Jul/Aug 2003 Salon

"Unintended Consequences" and Other Irritants

In which the author betrays a slight
sense of annoyance on several topics

by Paul Sampson

Let me begin by paying overdue homage to a long-dead writer. Sidney J. Harris was a columnist for the also long-dead and deeply mourned Chicago Daily News. I grew up reading Sid's daily column, which he called "Strictly Personal." Sid was one of the products of the University of Chicago's great liberal arts program, and his erudition showed in his columns. But he did not write his column for the professors; he was a newspaperman, not an academic.

Most of his pieces were tightly composed little essays, usually on the liberal side of the spectrum, always neatly argued and never mere attempts to start or win a fight. But once in a while—maybe it was once a week, I forget—he would let himself go a little with a column he called "Purely Personal Prejudices." In these, he'd indulge himself in wisecracks instead of reasoning, unsupported statements instead of careful arguments. Most were one-liners, and I wish I could quote some from memory, but I can't. I looked on the Internet for some samples, and found these little pseudo-syllogisms, which are pretty pure Harris:

"I am prudent.
You are timid.
He is afraid of his own shadow."

"I am relaxed.
You are disorganized.
She is a slob."

The next day, of course, it was back to the logic shop and the cool, reasoned, witty little daily position papers on culture, politics, or whatever else caught his generous mind.

Well, Sid, here's one for you. Here are some short sharp slaps I've been saving up. My own Purely Personal Prejudices. I'll get them all off my chest at once, and then (maybe) next issue I'll go back to being the Voice of Reason that all (both?) my readers expect.


Unintended Consequences

We have heard and read the phrase "unintended consequences" a lot over the past few years. I've used it myself. Now I'm starting to feel uncomfortable with it.

"Unintended consequences" should be the stuff of jokes, the practical jokes that life plays on us. We set out innocently to cut the grass and disable the sprinkler system. We try out a foreign phrase and offend someone. We make a light remark and are taken seriously.

But we (and I do include myself) have been using the phrase too glibly in describing public actions. I think we have been letting the leaders off too easy by calling their catastrophes "unintended consequences."

For example, Bush leads his Coalition of the Willing (I can't say that aloud without snorting) into war against Iraq. Surprise! They win. And further surprise! It isn't over when it's over. Casualties mount daily and it becomes more and more clear that the war is far from over and may never be ended. An "unintended consequence."

"Collateral damage" is perhaps the most severe kind of unintended consequence. We drop tons of high explosives in a city, intending to kill Saddam Hussein. Surprise! We kill some other people instead. That's surely an unintended consequence.

Sorry, that isn't good enough. When you fully intend an action and carry it out after careful planning, you have to accept the fact that you are responsible for all the consequences. When an outcome is as predictable as dead civilians in a bomb-target zone, it's a pernicious evasion to call this an unintended consequence. No, it's an entirely expected outcome, and you intended it as the price you were willing to pay for your announced aim (which, not incidentally, we failed to achieve).

That's the war scenario. Then there's the domestic one, in which the unannounced consequence, the specifically denied consequence, is clearly the intended outcome.

The announced policy is to Reduce Taxes. This is trumpeted as so good a thing that no one could oppose it. It will have no downside.

Oh yeah? The unintended consequences are so obviously inevitable that nobody can call them unintended. The announced policy is to "reduce the size and power of Big Government." Translation: The GOP clearly intends to destroy, eliminate, dismantle, bury, kill, and otherwise do away with the New Deal. The target is Social Security. They want it dead.

They are starting with such extensions of the New Deal as Medicare, which they intend to kill by selling it to their pals in the insurance racket—uh, business. This will be called "giving our Senior Citizens a choice." As usual, the choice will be "take it or leave it." The public version of Medicare will be stripped so bare that no one will want it. The "free market" versions will be the worst screwing ever administered to the aged and aging of this country.

