A horde of finaglers

Richard W. Smith

October 24, 1991|By Richard W. Smith

THERE ARE no heroes in America anymore. There are only finaglers.

It takes a fixer to get anything done. There is the lobbyist prowling the halls of state legislatures, the $5-a-minute 900 number telephone sharpie always one step ahead of the law, the doctors shuffling insured patients from one specialist to another and the average citizen diddling with his or her income tax return.

The finaglers are the tops. They are rewarded with incomes far greater than those earned by mere productive citizens. Lobbyists collect far more income than do mere lawmakers. Political consultants earn more than United States senators -- despite the senators' own midnight finagle to increase their own salaries.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of S&L officers, bank officials and insurance company bigwigs have finagled benefits in the millions out of firms that they have mismanaged into oblivion.

Corporate leaders leverage (finagle) whole companies into and out of existence by manipulating paper documents faster than a slothful bureaucracy can keep up with them.

Nothing can be done in Washington without a public relations firm running interference. The finagling techniques work equally well with both good and bad ideas, constructive and destructive causes.

Foreign countries have learned the finagle game. Kuwait hired the son of the American secretary of defense to run interference during the gulf war. The breakup of the Soviet Union simply means more clients for high-priced public relations firms in Washington.

The foreign policy finaglers have made the State Department largely irrelevant. The CIA and the National Security Council hop around the world starting revolutions, selling arms and sending cakes to the religious head of the Iranian government. Because much of this is conducted under "deep finagle," it is considered to be far more important than mere diplomacy.

Finaglers have gained an honored place in American society. At one time, the man and woman in the street had a local ward "fixer" who could be called upon to fix a traffic ticket or find a civil service job for a deadbeat relative. The fixer was a valued but not honored member of the community. Today's finagler is a consultant welcomed at the best parties and honored, if not valued, by virtue of his or her relative wealth.

So much effort goes into finagling that there is little productive work being done. Even "real" events are quickly absorbed by the finaglers. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's victory in Desert Storm was quickly taken over by the finaglers. A ghost writer was assigned, an agent hired, a lecture tour booked, photo ops planned. The general quickly disappeared behind the screen of finaglers. The media techniques applied to the general are the same as those applied to create the persona of Donald Trump. The overwhelming pervasiveness of the finagling techniques makes it impossible to distinguish between the real and the false.

There was a time when finagling was openly disreputable. The men and women in slick offices who pull high-level finagling strings were once known as "flacks," and not many people took them seriously. Flacks became press agents, press agents became public relations people, and now they are "communications consultants" with officers in towers so high it requires two elevators to reach them.

It is not that finagling is without effort. Some finaglers expend effort that would almost certainly make them a success in actual, productive work. It is just there are more satisfactions and even social status in finagling. There appears to be real satisfaction in manipulative work that skirts ethical and legal limits. It is a trapeze act that provides the true finaglers with a high they could never get from productive work. It also enables them to feel vastly superior to men and women in run-of-the-mill jobs.

The current recession has had the sobering effect of eliminating the thousands of people in the corporate world who did little but write memos to each other. These were the "facilitators," those who occupy personnel slots halfway between the true finaglers and the truly productive.

America's furious embrace of the computer seems to satisfy the lust for finagling. Computers permit endless manipulation of data, endless invasion of privacy and endless ways to finagle bank and stock transfers, to launder money and to harass helpless citizens with junk jail. It may be no coincidence that worker productivity in the United States has fallen steadily as computers have proliferated.

America's love affair with the finagler goes beyond mere appreciation of the honest rogue. It is akin to the public's interest in and admiration for Al Capone and John Dillinger. Perhaps there is a bit of larceny in all of us, and we admire the finagler who can strike quickly and cleanly, never leaving evidence of a smoking gun. Americans dream of winning the lottery or of finding a finagle that pays well. Given a choice, they would probably opt for the finagle.

Richard W. Smith writes from Timonium.

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