Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reading the Fine Print

Having been in business for more years than I care to admit, I have seen more than my fair share of contracts, NDAs and other binding covenants.

As someone who is known as Literal Man in some circles, I am fascinated and surprised by the number of people who circumvent their own legal guidance, glossing over the fine print and going it alone in creating, changing or signing such binding documents.

Too many people still sign these documents with the belief that the protection it offers to each party will never be needed.  There is an assumption that neither party will ever renege on the promises and commitments made to the other.   After all, there is an all-too-common reasoning that “why would one even enter into a professional relationship in the first place if one expected bad things to happen, therefore it must be safe”.

Pete Seeger once said

“Do you know the difference between education and experience?  Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don't.”

If only human nature allowed us to execute every relationship so innocently and so perfectly with the notion that any disagreement could be easily resolved over a cup of coffee.

That’s why I have been watching President Obama with some curiosity lately as he struggles to bring the economic woes of the US under control.

Many US citizens are unaware of a little-known directive that could prove to be interesting as the next election draws closer.

Specifically ….

The National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive (National Security Presidential Directive NSPD 51/Homeland Security Presidential Directive HSPD-20, sometimes called simply "Executive Directive 51" for short), created and signed by United States President George W. Bush on May 4, 2007, is a Presidential Directive which claims power to execute procedures for continuity of the federal government in the event of a "catastrophic emergency". Such an emergency is construed as "any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions."

The presidential directive says that, when the president considers an emergency to have occurred, an "Enduring Constitutional Government" comprising "a cooperative effort among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the Federal Government, coordinated by the President," will take the place of the nation's regular government.

There are a few other fascinating components to this directive as well, namely:

  1. The powers bequeathed to the “Enduring Constitutional Government” allow the government to forego elections to maintain leadership continuity as the nation moves out of crisis.
  2. The process for cancelling the directive should it be invoked are not publically defined.
  3. The person(s) with the authority to revoke the directive are not publically defined.
  4. The majority of the contents of the directive (as with most presidential directives) including the rights of the people and the powers bequeathed to the acting government are considered classified under the auspices of “national security” and cannot be viewed by most people, including members of Congress.

I added the underline for emphasis.  I believe that we are already in an extraordinary situation with an economic crisis that is disrupting the nation and in fact, the entire world.  The President of the United States is in a position to execute this directive right now should he be so inclined.

I wouldn’t have given it much thought until I heard this comment from North Caroline Governor Purdue today when she was discussing the economy:

This is what she said:

"You have to have more ability from Congress, I think, to work together and to get over the partisan bickering and focus on fixing things. I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won't hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help this country recover. I really hope that someone can agree with me on that. The one good thing about Raleigh is that for so many years we worked across party lines. It's a little bit more contentious now but it's not impossible to try to do what's right in this state. You want people who don't worry about the next election."

Her handlers later claimed she was making a joke or intentionally overhyping this scenario to highlight how voters perceive our legislators.

Sadly, she wasn’t laughing when she delivered it, neither was anyone who heard it and the function she was speaking at wasn’t a stand-up comedy competition.

In fact, I find the remark quite intriguing and leads me to believe that it may have been discussed in private (whether seriously or half-heartedly is another matter), which suggests that the option has been explored.  Perhaps someone was testing the waters to see how the comment would be received.

In a world of ever-increasing complexity, challenge, paranoia and over-analysis by the media, one has to be very careful citing an option that many Americans would not like but which is legally within the President’s right to use.

Which brings me back to understanding the fine print.

Any time a business or individual is in difficulty in a contractual relationship, it is normal to review any binding covenants to review one’s options in order to bring about the best solution possible from the standpoint of the party reviewing the covenants.

As President Obama looks at what is happening in the economic world, how the economic engines haven’t responded to classic adjustments and a Republican stance that he is very unhappy with, he is looking at all his options with an eye towards solving the problems in the best way that he can visualize.

Executive Directive 51 is within his right to use, whether we like it or not.

Frankly, many normal people out there would look at this option and would use it.

I would if I thought that my ideas were the best ones available and I thought that the options of my opponent would spin the country deeper into catastrophe.  You might also if you were the President. 

Over the years, as politicians have gently (and sometimes not so gently) changed the laws that govern the land, many citizens never bothered to read the fine print of the legislation, assuming that “the details” weren’t important.

And now even if we wanted to get to the fine print, we are not permitted.

As Andy Rooney once said:

“Nothing in fine print is ever good news”.

What the directive would mean to the country, the freedoms and rights within the country and the future of the world’s greatest democracy is unknown.

But as always, that’s what we get for ignoring the fine print for too long.  It puts us into interesting territory.

Derek Bok once said:

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”.

It is highly likely that the coming months will teach us just how much our ignorance of the evolution of our government and economic models have and will cost us.

Thinking back to Seeger and Bok, let’s hope our education is not too painful an experience and that the final experience is a positive one.

In service and servanthood,


PS I was curious to see, as I watched Chris Wallace interview Rep Mike Simpson (R – ID) on Fox News Sunday on the morning of Nov. 6 / 11 when Rep. Simpson said, and I quote “"We've got to put aside our elections to solve this problem” when referring to the challenges facing the nation.  Very interesting. Smile


  1. Just because it's there, means they can act on it. But most of our laws are being ignored as it is with our immorality, just like our Constitution is being ignored. So, we have our Constitution that is bypassed, maneuvered around, ignored, etc. and a law that says they can take action. What's the basis? King's law, not our Constitution. Keep your powder dry.

  2. You're right, Kevin. People who tell me that such a law would never be used forget that no one takes the time to pass laws that will never be used. In fact, we have reached a point in the western world where we are over-legislated in almost every aspect of our lives.

    I wonder what Ron Paul would think of this directive. I think I'll ask him! :-)

    Thanks for the comment, Kevin! :-)

    Create a great day!