Will’s World Unintended Consequences

By Will Carlin

In 1897, a retired professor from a small northeast region of France, was named the Governor-General of French Indochina. Paul Doumer, who would later become President of France, lived in Hanoi, and one of his missions was to rebuild the city to make it no less than the most beautiful city in Asia, representing the very best of French civilization.

Before long, many of the things we associate with Paris—monuments, bridges and wide, wide streets—were becoming part of Hanoi. And for French colonists, their homes were outfitted with many modern conveniences, like running water and flush toilets.

In order to make flush toilets, of course, you first need to make a sewer system. Shortly after the sewer system was laid, two groups moved into new homes: wealthy French colonists who moved into their stately new villas with plumbing and a very different population who found the sewers themselves terrific living quarters: rats.

In early 1902, Doumer began receiving complaints that rats were crawling up and out of toilet bowls into the some of the nicest homes in the city. This wasn’t only an affront to elite colonist sensibilities, but with the rats and sewers also came increasing outbreaks of bubonic plague in well-to-do neighborhoods.

Understanding the mechanics of disease transfer was relatively new to the world, but it didn’t take long for Doumer to realize that this was not just a simple unpleasant fact of life but an issue that needed to be tackled immediately; he hired numerous Vietnamese exterminators to go down into the sewers and kill the rats.

Wanting fast results, Doumer told the rat catchers that they would be compensated for each rat they caught and killed. The initial results of this incentive scheme were promising: for the first week of the program, rat catchers killed an average of over 1,100 rats per day.

Emboldened by these results, Doumer expanded the program to all Vietnamese residents by declaring a public bounty on the rats. To collect the cash reward, people simply had to bring in the rats’ tails as proof of their kills.

The number of rats caught skyrocketed, and the French officials were ecstatic, feeling that their program was really making a dent into the rat population.

But it didn’t stop. Daily counts topped 4,000 by May and 10,000 by June. On June 12 of 1902, 20,114 rats were handed over to the French, nearly 20 times the initial catch. Had the program really been working, the quantity of rodents captured should have started to go down as rats became increasingly harder to find. But the results were going the other way. Fast.

Confused and concerned by the numbers, the French began to investigate. What they found horrified them. Just outside central Hanoi, there were farms where Vietnamese were growing rats, cutting off their tails and bringing them into city hall to collect the bounty. The rat problem had worsened, and it would take years to get under control.

So who was at fault? The farmers who began to breed rats or the officials who hadn’t fully thought through the unintended consequences of their incentive scheme?

This past summer, at the Olympics, there was a scandal in a fellow racquet sport. Eight female badminton players were disqualified for trying to lose matches. Doubles players from China, South Korea and Indonesia were accused of playing to lose so they could face easier opponents in future matches.

The castigation of these players was immediate and nearly universal. Olympic officials, badminton officials, and the media all jumped on board quickly. A number of squash players tweeted about their disappointment in the players (and how squash would be different were it in the Games).

The matches themselves were ridiculous; when both teams want to lose, it is bizarre to watch. The fans were right to boo.

The problem, however, may not have been the players, but the set up. They were involved in a format familiar to many squash players: two round robins with the top two teams in each group advancing to the semifinals. The winners of each group would play the second place finisher from the opposite group.

This is a system with the incentives seemingly well in place. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

In the 1981 year-end tennis Masters tournament in Madison Square Garden, Bjorn Borg was the number one seed and almost definitively the best player in the game. After ensuring that he would be one of the top two finishers in his pool, he was upset by journeyman pro, Gene Mayer, 6-0, 6-3. Mayer, therefore, finished as the winner of the pool, with Borg second.

That match was played before the final match of the other pool, Jimmy Connors versus Ivan Lendl. The winner of the match, therefore, would play Borg in the semifinals, whereas the loser (and number two finisher) would play Mayer. Because of Borg’s upset, the incentives were now skewed dramatically. And Lendl, a very smart player who was unconcerned about what others thought of him, took advantage. He lost to Connors 7-6, 6-0, winning only six points in the second set.

Connors called Lendl a “chicken” and earned the love of the New York fans. But he lost to Borg in one semifinal while Lendl easily beat Mayer in the other. Borg beat Lendl in the finals, but it was close and Lendl got both the runner up ranking points and the significantly larger runner-up check.

Lendl never admitted that he tanked; he said that he changed his game plan, and it didn’t work out. But what was his responsibility? Was it wrong to do his best to maximize his income and his ranking points or did he have an obligation to the fans who paid to see him play against Connors? At the very least, the ethics aren’t black and white.

And there is still one big question: what would have happened if Connors had decided to act similarly?

Which brings us back to badminton. One thing is very clear: each team wanted desperately to win an Olympic medal, if not these particular matches. That they performed inelegantly is obvious; that they were the ones at fault is less so.

In Hanoi, the politicians didn’t think through what they were incentivizing, and thus there weren’t any rules forbidding bringing rat tails in from farms. Surely, though, the farmers knew that they were doing something… what? Unethical? Inappropriate? Wrong?

Or maybe just smart.