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

26 September 2014

Attorney General Holder: A Good Man Leaving


[For brief comment on the Woody Allen test and the importance of voting this November, click here. For brief comment on Attorney General Holder’s role in letting the bankers walk and vigorously prosecuting leakers, click here. For brief comment on Holder’s vindication in his approach to terrorism cases, click here.]

Amidst all the hubbub about the nascent war against IS and the now-dormant civil war in Ukraine, an important event yesterday was barely noticed. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he would be leaving his post as soon as his successor can be confirmed.

Holder’s departure will be a sad day for both law and justice.

Unfortunately, the two do not always coincide. But for the better part of six years, Holder has served both with grace, elegance and consummate skill and intelligence. He is one of the longest serving members of Obama’s Cabinet, outlasting Hillary by a year and nine months.

Holder’s many detractors make a lot of noise. But as far as I can tell, they have only two complaints of any substance. The first is that Holder wanted to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the operational mastermind of 9/11, in civil court in Manhattan, rather than in a secret military tribunal. The President overruled him. The second is that Holder has been too vigorous for some in fighting laws that make it harder for Americans to vote.

I have written a whole post about trying KSM, and I won’t repeat it here. I’ll just make a few simple points.

After World War II, a stunned, grieving and exhausted world wanted to wage peace and forget. But our great political leaders and jurists didn’t want our species to forget Nazi atrocities or the Holocaust. So we Yanks organized and led the Nuremberg Trials.

Justice Robert H. Jackson, one our most able and distinguished Supreme Court Justices, presided over the Trials. They lasted over seven months. They presented voluminous evidence, translated simultaneously into multiple languages. They proved the convicted defendants’ guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt, openly, transparently and before the entire world.

In the process, the Nuremberg Trials accomplished three things. First, they showed the world that Nazi atrocities and the Holocaust really did happen, and that they were far beyond the pale of ordinary military operations. Second, they showed precisely who—what individuals—was responsible. Third, they showed that we Yanks and the Allies were not out to punish the German people collectively, as the Allies had stupidly done after World War I, but to expose and punish perpetrators of crimes against all humanity.

As I have analyzed, the Nuremberg Trials marked a decisive step in human social evolution and the advance of civilization. For the first time in human history, they held individual leaders responsible for crimes against humanity and civilization. And they did so with impeccable legal procedure and close attention to facts and evidence.

Now contrast what we did with KSM. We are trying him in a mostly secret proceeding, with little openness and transparency, and accordingly with little publicity. The contrast with the Nuremberg Trials could not be starker.

What Holder wanted was an open and public civil trial, in Manhattan, where the worst part of the crime occurred. If he had gotten his way, twelve ordinary men and women of New York would have decided KSM’s fate, just as jurors have done for centuries past, in all English-speaking societies. KSM, whose only remaining joy in life was bragging about his spectacular atrocity, could have been induced to confess it, at length and in grotesque detail.

The results would have been supremely beneficial. KSM would have condemned himself in his own words. All the grotesque rumors that we Yanks, or Jews, had planned 9/11 for political purposes, or to discredit Islam, would have been quashed forever. The people most hurt by 9/11—New York’s many survivors—would have had an open and active part in doing justice. And the strength, resilience, even-handedness and effectiveness of our Anglo-American system of laws and courts would have been on global display.

Instead, we have a dark military proceeding which anyone (without effective contradiction) can accuse of being a kangaroo court. Isn’t that what banana republics do, not great democracies? Only furtive Torquemada Cheney could have conceived a plan so inconsistent with our Yankee history, legal traditions and values.

I don’t fault the President for overruling Holder, at least not too much. He had lots of other things on his plate, including health-insurance reform. His political judgment is superb, and the reason for his decision was clearly political expediency.

Nor is the President alone in making tactical decisions that, in retrospect, proved morally wrong and practically inadvisable. Lincoln, for example, freed the slaves too late. FDR approved the Internment of Japanese-Americans, in the absence of any evidence of disloyalty or sabotage, and didn’t live long enough to apologize for doing so.

But I cannot imagine any lawyer worthy of the name who would, based solely on law and justice, have made the same decision as the President on KSM’s trial. The President’s decision was political, not Holder’s. It may have been expedient. It may even have been necessary. But it was not right. History will vindicate Holder.

