Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

19 July 2012


[For a brief update on my latest post about the continuing risk of another global financial meltdown, click here.]

Yesterday a bomb blast killed Syria’s Defense Minister and Assad’s brother-in-law, also a high-ranking security official in Assad’s regime. It was the first highly visible break for the Syrian people in their civil war.

The two security men who died in the blast were probably the two most hated men in Syria. And rightly so. They were responsible for conceiving, planning and carrying out a vast butchery of their own people over the last year.

Their hands were bathed in fresh blood. If individual responsibility is the salvation of our species, as I believe, their deaths smacked of divine justice.

The bomb blast was undoubtedly an inside job. Who else but an insider could have penetrated the innermost sanctum of the regime’s security apparatus? If nothing else, the blast shows serious discord among the tiny ruling clan.

Even within the vilest regimes, there are limits to human bestiality. The recent string of high-level defections whispered that at least a few people inside Assad’s regime think enough pointless atrocities are enough. Yesterday’s bomb blast raised the volume of insider protest to a shout.

Why kill the planners and doers and not the leader? That’s the immediate question. The very targets suggest an Alawite insider—someone smart enough to see that South Africa without Nelson Mandela (or, perhaps, Egypt without Mohamed Mursi) is not a sustainable proposition. Even with modern weapons, a tiny minority cannot expect to continue oppressing and killing the vast majority forever and expect to survive. Modern technology makes it too easy to kill, even well-protected leaders.

But why keep Assad alive? If the bombers could kill the heads of the state security apparatus, surely they could have killed him, too. The fact that they didn’t suggests two things. First, they must be Alawites themselves. They must see Assad as their last hope for salvation. Second, they must hope that he alone can arrange some negotiated solution that will preserve a bit of their collective power, wealth and prestige, or at least save them from becoming victims of a gigantic pogrom.

Assad’s survival also suggests something else. Perhaps, at his core, he wasn’t the real villain. Maybe he had bad advice. Maybe he was outnumbered and outvoted within his own clan. Maybe he was just a figurehead. He was, after all, a medical doctor, sworn to the Hippocratic Oath: “Do No Harm.” Maybe he was forced to become a butcher by ruthless people who convinced everyone around him that more killing was the only way to survive.

If so, then the bombers likely hoped he would be able to arrange his own exit in a manner that allows them to remain in Syria, alive and well.

Is that hope realistic? The best analogy is the bombing that failed to kill Adolf Hitler in the spring of 1944, depicted in the movie “Valkyrie.” If it had succeeded, could rational, more skilled and less bloodthirsty German Army officers have stabilized Germany and made a European peace?

Probably not. By that time, the rest of the world was unconditionally committed to unconditional surrender. The Nazi regime had become too vile and bestial for anyone else to deal with. The point of no return had passed long ago.

Probably the same is true in Syria today. You cannot murder tens of thousands of innocent civilians, including many intellectuals and natural leaders, and expect the population just to shake hands and “make up.” Any negotiated settlement now would have to tilt strongly in favor of the rebels.

The Alawites do have one thing in their favor. They’ve been ruling Syria for about forty years. In contrast, the rebels have no experience in governing. Nor do they have an attractive, sober leader like Nelson Mandela or Mohamed Mursi to follow. If they are going to rule Syria, they are going to have to learn at lightning speed. They are going to have to drink from a fire hose just to get the type of settlement that their patience and their people’s suffering deserves.

One last question needs an answer. How much, if at all, did we Yanks help? Did advanced technology help the insider assassins succeed?

There were certainly motive and opportunity. Getting rid of Assad’s pathological regime was (and is) a primary goal of Turkey, the United States and also Israel. Our helping Turkey achieve that end would have made a giant step in repairing our strained relations after the Israeli killings on the Turkish supply ship, which Turkey patiently ignored. If we did indeed help, yesterday would have marked a diplomatic and military triumph for all three nations. Even Lebanon will benefit from a weakening of Syrian hegemony.

Of course, such cooperation would have to be and remain top secret. And so it may have been. Unlike his idiot predecessor, our President knows how to keep a secret. He also knows the value of secrecy in our shadow war with terrorists and Islamic extremists.