"Unintended consequences," my ass. They hate the poor. And they will impoverish as many of us as they can so we will work cheap. Then they will tell us to love them because they are "creating jobs." Notice the Godlike verb; they have a little difficulty telling their own will from that of the Almighty.


Weapons of Masked Deception

At this writing, still no luck in finding so much as a contaminated pair of pliers, but we are asked to believe in the Second Coming of the Weapons, which were there before and will be there again.

I almost hate to write this one down, because it will be buried under five or six new layers of official manure before I can publish it, but here goes: Now Rumsfeld says "Maybe the Iraqis destroyed the weapons before we could get over there and find them." In other words, Donald, they may have complied with our demand that they destroy their weapons or we would invade them? Hmmmm. Oddly, the Iraqis neglected to mention this destruction to us, which would have saved us all a spot of bother. (This version actually turned up in a comic strip recently. Art imitates life, or the reverse; it doesn't matter.)


Rally Round the Flag

I am absolutely furious at the extreme Right for hijacking the Flag, and at the Left for letting them get away with it. These self-described "patriots" are anti-American tax dodgers, and they are ruining the country by shipping our wealth and the jobs that created our wealth out of the country as fast as they can shovel.

This is painfully easy to demonstrate, but I will recommend an entertaining source of True Horror Stories that demonstrate how the corporations are usurping the prerogatives of government, without the bother of such niggling obligations as taxpaying. Read Pigs at the Trough by Arianna Huffington. It's currently available, published by Crown, and your library has it if our vibrant economy has left you unable to afford your own copy.

One of the more disgusting aspects of all this: the same companies that hide out from the taxman when it's their turn to pay are first in line for their cut of the tax money when they sell their wares to the Government. Tyco, for instance, beat Uncle Sam out of more than $400 million in 2001. But since 2001, Tyco has sold the U.S. Government more than $1 billion worth of its services.

And on and on it goes. Read Huffington; she'll get your heart rate and blood pressure up to aerobic levels by the second chapter.

You don't have to be a mega-corporation to get on the gravy train, just greedy and cynical. The benefits that accrue to good citizens of Bushland are manifold and rich. I do mean rich. For instance, those enormous SUVs: If you buy them for a business, you can depreciate their entire cost against your taxes. This is only for the biggest models, like the Hummer and the Ford Exhibitionist—pardon me, Expedition—anyway, the heaviest, least efficient, most road-crushing models available. The "business" can, of course, consist of your sole sweet self, doing whatever you like, assuming you are any good at all at filling out forms. (This was billed as benefiting small farmers, who could depreciate their trucks as business vehicles. They already could, of course, but please do not allow sordid reality to cloud the picture of a benevolent Administration lifting the heavy yoke of taxation from the necks of the American People.)

So if you want a $50,000-plus plaything that weighs in excess of 6,000 pounds, get one! Then fiddle the taxman to pay yourself back! Hey, what's the point of being rich if you have to actually pay for what you want? You're entitled, Pal! Help yourself!

Better still, if you do in fact have a business, incorporate it on some island with a nice climate and an understanding tax structure. Why should you pay taxes to the U.S. Government, just because it provides you a nice country to live in, nice laws to keep your employees manageable, nice soldiers and policemen to defend you, nice legal advice to assist you through the tax process? Just do what so many of our intensely patriotic corporations do, and headquarter in (say) the Bahamas, like my former employer, Tyco International.

That's the little shop run until recently by L. Dennis Kozlowski. For a summary of his compensation ($62,401,080 in 2001) and how he "earned" it, see http://www.aflcio.org/corporateamerica/paywatch/jobsecurity/case_tyco.cfm (Tyco's own web site at tyco.com announces that "Tyco celebrated the Guide to Ethical Conduct rollout on May 6th." I think I will spare myself reading that, lest my lunch roll out.)

