UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES • by Jim Malcolm

President Mason Ward sat at the midpoint of the oval table in the Cabinet meeting room at the White House, the Secretary of State at his right hand, the Secretary of Defense at his left. Across from him sat Vice President Pamela Blackwood and so the members of the Cabinet alternated in order of precedence. He surveyed his domain. How long had his world tour for “Compassionate Conservatism” taken? Three months. Well, it had been worth it. The world, like the United States, must embrace the message of compassionate conservatism to get its fiscal house in order.

After the preliminaries, the President said, “Madam Secretary of Labor. What are the latest unemployment figures?”

The room became still. Beth Hodges cleared her throat. “The unemployment rate that will be announced tomorrow will show a drop of 1% to 12.5%.”

“Good news, Madam Secretary,” Ward said and beamed a smile in her direction. Still, he sensed some chill in the air that should not be there. Surely a 1% reduction in unemployment was good news.

“Did the non-farm payroll improve?”

“No, Sir.”

“Did manufacturing employment increase?”

“No, Sir.”

“Service sector employment?”

She consulted her papers. “Down slightly.”

All the good choices were gone. “State and local government?”

“Flat.”

“Federal government?”

“All of the gains in employment were in the federal government… Sir.”

The President forced a concerned look to his face. A compassionate leader was never angry.

“I don’t understand. I ordered a 5% cut in personnel in all your departments last year. Which area added personnel?”

The Secretary of Labor’s face was ashen. “The Executive Branch… Sir.”

“I don’t understand,” the President said. Two “I don’t understands” in a row were not a good sign.

Harry Higgins — White House Chief of Staff, ace gofer, and the President’s best friend — spoke up. Sunshine Harry. If anyone could put a positive spin on this, he could. “Sir, it’s a natural result of your suggestion.”

Storm clouds gathered over the President and began to blow in Harry’s direction.

“My suggestion?”

“Yes Sir,” Harry said, bright and cheery, “a great suggestion. Don’t you remember? Before you left on your trip? We were talking about all the layoffs and you suggested that each person get an individual letter of condolence.”

The President thought. No, he didn’t remember but it sounded like something he could have said.

“Yes, and…” the President prompted.

“So,” Harry said, bubbling enthusiasm, “I sent a memo to all federal departments instructing them to give each and every laid-off employee a personal letter of condolence. Well, I can tell you that there was a lot of push back. The departments said that they didn’t have staff, what with all the layoffs. So I hired a couple of English majors to write some sample letters.”

“Makes sense,” the President said.

“It made a lot of sense. But the departments said that the letters needed to be personalized to the individual employee being let go since their circumstances were all different. A personalized letter showed that we really cared and were not just sending form letters. That was more than the couple of guys that I hired could handle so I hired a few more.”

President Ward felt the back of his neck tighten. He made a circular motion with his hand to speed up the story.

“That helped, but it wasn’t enough. Then the Small Business Administration said that small businesses also need help with condolence letters. They couldn’t afford to hire someone to write them. You know how small businesses are — never enough money. I figured there are a lot of small businesses and they represent a lot of votes so I said sure.”

Harry shook his head. A rueful smile bloomed on his lips. “These English majors are a sensitive bunch. They got depressed and needed counseling so I had to hire a bunch of shrinks to counsel them. Between the English majors in analysis and the ones writing letters, the supply of English majors got dangerously low so I’ve authorized a program of scholarships. The number of English majors in this year’s college freshman class is at an all-time high. A lot of science, math, and engineering types decided it was best to switch. With all the English majors in the pipeline, the salaries should come down soon. Things got a little out of hand.”

The President, his face stone, said, “Salaries? How high are they?”

“An English major rates about $200,000 a year. I’ve never seen so many Porsches in the parking lot.” Harry beamed.

The President closed his eyes. His whole body trembled. After he opened his eyes again, it took several seconds more before he could unclench his jaw.

“Harry,” he said in a controlled, calm, compassionate voice. “Fire them. Fire them all. Fire all the English majors. Fire all the shrinks.”

“But… but we just hired them. We had to expand Human Resources to handle all the interviews and the benefits. If we fire them, there will be all kinds of separation costs and unemployment. Some have already claimed disability due to breakdowns from the stress of composing the letters.”

“Just do it!” the President bellowed, no trace of compassion in his voice. Harry fled the room.

“Agnes,” the President said to the Assistant Chief of Staff, “once Harry has informed the departments that the English majors are terminated, you’re promoted to Chief of Staff. Your first task is to see that Harry cleans out his desk and never comes near me again. Send him a condolence card. Make it a Hallmark.”


Jim Malcolm is a retired Electrical Engineer and Computer Scientist. He had a forty-two year career in project management, software development, and software engineering. Since he retired, he has wondered if his talent of writing for machines would translate into writing for people. Jim has edited The Civil War Journal of Private Heyward Emmell, published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.


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