As for Holder’s work on voting, his detractors ignore one simple, self-evident point. All the laws that Holder is challenging as AG—voter ID laws and restrictions on early voting, absentee voting, and voter registration—make it harder to vote. No one denies that, not even avid supporters of these laws.

Why, oh why, should we Yanks want to make it harder to vote? As we all have been told over and over again with respect to the upcoming midterm elections, we need more voters, not fewer. If history is any guide, around thirty or fewer percent of eligible voters may determine the outcome of our upcoming elections, at least in a few key states and districts.

So why, oh why, should we want to discourage voting? Study after study has proved so-called “voter fraud” nonexistent, or so far down in the noise of our society as to merit little attention. The only reason support for restrictions on voting makes any sense at all is that some folks want to discourage voting by those who don’t agree with them.

Is that democracy? Doesn’t democracy mean persuading eligible voters with whom you disagree, rather than making it harder for them to vote? And with all the power of the history’s most effective propagandists on their side (namely, Fox and the Antichrist Rupert), don’t the right-wing supporters of making voting harder have ample means to persuade?

No, Holder’s efforts to expand the franchise are hardly the assault on the rule of law that his detractors claim. His lawsuits and his hard work go to the essence of preserving and perfecting our democracy and our supremely effective “melting pot” of all peoples.

I taught law for over twenty-four years. I practiced it full time, part time or as a consultant for 32. I taught in four American states and on four continents: in our country, Japan, Korea, France, Australia and (as a Fulbright Fellow) the Russian Federation.

In so doing I met and observed lawyers, jurists and law professors from all over the globe. Few are even in Holder’s league. None that I can recall exceed his skill and effectiveness.

His tall grace, sweet face, and gentle delivery combine with superb elocution and articulation and a gift for consistently “going for the jugular” in a nonthreatening but absolutely precise and irrefutable way. Holder’s unmatched gifts have ennobled our American legal profession, which is ever at risk of venality and corruption.

Holder is ever true both to the rule of law and to the value of justice that underlies law and legitimatizes it. Law without justice can degenerate into tyranny. Holder has consistently worked hard to keep that from happening here.

We and our common profession will miss you, Mr. Holder. Thank you, thank you, for your distinguished service to our nation, our profession, and the cause of human civilization.

After a well-deserved rest, may you continue to serve all these things, perhaps as dean of one our great law schools: Harvard (my alma mater), Yale, Stanford, Michigan or Chicago. The faculty and students of any one of them would be honored, privileged and ennobled to call you their leader. So would I.



Coda: Two More Points of Cavil

Before leaving the subject of Attorney General Holder’s record, I would like to address, very briefly, two additional points of complaint against him. Some lament that Holder didn’t get the bankers, and that he has prosecuted government leakers too vigorously.

I, too, have lamented (several times—see 1, 2 and 3) that the bankers who destroyed our global economy walked free. Not only didn’t they go to jail; they didn’t even lose any money.

All that did indeed happen, but Holder is not at fault. The law itself is.

Three features of Anglo-American law conspire to give errant bankers virtual immunity from individual responsibility for their sins. The first—and by far the most important—is an established feature of Anglo-American tort and criminal law. There is no such thing as financial or economic negligence.

You can be liable for unintentionally killing someone on the road or in an industrial accident, but not for unintentionally destroying a national or the global economy. You will walk no matter how stupid, greedy, and unreasonable your actions might have been, because the very concept of negligence does not apply to financial or economic damage. In both criminal and civil court, you must be shown to have had evil intent.

Insofar as criminal liability is concerned, there is another hurdle that prosecutors must jump to put errant bankers away. Not only must they show evil intent (because there is no such thing as banking negligence). They must also prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

Getting evidence of that intent is, to put is mildly, not easy. Bankers may be stupid and greedy, but they didn’t really intend to do anyone any harm. They just didn’t think much about the consequences of their actions. That’s not criminal or tortious intent; it’s negligence, which doesn’t exist in the law for banking or other economic sins.

Anyway, despite their self-evident greed and stupidity, bankers (at least the top ones) are smart enough to have learned one lesson. They don’t put incriminating things in writing, or even in e-mails. All they do is wink and nod to their underlings. Honor among thieves prevents the underlings from testifying. And even when they do, clever lawyers discredit their testimony by pointing out the immunity that prosecutors often grant them for giving it.

