly changing hearts and minds. In 2023, the city trashed the bans, probably in a very expensive trash can.

Part 3: Tooned Up

The Year: 1903

The Problem: Cartoonists keep depicting Pennsylvania politician Samuel Pennypacker as a parrot!

The Solution: Introduce a bill banning any cartoon in which a person is depicted as a "beast, bird, fish, insect, or other inhuman animal."

Sounds unconstitutional and entirely self-interested! What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Turns out, people who make fun of politicians for a living are pretty comfortable fighting back against politicians. Criticism of Governor Pennypacker and the anti-cartoon bill exploded, with cartoonists nationwide depicting the Governor and others as turnips, trees, chestnut burrs, squash, and beer steins. The blowback was so humiliating that the bill was pulled from consideration and replaced with a new broader bill making newspaper editors and publishers personally responsible for libel lawsuits.

The press ramped up their ridicule, daring Pennypacker to take them to court. But the law was never enforced and was repealed after he left office, having been hounded for his entire term by critical cartoons.

That's one way to draw attention.

Great moments in unintended consequences: good intentions, bad results.

Do you know a great moment in unintended consequences? Email us at comedy@reason.com.