Final Word

Insanity, budgets and catch-22


The dilemmas South Africa’s freshly appointed minister of finance faced last week in parliament were enough to drive any sane man off his rocker.

And, if Minister Nhlanhla Nene did start frothing at the mouth, waving his arms around madly and whistling the penny whistle kwela while piloting his medium-term budget through parliament, nobody should have been surprised. That, after all, is exactly what catch-22 situations do to people who have to navigate impossible situations.

The expression catch-22 is defined as a “paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules or choices faced placing him in a no-win position.” It is akin to the expression “if you win you lose”.

One of the more often quoted examples used to illustrate the catch-22 situation is “... a situation in which someone is in need of something that can only be had by not being in need of it”.

The expression hails from the United States and has its roots in rules that are said to have applied to members of the US military forces during the days of World War II. The term was coined in 1961 in a novel with the title Catch-22, although it was around since 1955 – originally as “catch-18”.

American author Joseph Heller starting working in 1953 on his satirical novel that deals with absurd bureaucratic rules during World War II. The first chapter of the book was published in 1955 in a magazine under the title “Catch-18”.

When Heller was ready to go to print with the completed novel in 1961, another novel by the title Mila 18 by author Leon Uris and also set in World War II, had just hit the New York Times best seller list.

Heller and his publisher decided to change the title of his work to Catch-22, a choice said to have been made on ‘euphony’ (“pleasant sounding” as opposed to ‘cacophony’ as in “unpleasant sounding”) grounds.

The novel tells the story of American pilots in Italy during World War II and the main character, Captain Yossarian, is a bombardier (as Heller himself had been) who, like his tent-mate Orr, wants to get out of flying potentially deadly combat missions. The easiest way to get out of flying more missions was to plead insanity.

The catch, however, “... was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

Different formulations of ‘Catch-22’ appear throughout the novel and applied to various loopholes and quirks of the military system, always with the implication that rules are inaccessible to and slanted against those lower in the hierarchy.

In one instance Yossarian is told that ‘Catch-22’ requires him to do everything his commanding officer tells him to do, regardless of whether these orders contradict orders from the officer's superiors.

Wikipedia tells us that reviews on the book ranged from very good to very negative, but in the end it gained lasting influence as the term ‘catch-22’ caught on and gained traction across the whole English-speaking world to describe "a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule".

Now, spare a thought and pray for the sanity of our minister of finance who has to balance the nation’s books in the face of rising expenditure and debt levels on the one hand and shrinking income and declining economic growth on the other hand.

by Piet Coetzer

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