Speaking of Economic Disincentives
by Jack Cashill
On the morning of June 30, I sat down to a working breakfast with the good folks of the prospering Clay County to assess the county's economic development environment.
As you will read later in the magazine, the environment has been proving highly conducive to doing business. When asked about disincentives, the complaints were few and mild: occasional red tape, an infrastructure that could not always keep up with development, and, well, that's about it.
On the next morning, July 1, I sat down to a working breakfast with a pair of individuals who had just returned from a lengthy sojourn in a less favored part of our world. And there, at last until recently, the disincentives to doing business were many, irrational and downright scary.
Veteran TV news producer Don North came across one tale of economic "disincenting" so chilling and unholy that he chose to make a documentary about it. The story begins in 1995 with this particular economy in full meltdown. Statist by instinct, the chief economic development officials of this ill-starred kleptocracy knew who had caused this malaise--the entrepreneurial class. Of course! Who else?
In 1995, to re-educate this class, the top ED official selected for intensive retraining a purposely-diverse group of entrepreneurs, nine in all, a veritable mosaic of the city. A firm believer in due process, the official granted the businessmen an opportunity to argue their way out of the retraining program. They had 15 minutes collectively to make their case. As might be expected, they did not succeed. Whether they liked it or not, these "dollar traders" were off to school, total immersion.
The retraining center went by the name of Abu Ghraib. You may have heard of it. After a year of in-depth reorientation, much of it physical, the ED official allowed all nine to leave. Before leaving, however, they had to stop by one particular room for processing.
In retrospect, if they had been told that to get out they would have had only to wear underwear on their heads or form human pyramids in the buff, they would have done either gladly and whistled Dixie while they did it. But that's not what happened.
As a way of discouraging other would-be entrepreneurs, the doctor sliced off each man's right hand at the wrist--"like carving a turkey bone" in the words of an American surgeon who has since seen the botched work. The Iraqi doctors, to be sure, did not bother to repair the nerve endings and left the men to spend the next nine years in agony. In the way of a coup de grace, the doctor carved an X of shame into the forehead of each man before departure. To add insult to injury, literally, the authorities charged the new amputees $50 for their troubles.
One midnight shortly thereafter, Saddam's "Bizarro-world" marketing team showed up unexpectedly at the Baghdad video studio of Sahib Bazoum. "Make 10 copies of this tape," they told Bazoum. "Don't make any copies for yourself. We are watching." When Bazoum saw what was on the tapes--the blood-curdling scenes of hands being sawed off-- he quietly and at great risk to himself made a secret copy.
For Saddam, the videos were a useful way of spread-ing the bad word to other would-be entrepreneurs. "Terror theater," says North. For Bazoum, his copy of the video was evidence. But evidence to what end? Saddam may have been aging, but his young and mischievous sons, Uday and Qusay, were proving no more business-friendly than their deranged pa, and their futures extended to the horizon.
Iraqi-American Susan Dakak, who accompanied North to Kansas City, had been in touch with any number of Iraqis of the business class since she left as a 17 year-old in 1978. What pained her all those years is that while she flourished here in the United States as an engineer and entrepreneur, her classmates, who had been as smart and ambitious as she was, struggled along on a few dollars a day and in literal fear for their lives and limbs.
Dakak's friends had no capital, no encourage- ment, "and until just two years ago," says Dakak, "no hope whatsoever."
And as to infrastructure, if they had a couple hours a day of electricity, they were delighted.
Not every Iraqi was thrilled when the American military liberated Iraq. Uday and Qusay come to mind. But just about every Iraqi that Susan Dakak has ever known surely was, herself included. She immediately volunteered her civil engineering skills to help reconstruct the country. "When I found out that the United States was going to save these Iraqis," she say with passion, "I felt that I could finally repay the United States for all that it has given me."
Bazoum counted himself among the "saved." He had hung on to the tape for eight years and was able to pass it through a journalist friend to North. Having covered some 15 wars for NBC and ABC, North welcomed the opportunity to tell a story with a happy ending.
Indeed, North helped make the end happy. Through a series of nearly miraculous interventions and circumventions, North arranged for the men to have their arms repaired and fitted with $50,000 state-of-the-art prostheses at Methodist Hospital in Houston--all work at every stage volunteered. Meanwhile, North continued his work on the documentary with the nicely understated title, "Remembering Saddam." When he had a rough cut ready, he sent the video to his friends at the networks. Naively, North had thought that the Abu Ghraib angle would make a perfect counterpoint to the prisoner abuse stories with which the media had been carpet bombing the world.
But although North calls Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel "friends," neither they nor anyone else in the major media even feigned interest. The media had their story line, and Remembering Saddam simply did not fit: Iraqi news was bad news, and--incredibly to North and Dakak who could see so much good--the bad guys who were causing the bad news was us.
"Don't go the American way when it comes to economics, jobs and services for the poor and immigrants," pseudo-socialist film maker and Saddamophile Michael Moore told the German people in an open letter. "It is the wrong way."
I would invite Moore to share this message with the newly liberated business people of Iraq. It may make sense to the indulged young coffee house commandos of his acquaintance, but it makes no sense to those people who have experienced real fear and real deprivation and who understand viscerally the real virtue of economic freedom.
"My friends are doing fine now," says Dakak. "The economy is robust. They are getting used to freedom and democracy."
The Iraqis just got rid of one clown who presumed to dictate what people should buy and sell. They sure as hell don't need another.
Jack Cashill is Ingram's
Executive Editor and has affiliated with the magazine for 25 years.
He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.