Monday, February 26, 2007

Unintended Consequences

Have you ever heard the story of the man who was tired of being just another unknown, un-famous person? He hatched a plan, buying dozens of pairs of red socks with the idea of being known as "the guy who always wears red socks". His plan didn't quite work out as he had hoped. He became known instead as "the man who never changed his socks".
What we're talking about here is the law of unintended consequences, in which a course of action is taken to produce a certain results, but instead causes something else to happen. We all know people who have fallen victim to this principle: the young girl who wants control over her body, but then suffers from an eating disorder: the athlete who forgets that he will not always be able to excel in physical competition and neglects skills which can sustain him when his playing days are gone: a parent who raises his children to be independent, only to find himself alone when they grow up.
It shouldn't be surprising that the same thing happens to nations, both in the way they govern themselves and in their foreign policy. The presidential race is a good example. The demands of running are enormous, both emotionally and financially. Anyone who makes it through the partisan abuse and mano a mano confrontations of a campaign is by definition a tough, thick-skinned person. That in itself isn't bad, but what does this say about that same person's ability to relate to the most vulnerable, helpless members of that society? A guy like Dick Cheney can be a big help in an election campaign, but then whose job is it to see that the person in charge of disaster relief is a compassionate individual and not simply a party hack?
The US saw the opportunity to cement relations with two major oil producers in the First Gulf conflict by offering military protection to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The unintended consequence? A young Saudi oligarch, Osama bin Laden, vows vengeance for American troops occupying (even to help!) Saudi Arabia's sacred soil, bringing uncovered women and alcohol-drinking soldiers where they were not wanted. Al Qaeda is formed as an instrument of righteous retribution. Following the 9/11 attacks, US troops displace the government of Afghanistan, the ultra-orthodox Taliban. Unexpected consequence? The country reverts to cultivating its main cash crop, processed heroin, bringing down the world price and inadvertently helping recruit a new generation of addicts. The military occupation of Iraq produces the surprising results of distrust and fear towards the US by its longtime allies, squandering the sympathy we stood to benefit from after 9/11.
Is this a subtle concept requiring advanced levels of understanding at the highest decision-making level? Maybe, but how sophisticated can it be if I, a guy with an out-of-date BA degree, can explain it? It is government's job to the make the best decisions possible. You can't get it done by saying over and over that "all options are on the table", which means"We'll attack again when and where we damn well please". The Bush administration went through six years of a lay-down Congress willing to endorse pretty much any decision they made. Can we please finally find them responsible for their screwups? Please?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Presidents Day