So if you think the law is set up to let bad bankers walk, you’re right. It could not be more cleverly designed for that purpose if Goldman Sachs had drafted every provision of the law governing bankers. (Unless we strengthen the law, another gratuitous financial crash is just a question of when, not if. That’s why giving the law sharper teeth is far more important than prosecuting past malefactors of great wealth, let alone blaming Holder.)

But even that’s not all. The worst bankers walked not because of Holder, but because his deputy in charge of financial matters when Holder took his job bought the “save bankers to save our economy” ploy hook, line and sinker. [search for ”fifth“ point in linked source]

The Justice Department has over 10,000 lawyers nationwide. When you are in charge of that many people, you have to delegate. Holder did. To blame him for the result—and for the longstanding abysmal state of Anglo-American law governing financial misfeasance and malfeasance—is nonsense.

As for pursuing leakers vigorously, Holder serves at the pleasure of the President. And as you may have noticed, both Holder and the President are “black.”

Just as Hillary has to be a hawk because she’s a woman, “black” men in high positions in our country have to be hard on leakers in order not to be tarred as soft on national security. If you want to blame anything for the Obama Administration’s far-too-tough line on leakers, blame our tortured national history of race.

You also may recall that Obama’s immediate predecessor, Dubya, spent four years trying to find a leaker and had to appoint a special prosecutor to convict him. Perhaps the current President and his Attorney General could be excused for wishing to avoid such a four-year distraction from good government, while dealing with the most extreme examples of hazing of a president and congressional obstruction in American history. To blame Holder as if he had a free hand in the matter, ruled only by his own personal conscience, is nonsense.

We are in the midst of a presidentially declared “war against terror,” declared by the President’s predecessor. The President has tried to wind down two unnecessary national theaters of that war, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Excessive security and persecuting leakers—despite our long tradition of a vigorous Fourth Estate—won’t subside until after we have utterly defeated the Islamic State.

The fear now is just too high. That’s why Edward Snowden is still hiding in Mosow. And that’s why he’s a hero, just as much as the NSA spooks and analysts who protect us every day. Democratic societies tend to get the balance of liberty and security wrong while danger persists and is real, let alone during wartime. Just recall the Japanese Internment. To blame Holder for all that is, to resort to Obamanian understatement, unjustified.

Footnote 1: A literal translation of the Latin is: “That a strong man dies through fate, all weep with me.” (emphasis added.) Attorney General Holder, thank God, is not dying. I have no idea why he really is leaving. He may be tired. He may be sick. The President, whose political judgment I respect, may think his leaving will help the Dems in the upcoming election.

But the verse from Carmina Burana came unbidden to mind when I thought of his departure. We have too few people of his caliber in leadership positions in our nation. That’s why the border of this piece is blue. Blue is how I feel, and how anyone who cares about both law and justice should feel, at the mere thought of Holder’s leaving.

Footnote 2: I hate the word ”black” as applied to people. Not only does it ignore obvious shades of hew and racial origin. It also ignores that fact that, for reasons of the sexual desire of white male slave owners, the vast majority of so-called “African-Americans” are of mixed race. But it has the sole virtues of being a single syllable, and (because of our nation’s unenviable racial history) of being unfortunately comprehensible to all.

Footnote 3, Holder’s Instant Vindication: Today (10/22/14) the New York Times published an early vindication of Holder’s approach to trying terrorists in civilian court, rather than in secret military tribunals as a banana republic would. To quote the Times’ free online summary, “The success of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in reversing the Bush administration's emphasis on trying terrorism suspects in secret prisons or at offshore military tribunals may be one of his most significant achievements.” It’s not often that a good public servant receives the respect he deserves even before he leaves office. But Holder has and will again; he’s that good.

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22 September 2014

The Woody Allen Test

    Eighty percent of life is just showing up. — Woody Allen
In about 45 days, our nation is going to take a Woody Allen test. We’re all going to take it together, all at about the same time. But the people who need to pass it most might flunk. I speak of the poor, the too-hard-working and our mobile-device-obsessed Millennials, including college students.

It’s an odd thing, of course. But it’s true. In most states and most districts, “majorities” of 20% to 30% of eligible voters decide who governs us, at least in midterm (nonpresidential) elections like the one coming up. And when issues are on the ballot, like minorities decide those, too.

So we not only have minority rule in both of Houses of Congress. We have minority rule where it counts most: in selecting the pols who govern us.

