Unintended Consequences

Alan Zendell, August 2, 2022

Some people plan everything they do in agonizing detail. Others, like me, play things by ear, trusting that we can adapt to changing conditions as they arise. That’s not to say we never think about outcomes – the key to surviving with minimal planning is always being aware of the worst-case possibilities and taking sufficient precautions to avoid them.

Forty-five years ago, my family took a seven-week-long road trip that required considerable negotiation between me and my wife, who is an inveterate planner. Thus, we agreed to travel off the grid, going from place to place without advance reservations, but we made exceptions, like assuring we had a place to stay at the Grand Canyon. We also tempered our free-spirited attempt to fly blind by purchasing a CB radio, which saved us from calamity – it kept the kids occupied chatting with truckers, and it saved us from disaster when we ran out of gas outside Union Gap, Washington.

One reason I avoid detailed planning is that no matter how much I prepare or how many hours of research I do before making important decisions, the events that have the greatest impact on my life are usually things I couldn’t have anticipated. Even our most carefully planned actions have unintended consequences.

When President Franklin Roosevelt, fearing that the Nazis would develop an atom bomb first, launched the Manhattan Project, he couldn’t have known that the Germans would abandon their development of the A-bomb in 1943 or that our own use of those weapons to speed the end of World War 2 would trigger the Cold War and the nuclear arms race we live with today. When a progressive-looking Congress passed the Civil Rights and Social Security Acts in the 1960s, their focus was on improving the lives of senior citizens, the poor and the disabled, and removing inequities that had existed since the days of slavery. They didn’t know those laws would trigger a new era of struggle between people who believe in equality and beneficent government, and those who put states’ and individual rights ahead of what is best for the majority of Americans.

We didn’t know that when the Supreme Court issued its initial Roe v Wade decision, it would spark a fifty-year battle among religious conservatives and the politicians who pander to them to reverse it. We didn’t realize that supporting despots like the Shah of Iran would eventually lead to today’s Ayatollahs, or partitioning Korea would lead to the nightmare of today’s North Korea. We didn’t know President Reagan’s massive increase in defense spending would ultimately bankrupt the Soviet Union, or that thirty years later Vladimir Putin’s principal ambition would be to reconstruct it.

When Donald Trump revealed that the divisions in our country were much deeper than we realized, and that the election of Barack Obama had energized the underground movements of White Supremacy and right-wing militias, we began to realize we were at the edge of a precipice. When millions of independents and centrists, upset with progressive extremism, were fooled into believing that Trump’s fantasy of autocracy, guns, and enriching billionaires would make America great, they had no idea he would try to overthrow the government and undermine our Constitution. When Trump championed the mentality that science is fake news, we didn’t know a half million Americans would unnecessarily die of COVID, or our efforts to offset the global climate crisis would be set back for a decade. And when Trump attempted to extort Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky into smearing Hunter Biden, we had no idea he was playing into Putin’s plan undermine the Ukrainian government.

All of that has contributed to the worst pandemic of pessimism in America since the Civil War. Even I, for the first time in my life have felt pessimistic about our future, but I forgot that things don’t always turn out as we fear or expect. What I thought was a dark future now looks streaked with the first rays of dawn. Trump’s base is cracking, and millions of his supporters understand how he betrayed them. The Republican Party has been forced to re-define itself, and more Americans identify as centrists and independents than ever before. I never believed Andrew Yang had a chance of founding an effective center party, but I’m changing my mind.

I never really believed Ukraine had a chance to defeat Russia, but nearly a half-year into Russia’s invasion, it’s clear that Russia has lost far more than it gained, and standing tall against aggression, autocracy, and the threat of nuclear war was the right decision. If we look further, it may turn out that the long-term impact of Putin’s obsession with Ukraine will be to force all of Europe off dependence on fossil fuels decades earlier than they would have otherwise.

Finally, there is the result of the primary election in Kansas, one of the reddest states in the country. Kansas Republicans turned out in unexpectedly huge numbers to defeat a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have outlawed all abortions. It’s never a good idea to disregard the wishes of voters, ignore the Law of Unintended Consequences, or forget that it works both ways.

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