If anyone needed proof that the United States was set up as a commercial-based nation, as opposed to ethnic-based (Japan) or religion-based (Pakistan) or even ideology-based (North Korea), all you have to do is look around a little on this half-holiday. Wherever you see the words "Presidents Day", the word which follows is "Sale!". The nation's merchants have things going just on the chance that some poor sucker has the day off and a few extra bucks he can spend. Otherwise, we'd have to actually think about something - past presidents. And THAT, thinking, is not something we like doing, especially when its about (eeuuwww) history.
I'm not ashamed to say I like history. It's sad that most people couldn't name the past five presidents if you put a gun to their heads. I think you can tell quite a bit about our presidents as people if you know just a few events in their lives. Truman never went to college, but learned enough about music to follow the scores on paper while listening at concerts of the National Symphony Orchestra. Lincoln helped prepare legislation in Illinois by offering to help illiterate colleagues. Taft's pictures make him look like a slob, but he had been a baseball player and horseback rider (!). Still, they did have to rebuild the White House bathtub for him. When Harding died, they had to send a messenger to where V.P. Calvin Coolidge was staying in Maine because there was no electricity or phone service. Silent Cal then took the oath of office from his father, a local Justice of the Peace. Nixon financed his law school tuition with card game winnings from his days in the Navy. Doesn't everyone find this stuff fascinating?
Still, you have to start with Washington. You could make a pretty good case that there would have been no USA without him. He wasn't perfect, but he seemed to learn from his mistakes so quickly that, unlike almost all people who become less competent as their status rises, Washington actually got better, and, by the time he became president, was acutely aware of the nature of his job. He knew that nearly everything he did would set some kind of precedent, and so he was careful not to overuse his powers, spelled out in the new Constitution but untested in practice. Retiring after two terms in office was a master stroke that proved he had no plan to turn the country into his private fiefdom in a world where kings were still the norm.
And we can't forget Lincoln. He succeeded by taking a very different line from Washington. He expanded his own constitutional powers in pursuit of a single goal, preserving the union, even when his smarty-pants Cabinet officers were ready to let the Rebels go and form their own country. Who would have guessed that a guy who first became well-known for his ability to handle an ax would also turn out to be the best writer we ever had as president. Would his second term have been successful? It's hard to say, but just about anyone would have been better in the job than his successor, Andrew Johnson.
I could go on and on. Some presidents like Grant and Lyndon Johnson were better at their former jobs, general and senator, respectively. Only a few, notably Taft and Hoover, took on big tasks following their terms as president, though Carter gets a nod for going to some pretty awful places to offer genuine Christian service. Harding and Buchanan were clearly in over their heads, while others like FDR and Reagan (yes, I know I'm saying something nice about the Gipper) always seemed to strike the right note to let us know things were in good hands. Kennedy was dashing and handled the Cuban Missile Crisis better than others might have. All the bearded guys between Grant and Teddy Roosevelt just stuck to domestic issues, letting the business tycoons mostly have their way with the country while ignoring the issue of race.
Our incumbent is about as unpopular as it's possible for a president to be, and I can't say he's my favorite. But history can be surprising. These things get rehashed constantly, and past presidents can rise or fall in the historical pecking order. Eisenhower looks better now than he used to, and Teddy Roosevelt doesn't look as Mt. Rushmore-worthy. Ford looked bad when he pardoned Nixon, but now it appears (at least to many) that he did the right thing. So there's hope yet for Bush 43, but you probably won't hear it from me first.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Things I Don't Get

As you might tell from the pic that accompanies this space, my age isn't necessarily the best thing about me. I have a good number of older friends, and so am aware of all the things I have to look forward to physically, but I try hard not to say things that sound "old". How old am I? Old enough to recall Eisenhower, Little Stevie Wonder, The Cuban Missile Crisis, and Annette Funicello, if that helps. But I'm also young enough to know that admitting you don't "get" something is like admitting you already have one foot in geezerdom. Personally, I don't think you have to be as old as Andy Rooney to confess that some things, popular though they may be, just don't make sense. And since no one's paying me, it's not like I must claim never to be surprised at anything in order to keep my pundit's license.
Take rap, for instance. I know that rap is connected to hiphop, and that almost every rapper has a name spelled with "Z"'s. Beyond that, I don't know what makes one rapper succeed and another fail. Nor do I have a clue why rappers would use big nasty weapons on each other. I bet many of you are in the same boat, but are afraid to admit it.
NASCAR is hugely popular, but I don't really understand why. I'm told that watching a NASCAR race is very stimulating to the senses, but that fact just doesn't carry over into TV, where I would watch a race if there was only one channel working. I only reluctantly concede that NASCAR drivers are athletes in a general kind of way. I don't believe that Dale Earnhardt takes over for God when the latter goes on vacation.
See how easy it is to admit your ignorance of things others may consider earth-changing? I also don't understand much about real estate. The money required to own a home in this smaller west coast city is, to me, breathtaking. What got you a pretty fine home back in the midwest might get you a shack here, even though wages here seem pretty modest. True, we've also been about 50 degrees warmer lately than the folks back in the Frost Belt. Think there's any connection?
Internet marketing leaves me puzzled about how certain items can be sold via mouse click. Don't you have to try on a pair of shoes before buying them? And how can used cars be sold this way? Or used anything, for that matter? I suppose used things are like people - they don't have to seem attractive to everyone, just to someone.
In fact, business in general isn't really my strong suit. Sure, the object is to end up with more money than you had last year, hopefully without making new enemies or skipping all the little fees that go with commerce. But who do you hire, who do you fire, who do you promote and who do you really trust? Those, and a hundred others, are business questions for some kind of capitalist Solomon, not me. All I can say is that, like Edison, I've found about a thousand methods of not generating a profit and so I must salute those with the ability to turn a dollar without appearing to work too hard.
At the top of the list of things I don't get is homosexuality. I'm wired the other way, but it's not so much a lack of experience as just a lack of understanding. I know they've been around forever, and that they can come from everywhere and from any family. I know no one would choose to be gay, since it must complicate lives way past what most people are used to, not to mention making life more dangerous. I know that people can and do hide this tendency, as is their right. But if it's genetic, then wouldn't it show up more in certain populations more than others? Or in both identical twins? Why do some societies seem to deal with it more easily than others? I remember a book from many years ago entitled "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask". Perhaps the gay version would also be a big seller. But then again, a good businessman probably already has that project under way.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Why Scooter Matters