Minority rule in Congress is not really our fault—if by “our” you mean all of us. Our Founders, in their infinite wisdom, gave each House of Congress the power to make its own rules of operation. They anticipated a lot of human failings and abuses. That’s why they gave us a separation of powers, checks and balances, and a Bill of Rights.

But our Founders never dreamed that pols elected to represent the people, under a system of majority rule going back to ancient Greece and Rome, would decide, of their own free will, to institute minority governance in each House, in its standard rules of operation. And our Founders certainly never dreamed that such a system would perpetuate itself on the theory that, if pols ever changed it, their party or faction would have less power when in the minority.

Only a person with the intelligence of the average pol could conclude that giving a minority carte blanche to obstruct increases his or her lifetime influence to make constructive change. (I refuse to believe that even the worst pol doesn’t crave influence to make constructive change, however he or she may define that concept.)

So, no, the institutional dysfunction that makes this Congress the do-nothingest in our nation’s history is not directly our fault. It’s the fault of the morons we elected. But those morons—who sit in Congress, do nothing, and perpetuate a system that does nothing—are our fault. We elected them.

We can kick them out if we just vote. But unfortunately, many of us don’t vote.

We fail the Woody Allen test. We don’t show up on election day. Worse yet, Democrats don’t vote at a much higher rate than Republicans. That and minority rule are why the do-nothing-but-lick-the-bosses’-boots party still essentially runs this country, despite having dim prospects for ever winning a presidential election again.

All the civics classes we ever took urge us to vote. So do all the Fourth-of-July speeches we ever heard. So do all those crosses, stars and crescents that remind us on Memorial Day how many of us have died to preserve our democracy against would-be invaders and tyrants.

Some of the Woody Allen failures have what they think is good excuses. “I’m too busy,” they think. We’ll how much busier will they be if they have to go fight another unnecessary war, or pay for one, or if they have to seek another job or find another home after the bankers crash the economy again and they lose one or the other, or both?

Then there are the purists. “No one is good enough for me,” they think. Well, do they have a spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, brother, sister, mother, father, children or grandchildren? Are all of them perfect? Do they all always succeed at what they try and do what they promise? And if not, don’t the Woody-Allen failures love them all the same? And don’t they go to bat for them and try to help them when they can?

Why should pols be different? Are they deities? If you have any sense of realism at all, it shouldn’t take you long to answer these questions.

No one is perfect, least of all a pol. So voting for the lesser of two evils is a sacred duty.

My proudest vote ever was for Hubert Humphrey against Richard Nixon in 1968. Both were flawed candidates, but Humphrey was far less flawed. If a few more people had voted like me, we never would have had Watergate, no president would ever have resigned under pressure, and our useless, losing misadventure in Vietnam would have ended a lot sooner. A whole lot of needlessly dead Americans, not to mention a myriad of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, might still be living.

Which brings us to President Obama. No, he’s not Teddy or Franklin. Nor is he Lyndon Johnson, for worse and for better: he can’t twist arms in Congress the way Johnson did. But unlike Johnson, he’s getting us out of two unnecessary wars and only dipping a toe in a third.

No, Obama didn’t give us a public option, which two-thirds of us want. But he made a partial success where a whole century of presidents before him had failed. Now you can get health insurance without worrying whether you were ever sick before. And if you’re a Millennial, you can stay on your parents’ insurance through age 26. Best of all, Obama got 7.3 million people insured who never were insured before.

What does that mean for you? Well, suppose ebola comes to our shores. Uninsured people don’t go to doctors when they feel sick, until it’s too late. So there are 7.3 million fewer people out there likely to deliver ebola viruses to you on your Big Mac, on the beds they make or the toilets they clean, or to your kids in day care. That simple fact might save your life.

Care about immigration? Well, who has curtailed deportations despite Congress’ inactivity? And who has made a virtual political platform out of demonizing Hispanic immigrants, even innocent kids fleeing gang murder? (Hint: it isn’t the President.) If more Republicans get into Congress, you’ll have more demonizing of Hispanics, more deportations, more sending innocent kids back to gangland to be slaughtered, and more exploitation of undocumented workers. Care to stay home on election day and let that happen?

Care about global warming? Well, who has proposed a clever rule that, in about a decade, will shut down most of our coal plants, which are not only our biggest source of global warming, but our biggest stationary sources of harmful pollution, including sulfur dioxide (acid rain), mercury pollution of lakes, rivers and seas, and particulate pollution that causes or exacerbates asthma in cities and suburbs, mostly where poor people live? Think all this will get better with more Republican members of Congress?