Of course, my view of Tyco is biased by the fact that they bought the business that employed me—a good, highly profitable business—and stripped it to rags, fired nearly everyone (including me—I told you I was biased) and used the transactions to perform breathtaking legerdemain with the books, which has already impoverished many Tyco stockholders and former employees and may yet, God willing, land Kozlowski in jail.


Chicken Hawks

Why give these swine soft names? They are physical cowards who believe they have the right to send brave men out to die for their own political advantage. They deserve the deepest scorn and probably deserve long prison terms. How much time in Hell they ought to get I leave up to the theologians.

Let us begin with the Chicken in Chief. George Bush's patrons got him out of service in Vietnam and into a Texas Air National Guard slot, bypassing a long waiting list of applicants. There he learned to fly high-performance jet fighters, F-102s. Here I speak as an aviator myself. Any pilot worthy of the name would crawl through broken glass to fly these ships. Instead, our hero turned up AWOL and his military records turned up missing. Apparently flying, showing up for training, and earning his lieutenant's pay was too much trouble, or perhaps it interfered with his other hobby, which seems to have involved nose candy.

But no soul is lost forever. Apparently Georgie is now doing makeup drills. We all saw him landing on an aircraft carrier shortly after the TV crews finished setting up the cameras. We haven't seen the last of that footage. Wait until Campaign 2004. Since he still has a bunch of missed Guard meetings to make up, we should see a lot of him in his flight suit.

And what of the rest of the chicken flock? Let's take a look.

They are in the Government and in the ranks of the President's closest friends and most influential advisors. Their names are familiar to everyone with a TV set. Here are some of those names.

Dick Cheney, who told a reporter that he "had other priorities" which precluded service in Vietnam; Elliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Andrew Card, John Ashcroft, Bob Barr, Gary Bauer, Dennis Hastert, Tom DeLay, Phil Gramm, Trent Lott... and on and on; you can find convenient lists on the Internet. Just type "Chicken Hawks+Bush Administration" into a search engine and stand back. Google gave me "about 2,520" listings in a quarter of a second. (Why "about" 2,520? For shame, Google! Be specific! If you have more, cough them up! If you have only, say, 2,518, say so.)

To be fair, let us note that Donald Rumsfeld is a Navy veteran; he flew jets between the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Somehow he managed not to have any remaining Reserve obligation when Vietnam started, but as I said, let us be fair. He's a vet, just like his boss George W. Bush, that other gallant military aviator.

The Chicken Hawks made much of Clinton's draft dodging. They forget to mention their own, and they especially forget that Clinton opposed the Vietnam War, and avoided fighting in it, while they supported it at the top of their lungs, and used whatever excuse they could find or buy to avoid fighting in it themselves.

These cowardly liars now have had their own war, in which they risked not a finger of their own, but in which they created pools of the blood of the brave. In this gore they dip the Flag and wave it at anyone who wanted to try a different path.

They have no honor or decency. They are incapable of shame. They are disgusting.

In the 1960s and 70s, they all had good excuses not to go to war alongside the men they now claim to admire. But excuses are what they are good at. Look at the number of reasons they cooked up to send others to war in Iraq. When one failed to convince the skeptical, they found another. And another. They run this poor dear nation.


And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

It has somehow become fashionable to say that George W. Bush is really a pretty smart fellow. My fellow Americans, do not be deluded. This man is as dumb as a bag of doorknobs. He skated through college on a smile and his father's legacy as a famous Yalie, and on the certain knowledge that the university's administration would castrate any teacher who flunked him. Although he was a "C" student on his record, he was admitted to the most prestigious and selective graduate business school in the country and was duly shunted through and given an MBA. Gee, I bet his classmates are proud to have the same credential that was awarded to this specimen of Harvard scholarship.


The Church Militant

Sorry, I have no further time for Christians who love war and hate the poor. I have no further use for their tiny-minded morality, their whining about being "persecuted" at the hands of people who do not like having ignorant, bullying yahoos shoving their half-witted religion into the public address systems at high school football games.