All right, no one will make fun of you if you admit that the Scooter Libby trial in Washington is not on the top of your list of concerns. But a little review can get us up to speed.
It all got started when a former US ambassador, Joseph Wilson, was sent in 2002 to the African country of Niger to check out a rumor that people from Saddam Hussein's Iraq had been seen around looking to purchase enriched uranium, presumably to construct nuclear weapons. It still isn't clear who gave him the order, but his two week trip turned up nothing that the administration could pretend was real evidence to support the rumor. Nevertheless, President Bush cited the rumor anyway, quoting "British intelligence", in his 2003 State of the Union address, which itself was a major event in the runup to the Iraq invasion.
Wilson did not take it well that his findings had been ignored and wrote an article which appeared in the New York Times stating that his trip had turned up nothing and suggesting there had been NO weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Since WMD was the chief justification to the public for war, high level Bush folks felt it was necessary to attack Wilson, and did so to the press, revealing in the process that Wilson's wife Valerie Plame worked for the CIA. Not surprisingly, many of these attacks came from the office of Dick Cheney, whose chief of staff was I. Louis "Scooter" Libby.
There was only one problem with that strategy. It's illegal to reveal the occupation of certain CIA employees. It's a felony. So when that little fact became known, Bush stifled a yawn to say that it was a big administration, and finding a leaker might turn out to be impossible. He would nevertheless do all he could to find the villain, and that anyone who leaked classified stuff would be out of his administration. No, he didn't say that he would start the investigation by asking the Vice President if HE knew anything about it.
Charges never came on the leak itself, but Libby was charged with lying to a grand jury, also a felony. The trial was scheduled conveniently post-election, and is now I think in its third week. The soft-hearted need not worry that a guy named "Scooter" could be in harm's way in a prison because even if Libby is convicted (and thus far several witnesses have backed the prosecution), he surely would be pardoned by Bush. Mr. Libby may depend on the kindness of strangers in the future, but they are liable to be the kind of stranger who could put you in a cushy spot on someone's board of directors.
But here's the purpose of this piece. Scooter Libby matters because the court proceedings reveal the vice president's office as a place where character assassination, lying and fear mongering are just tools of the trade. There are no regrets that Valerie Plame's career is ended, or that other people who served with her in phony CIA front operations are put into danger. No one worries that Plame has been assigned to work on finding out about the Iran nuclear program and that losing her expertise might be problematic. No one protests that men and women who serve as ambassadors are not exactly the stuff of rebellions and that, after all, Wilson was just telling what turned out to be the truth. ALL OF THAT is thought to be secondary to controlling the message and maintaining the myth du jour of Iraqi WMDs even though the CIA had an informer in Saddam's inner circle who was positive no Iraqi nuclear program existed.
So, parents, you have permission to dread the day your high-achieving son or daughter declares an ambition to enter government service as a way to "make a difference." His/her career may be expendable, depending on the whims of "high level officials". You may want to counsel them to consider joining a rock band instead.