Have trouble deciding how to vote? Republicans have made the choice easy. For five years they’ve opposed virtually every initiative and idea of the President’s, without offering any alternatives of their own. They have a few good people, such as former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., but most of them have no chance in Hell of even getting nominated over Tea Party opposition.

What was once the Grand Old Party and the party of Lincoln has become the party of extremists. Although not all Republicans are racists, all racists who vote are Republicans, especially now that a half-black man is a Democratic president.

So if you care about health, immigration, global warming, or racism, you don’t have much choice but to vote Democratic. If you’re too busy or too ill-informed to know pols’ names, just vote for the ones with the “D” adjacent.

The election is Tuesday, November 4. I’ll be there, if I don’t vote early or as an absentee. If you’re too busy or confused or too much of a purist to pass the Woody Allen test, then you’ll have no right complain, no matter how bad things get.

And if you’re a Millennial and recent college graduate, be assured that things can get much, much worse. Imagine graduating from college a century ago, in 1914, just before World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II . You would have spent most of your life struggling economically while fighting, and perhaps dying, in the two greatest wars in human history. Vote—and vote wisely—and you might help spare yourself and your family that sort of agony.

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09 September 2014

Engineering America: Making Things Work Again


Once we Yanks were a practical people. We were all, in some sense, engineers. Every one of us.

Our early immigrants had to be engineers. They had settled in a new land, far from home, and they had to be self-reliant.

They came to a new, harsher, and (in the North) much colder land than any they had known. They had no immediate access to the help, technology or manufactures of the societies they had left behind. They had to improvise and invent, in farming, building, and organizing their society. They designed their structures, their farms, their tools, their factories, their gardens, their towns and their communities. And they did it all from scratch.

Those who couldn’t do so perished. We are just now beginning the dig up the lost towns of those who died. Mostly they were people who relied more on prayer and lamentation than their own invention and what they could learn from the native peoples.

Our Founders were also engineers. They had a chance—unique in human history—to design a new human society from the ground up. They grabbed that chance with both hands and open and eager minds.

They didn’t call themselves “social engineers” because that term didn’t exist in Colonial times. But that’s exactly what they were, and quite self-consciously so.

They studied the ancient democracies of Greece and Rome and what made them rise and fall. They tried hard to duplicate what worked well and to avoid or suppress what didn’t, including the lust for empire and what they called the “evil of faction,” i.e., partisanship. They did their utmost to use social engineering to suppress and control the dark impulses of human nature with formal rules, such as checks and balances and the rights in our Bill of Rights.

Like all good engineers, our Founders had to make tradeoffs. They had to meld two utterly different societies—one based on industry and freedom, the other on agriculture and slavery. They did their best. They gave us the odious accounting of slaves as three-fifths of people. And they wrote slavery right into our Constitution, in spite of Jefferson’s admonition that “all Men are created equal.”

But they also gave us less odious tradeoffs. They gave us two Houses of Congress, in one of which every state must have two senators forever, no matter how different they may grow in population, industry, wealth, power, education, intelligence and invention. Our Founders gave each House the right to make its own rules, allowing each to degenerate into minority rule in its own way. And so each has.

This was not our Founders’ fault. Every engine eventually breaks down and fails. Every product of engineering becomes obsolete. The task of new engineers is to fix it, redesign it, or rebuild it. We Yanks haven’t yet even begun that task with our governmental structure. Except for eliminating slavery—which took our bloodiest-ever war, plus one and a half centuries of unremitting struggle (and still counting)—we haven’t yet even seriously noticed that the task needs doing.

Our medical men and women were engineers, too. When Europeans came to this continent, the lower Mississippi Valley and the bayous were cesspools of tropical diseases. They figured out that mosquitoes spread the diseases and cleaned them up with insect control and later insecticides. Learning from England’s engineers, they also cleaned up the diseases of cities, such as cholera, with proper sewage disposal and later flush toilets.

Of course the widest realm of engineering is industry. Many of our greatest industrialists were self-made, becoming engineers without formal education as such. Andrew Carnegie started out as a clerk who saw the efficiency and economic benefits of the Bessemer Converter and cheap steel for a new nation. Thomas Edison was a life-long tinkerer who invented the light bulb, electrical power systems, the phonograph, and motion pictures. The Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics who, all by themselves, invented unique scientific testing machines, including the forerunners of wind tunnels, to test their airfoils to make machines that could fly reliably and under control.

