Unintended Consequences

Thomas Nides, former deputy secretary of state under Clinton, offers a perfect summation of the creed (h/t Doug Henwood):

Hillary Clinton understands we always need to change — but change that doesn’t cause unintended consequences for the average American.

Off the top of my head, here’s a brief list of changes that caused unintended consequences for the average American (whoever that might be):
  1. The election of Abraham Lincoln.
  2. The passage of Social Security.
  3. The entrance of women into factories during World War II.
  4. Brown v. Board of Ed.
  5. Civil Rights Act of 1964
  6. Asking an unknown state senator from Illinois to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Party convention.
Politics is the field of unintended consequences (“Events, dear boy, events.”) Don’t like unintended consequences? Don’t do politics.
Update (11:30 am)
On Facebook, Timothy Burke added this:
Don’t do change, either. Fear of unintended consequences at this level is high-modernist control freakery. There are unintended consequences to being too afraid of unintended consequences.


  1. Paul Rosenberg June 27, 2016 at 9:38 am | #

    Hence the need for unicorns as well.

  2. mark June 27, 2016 at 10:03 am | #

    The French entering the civil war between Britain and most of its north american colonies, and the French monarchy’s concomitant fiscal troubles?

  3. jonnybutter June 27, 2016 at 10:26 am | #

    Also note the utter emptiness of the phrase all of that stuff is qualifying: “Hillary Clinton understands we always need to change”.

  4. Escottnyc June 27, 2016 at 12:06 pm | #

    i’d consider favorable interpretation of the quote as follows:
    “Average American ” are those who work hard and earn wages high enough to live well. They pay taxes around 30% of their income.
    These “average Americans” are skeptical of change for good reason. The cost of change nowdays benefits those above the “average American” economic level (as the Bush’s expensive prescription drug legislation did) while parading as a progressive benefit to those below their economic level.
    It’s a “chump change” strategy that pits the economically distressed against the “average American”.

    • logic_is_best June 27, 2016 at 3:42 pm | #

      this is on the mark

  5. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant June 27, 2016 at 12:15 pm | #

    “…unintended consequences for the average American.”

    Now that phrase is a “lexia” that Barthes would have field day with!

    So, with a provisionally remodeled Barthesian approach, let us break down that lexia even further and have a bit of fun, why don’t we?


    “…unintended (not wanted by those who give orders to others) consequences (in which those who give orders to others take a social, political, or economic hair cut) for the average (politically connected and influential elite) American (billionaire)”

  6. weldonberger June 27, 2016 at 3:26 pm | #

    Former deputy secretary of state Thomas Nides is the vice-chairman of Morgan Stanley in his day job. Clinton had several finance executives in senior department positions.

  7. Dario Sulzman June 27, 2016 at 5:25 pm | #

    Also, where’s this reticence and caution on her part when it comes to foreign policy? This is why she hates Obama’s “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” doctrine — b/c it constrains American power abroad.

    It’s one thing to just be a wholly centrist neocon hawk. It’s another thing to continuously try to pass yourself off as “the real progressive”. Just from a purely pragmatic and strategic standpoint, she’d be better off just embracing what she is and not continuously gaslighting those on the left with her claims of allegiance. It builds even more distrust than what she said in 2008 about MoveOn and the Netroots “I don’t like them, they know I don’t like them. . .” (Of course, now half the Netroots wholly shares Clinton’s incrementalist view and hates Sanders, but that’s another matter).

    Yet even if she is elected this year, I’m having a very hard time imagining a scenario where she’s not primaried in 2020. I just don’t think she gets what’s driving us. And it’s going to boil over.


  8. jonnybutter June 27, 2016 at 8:48 pm | #

    Maybe ‘change’ is now a value unto itself like ‘compromise’ supposedly was for BO: if a value is always applicable regardless of what’s actually happening, then it’s effectively *never* applicable, because the concept is thereby drained of meaning. Also see ‘reform’, ‘peace process’, et. al. There’s no rubes like middlebrow rubes.

    Our crazy, supposedly ‘coherent’ ; ) party politics is become like a massive tug of war, but rather than pulling the other side over to yours, the object is to let go of the rope first.

  9. Roqeuntin June 28, 2016 at 3:41 pm | #

    That’s such a load of tripe. Hillary Clinton is about changing absolutely nothing. It’s about putting her husband’s policies back in office for another 8 years. I can hardly listen to this shit anymore. I’m leaning strongly towards voting Jill Stein in November.

