Results v. Spin

by Jonathan Wallace

An article in the New York Times this week described a contract to repair the damage to an oil pipeline traversing an Iraqi river. The original pipeline had run across a bridge we destroyed during the invasion. At some point after we declared victory, a decision had been made not to rebuild the bridge. Instead, one of the large engineering firms had been retained to run new pipes through the riverbed.

Very early on, engineers involved in the project had determined that this would not work. The riverbed, rather than being solid, was made up of piles of unstable, shifting rocks, which would likely break any pipes inserted through them. To pretend to any chance of success, the engineers had to use pipes of a thinner diameter than were optimal.

The company sensibly but rather dishonestly negotiated a contract which did not call for any results. It agreed that for a certain amount of time and money, it would simply try to run the pipes under the river. Very early on, everyone involved with the project knew that the goal of placing a working pipeline under the river using that solution would never be achieved--and it never was. However, instead of alerting the Army Corps of Engineers that the project had failed, the engineering company first ran out the contract, used up the entire period of time allotted and, more importantly, billed the maximum amount authorized for its efforts.

This very interesting and instructive story got me thinking again about the difference between results-oriented and spin-oriented culture. In the old academic chestnut about the five professors stranded on a desert island with a can of soup and no can-opener, the punchline is the economist's suggested solution: "Postulate a can-opener!" Add to that some rhetoric of accusation, and some self-praise--impugnment of the patriotism of anyone who dares suggest a merely physical solution, and a declaration of victory in the debate--and the dry old joke mirrors today's politics.

I find the origin of spin-oriented culture in the business mores that reached their apotheosis in the 1980's. Clever investment bankers and brokers began inventing new types of transactions and instruments in which actual tangible objects, meant to act of validators of meaning and reality, became ever more meaningless and unreal. You can trade corn futures without ever seeing an ear of corn, and as my commercial law professor at law school was fond of saying, if you make the wrong bet, no-one ever drives up to your house with a dump truck and leaves a ton of corn on your lawn. Instead of the transaction being in service of a tangible thing, the thing, ever less tangible, became a kind of place-holder for the transaction. It became sufficient first to know, then to postulate, that there was an ear of corn somewhere to support the general reality of the futures transaction. The rampant tax shelters of the same decade relied on the fact that there was a somewhat genuine if moribund real estate development, traincar of aged whiskey or software company somewhere to support a massive deduction.

Ronald Reagan became the kindly parent of all such devilishly clever businessfolk, in the age of "supply side" and Reaganomics. Declaring "it is morning in America" made it so. The culture, led by its president, no longer respected the solution of actual problems, which came to seem quaint and boring, but the making of scores. Scoring began in transactions that had some reality to them, though they did not solve anyone's problems except the wealthy few or one who benefited from them. The very disturbed philosophy of borrowing huge amounts of money, buying distressed companies, then selling the pieces to repay the loan and pocketing the difference, was a classic scoring strategy of the 1980's. When the dust cleared, thousands of people were out of jobs, companies founded as much as a century before were out of business, and someone was a billionaire. Score! Since most of us weren't smart enough, well-connected enough, wealthy enough, or didn't have enough credit to make these kinds of scores, the proletarian echo of the scoring lifestyle became the obsessive purchase of lottery tickets.

These early types of scores at least manipulated something in the real world, had some effect albeit negative on real people and entities. At some point in the intervening years, the philosophy of scoring in politics, which I believe began with Reaganomics, tax shelters, commodity trading and leveraged buy-outs, became entirely divorced from material things and real world effects. This may in part be because politicians for the most part are not as intelligent as the crooked businessfolk they admired and from whom they took money. After all, who would be a politician if he or she could make billions in commerce? Getting fat at the public trough takes years, while commercial fortunes are scored overnight.

Anyway, politicians learned that spin is everything, results nothing. The structure of our democracy shields legislators in particular from responsibility for their actions. The failure of legislative initiatives (of which the Gramm-Rudman bill of the 1980's, supposed to force the balancing of federal budgets, is a wonderful example), often takes decades to become evident. By then, the progenitors have retired or the public has forgotten. Even with measures which can succeed or fail in the dramatically short term, legislators hide behind voice votes, or bury bills they dare not oppose mysteriously in committee, or gut them with anonymous amendments in conference. Or legislation which everyone looks like a hero for supporting mysteriously dies, and noone can explain why, like the recent immigration bill.

The executive branch, which by its very name is supposed to act and do, learned the same lesson about the diffusion and avoidance of actual responsibility. Politics became simply the art of talking a good game, browbeating your opposition into weakness and submission, and then declaring victory, regardless of real results in the material world. material things. If you baffle them with enough bullshit, people may not notice the results, or may not hold you responsible for them. The extremely badly planned and conducted war in Iraq, in which we are losing lives today with no remaining reasonable game plan for stabilizing the country or for our own exit, has become a war completely of spin, in which the president and his more articulate spokespersons are continually redefining the terms (capturing bin Laden no longer an important goal, ending the insurgency not on the radar screen any more) and declaring victory.

That was why Hurricane Katrina was such an interesting object lesson. The people running the Federal Emergency Management Agency were completely blindsided because, in a world of rhetoric, they had only ever expected to have to deal with rhetorical emergencies. The intervention of actual wind and water stunned them. There was no way to deflect the responsibility or defer the accountability, though they tried. The ultimate moral of the story is that words, or the failure to say them, have stunning effects in the real world. When the administration only knows how to spin, and has lost the capacity to solve problems, all the talk, regardless of the declarations of victory at the end, results in loss, danger and death.