The two Steves who invented the personal computer (Jobs and Wozniak) were in a similar mode. They didn’t invent the microchips and other electronics they used. They didn’t even have the education or training to do that. What they did was take the chips that others developed and put them to a new practical use, thereby developing a whole new industry.

Bill Gates did much the same thing with software. He made software for the machines that IBM modeled on the two Steves’. He did so just a few years after IBM, under legal duress, “unbundled” software for its own much bigger machines, creating a whole new industry and a new field of engineering.

And today we have Elon Musk. In keeping with our more advanced technology, he has a couple of college degrees, in economics and physics. But he dropped out of graduate school after mere days to pursue his business dreams, and he never looked back. He had enough knowledge and intuition as to how things work to create the world’s leading electric car maker and a private space-launch company. Like other engineers, including our Founders, he has the knack of making things work better in the real world.

Now that Jobs is dead and Gates and Wozniak are retired, we should thank our lucky stars that we at least have Musk. For two other types of people are rapidly replacing engineering and practical folk as our society declines.

I speak of the finance man (they are virtually all men) and the “persuader.”

Bankers have always been with us. And so have people who persuade, by means both fair and foul. But never in human history have they been so numerous, so influential, and so pretentious. And never in human history have they claimed whole professions, which purport to be something like engineers.

Finance men differ from bankers in two respects. First, they see their purview as broader than bankers’, who used to serve as little more than auxiliaries to engineers, industrialists, and ordinary people. Today finance men purport to be engineers, too, “engineering” financial “products” and “systems” for the betterment of business.

But finance men’s goals, training and motivation differ radically from real engineers’. They seek not just to make things work better, but to get rich, usually quick. These are the folks whose margin on credit brought us the Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. In a more recent and far more sophisticated incarnation, they are also the folks who brought us secretly-traded derivatives and liars’ loans, the Crash of 2008 and the Great Recession.

The aftermath of their most recent exploit is still with us and may continue for years. Finance men differ from engineers in failing to consider practical consequences after the money hits their pockets.

The persuaders are even more insidious and ubiquitous. They are the ad-makers, “public-relations” folk, political consultants and operatives, and propagandists. They are the ones who tell pols how to “frame” issues, garner votes, and avoid resolving anything. They are the ones who get voters and pols to credit simplistic bumper-sticker ideologies rather than think. They are the ones who, quite self-consciously, try to get opposing voters to stay home on election day, rather than vote intelligently.

They are the ones who are going to avoid any national debate over immigration—and probably over the military crises in Ukraine, the Middle East and North Africa—until after the upcoming midterm elections. Then the lumpen “undecided” will go to sleep again, at least until a few percent of them have to go to war or suffer unemployment to pick up the pieces.

Unlike engineers, these persuaders don’t want to solve problems. They have a single, overriding goal: to keep the people who hired them in power, to sell or whitewash their underperforming selves or defective products, and to bash their political and commercial opponents. In the process, they are demeaning our industry, destroying the trust of voters and consumers that holds society together, and exaggerating the human failings of all public officials to the point that no one will follow them and they cannot function.

To say that these folks work at cross-purposes to engineers would be an understatement of Obamanian proportions. Yet they occupy whole sectors of our economy. They own faculties and departments in all our great universities, where they teach their dark arts. No medieval wizard or alchemist was better situated.

Persuaders sit behind, advise and often control every politician and many chief executives in our society. Why do anything practical and real when you can use techniques that even Goebbels, Stalin and Mao never enjoyed to make people believe you are doing something, regardless of reality, and that your opponents and detractors are scum?

Maybe all this is the Fate of Man. Ancient Rome had its Bread and Circuses, its bald payments to voters, and its nobility-inspired rabble-rousing, including fomented mobs. Rome fell, hard, and several times.

As good social engineers, our Founders tried to avoid the same fate. But how could they predict that, over two centuries hence, our Supreme Court would decide that our First Amendment holds inviolable the “right” of rich people to propagandize the poor and weak-minded, and to systematically destroy the trust that every human society needs to flourish?

Maybe every society reaches a lazy point at which making money by manipulating finance and weaker minds seems preferable to doing anything real. But how we Yanks managed to suffer the fate of Rome in a mere two centuries plus is at least worth some inquiry. It took Rome several centuries. And Britain’s democracy is still going strong eight centuries (next year!) after Magna Carta. Maybe you have to give up your empire, as Britain did, to save your democratic soul.