    And another thing, ol’ Bill only presided over an economic boom out of sheer dumb luck. A ham sandwich could have been president during the internet boom and things would have went well. He happened to be in the right place at the right time, but everyone seems to want to connect those dots to his economic policies.

    • LFC June 30, 2016 at 5:39 pm | #

      I’m leaning strongly towards voting Jill Stein in November

      I can’t see doing this given the identity of HRC’s opponent, unless you live in a state that is absolutely certain to go Democratic (and even then I’m not sure it’s an esp. good idea).

      • Jonnybutter June 30, 2016 at 9:23 pm | #

        What could possibly be wrong with not voting for Hillary Clinton in a solve the blue state?

        • Jonnybutter June 30, 2016 at 9:25 pm | #

          “Solidly blue state”

          • LFC July 1, 2016 at 4:57 pm | #

            Prob. nothing, except things have been so unpredictable lately I’m not inclined to take any chances, even ‘safe’ ones. Possibly an irrational response, but that’s where I am on it.

            Btw and on another topic, b/c of your high praise for Perlstein’s Before the Storm here some months ago, I decided to read it. I read about 230 pp. and stopped. I admired the research but I thought, on the whole, that the book was overwritten. There are brilliant passages and turns of phrase, but the penchant for long sentences, chock full of clauses, and the frequent (though not constant) reaching for multisyllabic words when shorter ones would have worked, just got to me after a while and I decided not to finish (though I did skim through some of the later sections). I did learn a lot of details about the American Right in the 1950s and 60s that I hadn’t known, and I thought the opening chapters in particular were very good. But the prose I thought needed a firmer editorial hand. Apparently this is a minority opinion, to judge from what I gather was the bk’s v. favorable reception by reviewers and readers.

          • jonnybutter July 2, 2016 at 9:54 am | #

            Sorry you didn’t like ‘Before the Storm’ as much as I did, LFC. I thought the aspects of RP’s style you didn’t like are more pronounced in his later books in the series, but I thought BTS worked very well. Oh well.

            Yes, things are relatively unpredictable, but it would take an earthquake, biblical flood, locusts, etc. for my very blue state to vote 50%+1 for Trump, so I feel very comfortable not casting a vote for HRC. If I lived in an even slightly purple state, it would be different.

  10. Edward June 29, 2016 at 1:30 pm | #

    This sounds like a conservative creed. It is very convenient for soliciting money from Wall Street, no doubt. And yet Clinton voted for the Iraq war, gave us the disasters in Libya, Honduras, Syria and may give us wars with Syria, Russia, and Iran. She has done little to oppose climate change. That’s not very risk free. During the 1990’s the change promoted by the Clintons was to undo the New Deal, including repealing Glass-Steagle (sp?).

  11. Dean July 1, 2016 at 10:16 pm | #

    There is so very much wrong with this meme. First, most of what eventuated from the listed events were INTENDED consequences, and the negative unintended consequences were worth enduring. On the above comment, the Clinton vote was not for the Iraq war, but to empower GW Bush to further negotiate w/ Hussein from a position of strength. I did not approve of this vote as Bush was a cowboy and a zero, but it was NOT a vote for the war.

    • Corey Robin July 1, 2016 at 10:31 pm | #

      You’re actually quite wrong on your first point. Here are just a list of some of the unintended consequences:

      1. Election of Abraham Lincoln: A civil war in which more than 650,000 Americans were killed.
      2. Passage of Social Security: pensions for black farmworkers and domestic workers. Definitely not intended (indeed, was a condition of its passage in 1935 that it would not be included).
      3. Women in factories during World War II: Second-wave feminist movement after World War II.
      4. Brown v. Board of Ed: busing in the late 1960s and 1970s, particularly in Northern cities; arguably you could say Civil Rights Movement was also an outcome of Brown v. Board of Ed, and definitely not intended.
      5. Civil Rights Act of 1964: explosion of rights talk and policy, culminating in various policies (a mix of state and federal) prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians, disabled, and transgendered people.
      6. choice of Obama as speaker in 2004: election of him as president in 2008.

      The issue, remember, is unintended consequences. Not “good consequences.”

