If he had any sense of grace or integrity, Donald Rumsfeld would fall on his sword.
The man was instrumental in getting the United States into the biggest military and financial blunder in its history.
Saddam Hussein is to be hung for killing 148 people. The Washington Post quotes an Iraqi Sunni as saying, “Now, more than 148 innocent people are getting killed in Iraq every day.”
Rumsfeld’s war has resulted in as many as a million – estimates vary wildly – Iraqi dead and nearly 50,000 wounded and dead Americans. And as for the financial costs, don’t even bring it up. The latest guesses say that the entire bill could run as high as $2 trillion. Where does a nation that is already $65 trillion short get that kind of money?
Roman bridge-builders used to stand under their arches as the scaffolding was removed. If they made a mistake, the whole thing would come down on their heads.
And military commanders who made serious blunders were expected to pay the price. In the disaster of the Teutoburg Forest, Roman governor Publius Quinctilius Varus probably had one of his officers run him through with his sword.
At Carrhae, Marcus Crassus, was responsible for another of Rome’s major defeats. But at least he died honorably – on the field of battle. Some reports say the Parthians killed him by pouring molten gold down his throat…but this may be apocryphal – Crassus had been the richest man in Rome.
Of course, the Romans weren’t the only ones.
At Iwo Jima, the Japanese commander, General Kuribayashi, committed ritual seppuku, cutting open his belly to remove his intestines and dying in agony.
In Anglo-Saxon common law, there is a rule: He who undertakes a project is responsible for the outcome. This is the obverse of the familiar saying: He who pays the fiddler calls the tune.
He who calls the tune pays the fiddler!
The ancient rule has a sensible, timeless elegance to it, especially when applied to government, because it discourages mistakes. That is the big difference between private life and public life. In private, a man pays for his mistakes. In public, it is usually someone else who pays.
Mao lived in fat luxury, while his subjects starved – thanks to his cockamamie theories and illusions. Lincoln went to the theatre, while his soldiers shivered in their trenches or died in front of confederate cannons. Greenspan was given the Order of Merit from the French and knighted by the Queen of England while his ’emergency’ interest rates enticed an entire generation of householders into ruinous debt.
Yes, the papers have finally picked up the story:
“Oops! Miscalculation led Fed to keep money cheap too long,” says a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We’re all human. Everybody makes mistakes. It’s just that some people’s mistakes are, well, more consequential than others.
“Exhibit A for that point surfaced last week, when the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas gave a speech containing what has to rank as one of the biggest ‘oops’es of the decade.”
“Speaking to a group of New York economists last Thursday, Richard W. Fisher acknowledged that some bad data on inflation caused the Fed to hold interest rates too low for too long, fueling the house-price bubble of the last few years.
“As a consequence, Fisher said, ‘today… the housing market is undergoing a substantial correction and inflicting real costs to millions of homeowners across the country.’
Jesus once remarked, “What you do to the least of them, you do unto me.” If only leaders had to suffer the fate of their followers! How long would the ‘Long March’ have been if Mao had had to march with his troops, rather than be carried on their shoulders in a sedan chair? How long would the Ukrainian peasants have gone hungry if Stalin had had to eat the same rations? How long would the war in Iraq go on if the neo-cons had to pay for it with their own money?
After he had been a U.S. Senator and the Democrat party candidate for president in 1968, George McGovern re-entered the private sector. As an entrepreneur and businessman he gained a remarkable new perspective. He later remarked that if he had had any idea how much nuisance was caused by the laws passed when he was in the Senate, he never would have voted for them.
Political leaders are generally protected from the world they are responsible for. U.S. Congressmen, for example, earn comfortable salaries. But then they fluff up their pay with a little extra loot that is invisible to the voters: Free parking. Free health care. Free travel. Allowances for this and stipends for that. Sycophantic aides and staff flunkeys to flatter them and run interference. A retirement program that makes them millionaires. Rarely do they ever have to live in the real world.
This was not always so. In the beginning of the republic – in the United States as well as in Rome – representatives had real professions and businesses, and they had lives outside of politics. But as the empire grew, so did the class of professional fixers, meddlers, and profiteers who were able to take advantage of it. Now they live like Roman noblemen…housed in grand marble buildings, surrounded by armies of attentive factotums and praetorian guards, and enjoying every privilege and luxury they can get away with.
And why not? For when a man’s actions are cut off from their consequences, it makes sense for him to be a little reckless and irresponsible. This is true whether you talk about individual actions or collective ones. A man who can drink without getting a hangover is more in danger of becoming a habitual drunk than one whose every sip is quickly punished. A man who can start a war without getting shot is more likely to stir up trouble than one in the line of fire. And just as a teenager with his mother’s credit card is always a hazard, so is an entire nation of taxpayers that has the wherewithal to push its debts onto the next generation.
So, America’s elite corporate managers enjoy the pleasure of higher wages while shareholders suffer the pain of lower dividends. Even when the share price goes down, the managers walk away with millions in salary and back-dated options. How do they get away with it? Why don’t shareholders revolt? Because they’re so focused on higher stock prices…and so blinded by the razzle-dazzle of celebrity CEOs…they hardly notice. Besides, each shareholder has such a small holding, it doesn’t seem worth his while to complain.
Hedge fund managers, too, are protected against their own mistakes. The managers call the tune, but it is the investors who pay the fiddler. If it is a pretty tune, both enjoy it. But if it threatens to sound like rap, rave, or a modern opera, only the investors are forced to listen. The managers get their 2% and tune out. The investors get split eardrums.
What we are talking about is cause and effect. Left together, they keep us on the straight and narrow. Separate the two, and you enter the broad road to self-destruction. You get irresponsible, absurd outcomes…bubbles…wars of ‘choice’…preposterous fads, fashions, and legislation…panics, hysterias – all the great public spectacles that make our job so entertaining.
And now, here is Donald Rumsfeld. He ‘doesn’t do quagmires,’ he once told us. But now, after getting the United States into the biggest foreign policy quagmire in history, he is off to a comfortable retirement…or maybe a multi-million dollar career – probably peddling arms, energy or state secrets.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are taking over both the House and the Senate. These are the same shirkers and hacks who breathed not a word of protest but went along every step of the way…never so much as raising a question…or lifting a phalange to protect America’s military from a foolish war and its finances from foolish waste.
The gallows are too good for all them.