To end this depressing essay, I’d like to do two things. I’d like show how the problem is not only stark, but at times quite subtle. Then I’d like to suggest a long-shot way out.

The subtlety best appears in the person of Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric. GE is still one of our few remaining excellent industrial companies, a global powerhouse of heavy industrial engineering. Besides Boeing and perhaps 3M, we Yanks have nothing else like it, in generality, size or global influence.

GE is a firm whose wealth, power and influence depends on one thing only: making big things work, i.e. engineering. And Immelt is one of the most influential and widely respected CEOs in all of American industry. Therefore I was astonished when I read his online biography in Businessweek. Immelt has held a large number of leadership positions, but they are mostly in finance, not engineering. As far as one can tell from his bio, his only connection with engineering is a bachelor’s degrees in applied mathematics that he got in 1978.

Lest I be accused of bashing Immelt, whom I generally respect, let me first say that he has done a good job in divesting the scatterbrained accretion of conglomerate junk that GE picked up over the last three decades or so. His latest divestiture, of GE Appliances, was reported just yesterday. Like the others, it will permit GE’s flabby and enormous body to get lean and focus on what everyone agrees it does best: leading-edge and innovative heavy industrial design and manufacturing.

But how did GE get this way? How did it get so fat, flabby and dissipated that it needed more than a decade of divestitures to restore some sense of fitness and mission to its executive suite?

It got that way because its former CEO Jack Welch, although a scientist and engineer by training, made it that way. It got that way because this particular engineer took the gospel of B-school “leadership” and profit above all. And so he became a finance man in all but name.

Under the “legendary” Jack Welch, GE morphed from an industrial engineering powerhouse to a finance company, a real-estate company, and the owner of a television network (NBC). Although a latecomer to the conglomerate gospel, it became a conglomerate less disciplined and more dissipated than many of the most notorious of the seventies. As such, it fell hard when the Crash came. It had to be bailed out to the tune of $139 billion—a once-excellent industrial company that had put several toes in the cold waters of finance and nearly had them frozen off.

There are two morals to this story. The first is that finance is not engineering, especially as it is practiced today. Its primary goal is different: getting rich versus making things work. And its skills are also vastly different: let the smartest banker at Goldman Sachs try to design the simplest electronic or mechanical device, and he will fail.

The second moral is more subtle. Science and engineering are specialized. The more specialized you get, the narrower your perspective.

Maybe Jack Welch’s Ph.D. in chemical engineering made it hard for him to get enthusiastic about smart grids, electric vehicles, and multi-purpose turbines that can be used with natural gas or steam from nuclear power plants. Maybe that’s why he saw finance, real-estate and television—things utterly foreign to his training and presumably his engineering mindset—as so attractive.

Maybe that’s why the greatest industrial innovators, from Edison to the Steves and Musk—have been lightly educated and largely self-taught. Maybe it takes a broad perspective within engineering to see something simple but powerful, like combining chips made for bigger computers to design a personal computer, or combining thousands of laptop lithium batteries to power a car. It definitely takes an engineer’s perspective to see the power of putting all those little batteries in a layer below the axles, in order to lower the center of gravity and make the car fun to drive.

The long-shot way out of our national decline is to bring engineering back hard, in all its forms. There are lots of opportunities for engineering education in this country. And there are still people who have a special knack for making things work. Think of Edison, the Wright Brothers, Steve Jobs and Musk.

We need to pay more attention to the people who have that knack, in politics as in industry. It’s a special skill that we should cherish as our Yankee birthright.

Few finance men have it: the only thing they have in common with engineering is math. And they often fail to understand, or even to know, basic engineering principles like positive feedback, which was what turned their high-frequency trading schemes into the “Flash Crash” of May 2010.

They don’t know these things not because they aren’t smart enough. They are plenty smart, but they don’t give a damn. They just want to make money. That, to put it mildly, is not the goal of engineering.

Persuaders also need not apply. They go into their professions because they don’t have a knack for or any interest in making things work. They want to make others work for them, and not for their own convictions, but for hire. Is it too strong to call them parasites?

If we can somehow bring back the engineers, including the social ones that our Founders, too, were, we might have a chance. Otherwise, the Germans and Chinese will eat our lunch, and none too slowly or delicately.



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