Pandora’s Box

Pandora’s Box is an idea rooted in Greek mythology.  The box was something that was opened (against advice).  After the box was opened, there were unintended consequences.

I am fascinated by unintended consequences.  I’ve written about them before.  I was prompted to write about this idea last year, when a pilot locked himself in an airliner, and flew the plane into a mountainside, killing everyone on the plane.  When we decided to install locks on cockpit doors, the intended consequence was to keep the “bad people” out of the cockpit.  The unintended consequence is that sometimes the “bad people” might already be in the cockpit.


The automobile was invented by Karl Benz in 1885.  I wasn’t there, but that’s what the internet says, so it must be true.  I spend a lot of time in my car, so I think about cars a lot.

I wonder what Karl Benz would think about traffic jams, drunk driving, car accidents, and L.A. freeways.  I wonder what he would have thought about OPEC, and wars fought over access to oil.

When he invented the automobile, I’m sure he wasn’t thinking about road rage.


The Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk was in 1903.  I spend a lot of time on airplanes, so I think about air travel a lot, too. That first flight happened around the same time that my grandparents were born.  At the time of my grandparents birth, no one said “let’s go to the airport”, because there was no airport to go to.

I wonder what Orville and Wilbur Wright would say about 9/11.  I wonder what their reaction would be to cockpit voice recorders, security lines at O’Hare Airport, or sitting in the middle seat on a red-eye flight.


Antibiotics did not exist 100 years ago.  Penicillin was discovered in the 1920’s, and the sulfonamides were discovered in the 1930’s.  Penicillin was widely used in the 1940’s as a result of commercial production.

When Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in his petri dish in the 1920’s, I wonder what his reaction would be to antibiotic resistance and super-organisms?


The first pension plan was created by the American Express Company in 1875.  My grandparents and parents expected to receive pensions as part of their lifetime employment with one company.  Pensions lost popularity in the 1970’s, and started being replaced with employee-funded plans, like 401ks.  The point of employee-funded plans was to shift the responsibility for retirement savings over to us as individuals.

When we turned the responsibility for retirement savings over to us, we opened a Pandora’s Box.  The median (midpoint) 401k balance in the United States is less than $30,000.  (For fans of statistics, the average 401k balance is over $100,000.  The average is higher than the midpoint because a small group of people have very large 401k balances.  But the “midpoint” of balances is about $30,000). That $30,000, plus Social Security, is all that we have saved for our retirement.  That $30,000 balance needs to last a lot longer than it did when my grandparents were saving for retirement. Their expected lifespan was only 70 years.  My physician and my financial planner say that I should plan on living to 95.

Our parents and grandparents were raised expecting to be taken care of by their pensions.  Now we have no pensions, and many of us have no retirements savings.


I am not opposed to progress.  I love progress.  My life is richer and more rewarding as a result of air travel and automobiles, and I imagine I might not be alive without antibiotics.

My point is that the inventors of planes, cars, antibiotics and pensions could never have imagined how we would use their inventions.


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