Osama bin Laden was chief propagandist and figurehead for the Butchery of Innocents. So his death had to be announced. Part of the means and method had also to be announced for the sake of credibility. But you can be sure the methods, manner and means of disposing with other butchers will remain secret for both tactical and political reasons.

Politics abounds with ironies. The same raving dolts who wanted to press our fights in both Iraq and Afghanistan to “victory”—whatever that means, and against a still undefined enemy—protested mightily against our involvement in Libya and Syria. They wanted us to bloody our noses and destroy our credibility and prestige by making needless and endless war in the Islamic and Arabian worlds. But they didn’t want us to help the Arab Spring, which might end terrorism finally if it succeeds.

The President and his advisers are smarter. They know that liberty and self-determination in Arabia will take the wind out of extremism’s sails. Libya’s recent free elections show how. As far as Westerners can tell, they produced a largely secular government. It isn’t even Islamist, let alone extremist, let alone terrorist. Left to their own devices, Arabs and Muslims want to be free to live their lives, just like you and me.

Assad’s departure from power seems much closer today than two days ago. It may be the toughest nut to crack. But once he goes—or once he is killed like Qaddafi in a futile last stand—the Arab Spring will be unstoppable. The wind of change and progress that it brings will disperse terrorism, slowly, like smoke after a bomb blast. And with our President’s wise leadership, we Yanks will have been on the right side of history in the Arabian and Islamic worlds, for the first time in a long, long time.

Confirmation of Continuing Risks of Financial Meltdown

When you’re a lone blogger, it’s easy to feel insecure. “Have I got it right?” “Am I exaggerating?” “Have I become the same type of extremist that I accuse others of being?”

These are questions that every honest blogger, along with every honest journalist, has to ask daily. You especially have to ask yourself these questions when commenting on real events and cultural trends that themselves seem so extreme as to evade all rational explanation.

But today I got confirmation that my most recent, lengthy post on banks and bankers had it just right. The confirmation came in the form of lengthy interviews with two men who were present and active just before the Fall. One was John S. Reed, former CEO of Citbank, before it became Citigroup. The other is Byron Dorgan, former Democratic Senator from North Dakota.

Both men are unique, but in different ways. Reed participated in the orgy of banking deregulation that led to the Crash of 2008, including the merger of Citibank with Traveler’s Insurance to form Citigroup. Yet nearly alone among the partygoers, especially on Wall Street, he now regrets what happened and sees it as a big mistake. More important, he describes in detail how Wall Street’s control of Congress and even the White House led to the Crash, and how nothing much has changed in Wall Street’s culture, control of politics, or ability to cause the next crash.

Dorgan was almost alone among senators in voting against repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999. Not only did he vote against it; he predicting the Crash as a consequence of it, down to the rough time frame. While still in the Senate, he tried to beef up Dodd-Frank with means to break the big banks up and with an “insurable interest” requirement for derivatives—both of which I have argued for here [in the linked posts]. Dorgan failed. Because of his failure, he now sees Dodd-Frank as “timid” and unlikely to forestall the next crash.

It’s all there in these interviews, everything I’ve noted in my posts: the orgy of group-think, the initiative from Wall Street, the legions of lobbyists, the corruption of pols, the change in banking culture from serving customers to getting rich quick, and the utter disregard for consequences.

The interviewer is Bill Moyers, a distinguished TV journalist who used to have his own weekly show on PBS. Now retired (no doubt for political reasons), he has the means to run his own professional website.

If my “diatribes” on banking have piqued your interest and you want to know more, there is little better you can do than spend an hour watching these interviews. What you will see is careful, calm, soft-spoken and highly intelligent experts—both of whom were key players in the drama that destroyed the future of our youth and middle class—explaining from personal experience how it happened and what it means.

And of course you should add Bill Moyers’ website to my list of credible news sources not in Wall Street’s thrall.

I regret omitting his website from that list, especially as The Economist, which I appear to have praised too much, now reads as if in the pocket of international banking, not in Wall Street, but in The City of London. In a recent favorable book review, The Economist had the temerity to argue that there is no way to test financial “innovations” (for example, in limited markets) before rolling them out globally, just as we did with securities backed by liars’ mortgage loans, derivatives of them, and credit-default swaps in the years before 2008. Jamie Dimon could not have written a more absurd and wrongheaded review.

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