The liars politicians were at it again last week.
The United States said that it absolutely would not provide tanks to Ukraine. The U.S. tanks — the Abrams — were too hard to keep in service, got too few miles to the gallon, and otherwise weren’t fit for the conditions in Ukraine.
Then, Germany said that it would not provide tanks (or consent to the provision of tanks) unless the U.S. also provided tanks.
On Wednesday, the United States switched its position and agreed to provide the tanks.
When the government was asked why it had changed its position, the change supposedly had nothing to do with Germany’s demand. What had supposedly changed between last week — when the American tanks were useless — and this week — when the American tanks were great? The White House spokesperson said the “facts on the ground” had changed.
That’s manifestly ridiculous. The “facts on the ground” in Ukraine had not changed over the weekend in a way that made unfit tanks fit. The spokesperson is lying; we know that he’s lying; the White House is losing credibility; why is the White House doing this?
Why not respond with the truth? We wanted tanks to go to Ukraine. For its own political reasons, Germany wouldn’t send tanks unless the United States also agreed to send tanks. So we did.
Why’s the truth such a bad explanation?
What’s the killer follow-up question that makes the White House resist speaking the truth?
Maybe this is the follow-up: “Aha! You admit it! The United States was coerced by its own ally, Germany, to provide tanks! Gotcha!”
But what’s the “gotcha”? I have disagreements with my wife or my kids. To resolve those disputes, sometimes I agree to do something that I originally wouldn’t have done, and sometimes my wife or kids agree to do something that they wouldn’t originally have done. That’s not exactly coercion; I’d call it “accommodating people whom you love.” Is that so bad?
Why isn’t the truth at least the default position? This could be the rule: The government can lie, but only if there’s a reason to lie.
But the truth does not appear to be the default position. You see this even in corporate America. The company had a bad quarter. The company announces earnings. The stock drops three bucks in one trading session. The next week, someone asks the CEO (at a public event) why we had such a bad quarter. The answer is almost inevitably an obvious lie: “We didn’t have a bad quarter. We made investments for the future that the market didn’t understand. We’re now positioned for five years of growth!” Or: “We didn’t have a bad quarter. The analysts interpreted the drop in revenue to be a bad thing, but our EPS, unlike our revenue, actually increased. We had a great quarter!”
Then why’d the stock price drop?
The CEO is lying; we know that he’s lying; the C-suite is losing credibility; why do this?
Wouldn’t people understand (as common sense tells them) that the company missed on some metric in the quarter just passed, but the company hopes and expects to do better in the future?
I have an idea:
Let’s add an employee in the White House and all corporate C-suites. We’ll call that employee the “truth-speaker.” We won’t pay him very much. Whenever anything happens that causes the people in charge to start ginning up obvious lies, the employee’s one duty will be to whisper: “Why would speaking the truth be so bad?”
Maybe that would help.
Mark Herrmann spent 17 years as a partner at a leading international law firm and is now deputy general counsel at a large international company. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Drug and Device Product Liability Litigation Strategy (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at email@example.com.