In fairness, though (and I am justly famous for my fairness, am I not? Yes!), let me put an unkind rumor to rest. It is probably not true that Ari Fleischer has agreed to be baptized by Dr. Franklin Graham at the next Republican National Convention.

But if he does, Fox will broadcast it exclusively. You read it here first.


The F-Word

If John Ashcroft is not a fascist, then the word is utterly without meaning. Not that it's easy to get one single satisfactory definition of fascism, which has taken several distinct forms. Nevertheless, most people agree that it includes such points as these, which I have cribbed and condensed from one of those delightful individual web sites that are the glory of the Internet. It is by Bryan Zepp Jamieson, and you can find his whole essay at http://www.zeppscommentaries.com/Politics/fascism.htm

· Fascism is an economic system geared to the needs, not of the people, but of the wealthy elite;
· Although it involves very powerful centralized control, often in the hands of a dictator, it is usually a republican form of government, in which citizens may vote for the leadership (though, historically, the choices have often been a sham);
· It features extreme forms of nationalism. Fascism creates "enemies of the fatherland" in order to gain public support. These "enemies" usually include liberals, socialists, trade unionists, and conspicuous minority groups;
· Fascism often claims to be traditional, calling this conservatism; and
· Fascism attempts to replace a free press with propaganda.

For those who like more traditional (conservative?) sources, here are some gleanings from the Columbia Encyclopedia:

"First and most important is the glorification of the state and the total subordination of the individual to it.

"A second ruling concept of fascism is embodied in the theory of social Darwinism. The doctrine of survival of the fittest and the necessity of struggle for life are applied by fascists to the life of a nation-state. Peaceful, complacent nations are seen as doomed to fall before more dynamic ones, making struggle and aggressive militarism a leading characteristic of the fascist state. Imperialism is the logical outcome of this dogma.

"Another element of fascism is its elitism. Salvation from rule by the mob and the destruction of the existing social order can be effected only by an authoritarian leader who embodies the highest ideals of the nation."

And here are some clips from the Founding Fascist, Benito Mussolini:

"...For Fascism, the growth of empire, that is to say the expansion of the nation, is an essential manifestation of vitality, and its opposite a sign of decadence. Peoples which are rising, or rising again after a period of decadence, are always imperialist; and renunciation is a sign of decay and of death."

And: "...The Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone..."

In other words, we know what's good for you, and we will save you from such useless and possibly harmful freedoms as political dissent, immunity from government snooping, and association with people we suspect of subversion, which we and we alone will define. We are far too slick to be openly racist, but we will demonize, isolate, marginalize, and persecute the miniscule and powerless Islamic part of our population, and we will blame our poorest immigrants for as much of our economic failure as we can. Our new motto:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses willing to work cheap."

Nobody in possession of his wits would call Ashcroft an intellectual (just an ideologue; his boneheaded religiosity alone keeps him at arm's length from the thinkers), but the fascists have plenty of well-credentialed intellectuals to articulate their position: Wolfowitz, Rice, Richard Perle, Andrew Card, and all the bloody-minded professors* at the Heritage Foundation and the rest of the Right-wing think tanks. They are imperialists to the last man and woman, and they are fascists in all but name.

*I swiped this phrase from somewhere and will gladly credit it if someone will tell me the correct source. I tried looking it up and found it attributed variously to Churchill, to Robert Conquest, and to Peter Vierek, and all of them were cited in some mighty bad prose by some mighty self-regarding windbags. But no matter. It's a good description of theoreticians, Right, Left, or Elsewhere, who want to enact their theories with the bodies and blood of others. The current crop in the U.S. are mainly of the Right. Today's Left ideologues seem to think that a good talking-to will suffice to impose improved behavior on the rest of us.