      • Dean July 2, 2016 at 11:11 am | #

        Hello, again. On your six numbered points:

        1. The setup for war (similar to WWI) had been underway for many years, and A. Lincoln had had nothing to do with the preparation for war. I do not see the war as a consequence of his election….I believe it was likely inevitable by 1860-61.

        2. An extension of an existing program to include additional individuals or groups seems to be more a likely corollary than an unintended consequence.

        3. The feminist movement which had achieved the vote in 1919 pre-existed the women in factories. Women in the late 1940’s and 50’s returned to the kitchens of America. The follow-on feminist movement which appears to date from the early 1960’s seems better connected to the earlier movement to achieve voting rights…to be counted as a full person.

        4. The unintended consequence of Brown vs. Board of Education was entire jurisdictions (such as Prince Edward County, Virginia) shutting down their entire public school systems to avoid compliance. The wide-spread busing (which resulted from follow-on legal action,) was not an unintended consequence, but the result of deliberate court rulings to force compliance with the 1954 Supreme Court decision.

        5. I agree that the Civil Rights Act having resulted in actual civil rights for other groups was clearly an unintended consequence.

        6. The election of Barack Obama was an unintended consequence, particularly because at the time he spoke John Kerry looked like a likely winner of the 2004 election (skillfully stolen by the action of Ohio Republicans) which would have put off the next opportunity for a fresh Democratic face until 2012.

        Thank you for your response, sir.

  12. jonnybutter July 2, 2016 at 12:24 pm | #

    What’s interesting to me about the phrase ‘unintended consequences’ is that the idea of it contains an implicit assumption that looks dubious when you isolate it: that most consequences are intended; that unintended outcomes are a deviation. lol.

    I prefer to think of history (and life) as highly contingent, the functional form of that being ‘nothing is inevitable’. I think that works for history, and even more for life in general. That nothing is inevitable (except death of course) is both exhilarating and terrifying.

    But back to the OP…yeah, this kind of language is impossible to analyze on its own terms, because it doesn’t mean anything. Empty language is sinister.

    • Dean July 2, 2016 at 1:17 pm | #

      Why would empty language be sinister? As far as I can tell it’s meaningless.

  13. jonnybutter July 2, 2016 at 2:28 pm | #

    Dean, give me a good (justificatory) reason a key public figure would use empty language about their broad philosophical points of view – e.g. change, unintended consequences? I can’t think of any.

    Notice that I’m not saying HRC and her surrogates are necessarily sitting around thinking of ways to be intentionally devious. I’m saying empty language about big concepts means either a.) no one has thought any of those concepts through, and/or, more disturbingly, b.) it’s been decided that thinking them through is not important. I think we’re dealing more with b.), and I find that disturbing because it disrespects the very idea of rational, humane thought, the alternative to which is…guess what?..usually sinister.

    • Dean July 2, 2016 at 3:35 pm | #

      Here’s one answer. I believe most people underestimate the intensely complex web this country is, woven together intimately and with a complexity few understand. For instance, all the prattle about how they should have “let the big banks fail” in 2009 belies the fact that ALL the banks would have failed together, and a situation worse than the Great Depression would have resulted. Every portion of our economy and our national life depends on ALMOST EVERY OTHER portion of our economy to be functioning for daily survival. New York City, as just one example,survives on thousands of truckloads (I believe about 20,000 a week) of goods, food, supplies of all sort. Their fuel comes by pipeline and tanker and barge. Failure of any one of these systems would spell disaster, and the same goes for every other community in country, and indeed, the civilized world.

      American exceptionalism ACTUALLY refers to the wonderful stability of our economic systems and infrastructure. Flint,MI is a good example of what happens when just one little piece of the pie gets thrown out of kilter by thoughtless government action. All the “burn it all down, elect Trump talk” is spoken by people with no idea how interconnected the system is, and how bad it could get for them if they got their wish.

      I believe the Democratic Party, and Hillary Clinton in particular understand this well, while the “rabble” do not, and would be proven to be completely wrong and disastrous should they get the reins of power. I do not find their rhetoric to be empty. It is reasoned, well-measured, and indicative of an understanding of what I’ve outlined above.

  14. jonnybutter July 2, 2016 at 4:14 pm | #

    Oh, gigantic strawman Dean. It’s very easy to argue against Trump and his voters, policy-wise. Very very VERY easy. Running against Trump doesn’t make HRC his opposite. You have proved nothing.

    You’ve also not engaged in the substance of the discussion above, so…I think I will be on my way.

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