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Unintended consequences


It seems to me that sometimes actions by governments result in unintended and unwanted consequences.

That thought has likely bubbled up in my mind as a result of complaints of some effects of the partial shutdown of the country brought about by the coronavirus crisis. We hope to see these drastic responses to the threat eased in the foreseeable future, but I got to thinking about other instances of government actions that have had repercussions.

Probably one of the most notable was the ratification in January 1919, of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. constitution that resulted in a nationwide ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. By the terms of the amendment, the country went dry one year later, on Jan. 17, 1920, just over 100 years ago. “Prohibition,” as it was known, gave rise to a wide variety of illegal activities such as “bootlegging,” “rum running,” smuggling, and operation of “speakeasies,” which were illegal bars serving alcoholic drinks. According to Wikipedia, “By 1925, there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs in New York City alone.

How about them apples?

There were other ramifications as well. Before the 1920 implementation of Prohibition, about 14 percent of federal, state, and local tax revenues came from the alcohol business. But when the Great Depression hit, and other tax revenues dropped, governments desperately needed this income source — millions could be generated by taxing beer alone. Note: on March 22, 1933, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt signed an authorization allowing the manufacture and sale of beer with 3.2 percent alcohol by weight — approximately 4 percent alcohol by volume. Hmm.

There were other factors at play — such as the notorious and violent gangster mobs that were involved with illegal alcohol activities. Anyway, the great social experiment of Prohibition ended when the 18th Amendment was repealed on Dec. 5, 1933, with ratification of the 21st Amendment. But the legacy of Prohibition still lingers today including strict regulation of the production, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Think of that the next time you go to the state liquor store.

OK, moving on from “then” to “now.”

Most everybody knows about the great hue and cry of how “single-use” plastic bags are one of the greatest hazards to the planet and must be abandoned. Several states and companies, including a major grocery store chain serving this area, have decided to eliminate these bags in the interest of public welfare. The preferred replacements are bags of cloth or other durable material. Well, some interesting reports have begun surfacing about the results of this movement.

For one thing, single-use bags are often used to discard kitchen rubbish, to line waste baskets and similar purposes. Studies show that where single-use bags are banned, the sale of other plastic trash bags has increased. Apparently elimination of one type of plastic bag has resulted in their replacement by other types. Other studies show that durable bags must be used a number of times to compensate for the greater environmental costs in making the bags. For example, a cotton bag must be used 50 to 150 times — and a paper bag eight times. Oops.

But there’s more.

Researchers have found that reusable bags very often harbor multiple bacteria, including e coli. You see, these grocery bags frequently come into contact with poultry, meats, and produce that have bacteria on them and cross contamination can occur. Unless the bags are sanitized after each use, which is rarely the case, these bacteria can easily multiply while the bag is awaiting its next trip to the grocery — and some stores have banned reusable bags because of health-hazard concerns. Whoda thunk we would be putting bag washing right up there with hand washing to protect ourselves from lurking germs and such.

Well, there isn’t enough space today to go into how the recently passed legislation authorizing hundreds of billions of dollars to assist small businesses weather the crisis caused by the country’s “shutdown” in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, the rules, regulations, and restrictions governing this program are very likely to result in, not the rescue of small businesses, but their failure. But that story of unintended consequences will have to wait for another time.

At least that’s how it seems to me.


Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor, a regular contributing columnist and local area resident, may be contacted at [email protected].