The Greenie Weenies

Oh, so you think I'm one of them tree-huggers, huh? Well, I would rather hug a tree than some of their most vocal supporters. Those of us who truly want to preserve the natural world, and to allow actual human beings to live in it, are getting just a little testy with this bunch.

The Green Party ought to do public penance for their role in delivering this suffering nation—and its beleaguered remnants of Nature—into the hands of the Far Right. Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky ought to be humanely live-trapped and released into the wilderness, where they can do no further harm to themselves or others.

The arrogance of a "political party" that cannot elect a majority on a small-town school board, but spends huge amounts of energy and money running AGAINST the national candidate who supports their views, is simply staggering. These feckless political whiners and ninnies ought to be laughed into oblivion. When they learn the rudiments of politics, starting with the words "coalition" and "compromise," they may be worth listening to. In the meantime, they should shut the hell up. They are spoilers, wreckers, self-righteous assholes one and all. Their logic seems to proceed from the premise that Man is an evil cancer infecting Nature. I beg to differ. Boy, do I beg to differ.


The Kleptocrats

"Kleptocracy" is a Greek-derived word meaning "rule by thieves." We're not quite there yet, but not for want of trying.

As through this world I wander
I meet lots of funny men.
Some'll rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen.
-Woody Guthrie, "The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd"

First, let us take a moment to examine that monument to high-level theft, our Vice President. Dick Cheney left his position as CEO of Halliburton to take up his duties as Bush's co-pilot. Then he helped to engineer a deal whereby, as we started a war with Iraq, we awarded certain enormous contracts to Halliburton and its subsidiaries to clean up the mess we would make. This was done without even a pretense of a bidding process.

Well, he had quit his job, hadn't he? So what's the problem?

Oh, grow up. It's illegal to profit from your position in Government, and it is also illegal to funnel Government business to your buddies. Cheney is as crooked as a dog's hind leg. He ought to be in jail.

He won't be. Neither will Ken Lay, who headed the pirate crew at Enron, which was only one of the outrageous criminal bands that we watched parade across our screens in the last couple of years.

Neither will Don Carty or his henchmen at AMR, who led American Airlines to near-ruin, and in the processed impoverished thousands of workers and stockholders. They avoided bankruptcy literally on the backs of their workers, whose willingness to accept serious, life-worsening cuts in pay and benefits (which they had thought were protected by contracts) saved the company. The leadership team "accepted" no or meaningless cuts in its own pay and perks, because "it was important to retain senior management," which would otherwise defect. RETAIN these bozos? Why weren't all of them fired? They ruined a perfectly good airline, made themselves invulnerably rich in the process-and now they want job security for doing so? (They achieved their spectacular failures, by the way, after their industry got the deregulation they had whined for. Deregulation applies only to the rich. The poor are regulated within an inch of their wretched lives.)

There is a science to all this. As in physics, energy not used to do actual work is given off as heat. In "economic science," this heat is used to inflate the salaries and privileges of the bosses. "Economic science" is an analog of "creation science."


The Democrats, Alas

I am still a Democrat, because I am still a small-d democrat, and I still hold some fragile, dwindling hope that my party will find its misplaced soul and resume its role as the people's party.

But in the meantime, I am served daily helpings of prominent Democrats who covet the Presidency, acting like tame pussycats. Too many Democrats have either fallen for the GOP line or are too cowardly to stand up against Frat Boy and his handlers. Their timid "Yes, but..." objections are useless and laughable. A spot in Hell is being heated for them even as we speak.

It's time, and long past time, for the Democrats to fight back hard. We must call Bush and his crooked pals the lying, murderous sons of bitches they truly are. We must snatch the Flag back from their blasphemous paws and restore it to its place at the head of our own party, in the hands of our own people.

We may confidently expect that they will call us traitors. Fine. Quote Patrick Henry right back at them: "If this be treason, make the most of it!" He was not interested in spinning his words to comfort the cowardly. Patrick Henry was an American patriot. We need to claim him now.


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