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

29 May 2014

Was Orwell Right?

Introduction: great thinkers need more respect
Why I was wrong
Why collecting big data is a problem
Why storing big data is even more so
Conclusion: will we live in an Orwellian world?

Introduction: great thinkers need more respect

Sometimes great thinkers get no respect. People expect them to predict the future accurately, in all its detail and complexity. No one can do that.

Throughout human history, the great prophets have been able to foresee only broad outlines, general trends. They get the essence right but can’t see the trees for the forest. So detractors ignore their warnings and belittle their foresight.

Thus it has been with Malthus, and thus it may be with Orwell.

I’ve already written a whole essay on Thomas Malthus’ big idea and will only summarize it here. Writing over two centuries ago, he got his timing wrong. Modern agriculture and twin revolutions in science and technology vastly increased our species’ ability to produce food and so staved off the starvation he predicted, at least so far.

Malthus was also wrong about the first commodity to go. It’s energy, not food. And he missed a huge unintended consequence: as we exhaust our planet’s limited supply of fossil fuels, we are not only running out of cheap, dumb energy; we are also changing our global climate and causing ourselves all sorts of serious headaches.

But for all the things he got wrong, Malthus got the most basic and important thing right. He wisely saw that, having bested our few predators and having begun to conquer the most dread diseases, our exploding human population would eventually outrun the resources of our finite planet. As fossil fuels get scarcer and more expensive, and as our climate becomes our enemy, we are finally beginning to understand just how much our dawning twenty-first century will belong to Malthus.

George Orwell was “just” a novelist, not a “serious” thinker. When we Yanks got past his critical date—1984—with a semblance of democracy still intact, we breathed a huge sigh of relief. We made it! Orwell was wrong!

So we don’t think about him much any more. But we should.

In his classic dystopian novel, published in 1949, Orwell made three basic predictions. First, he foresaw how the then-nascent sciences of biology, medicine and psychology could be used as tools of political control. Second, he predicted that large-scale conflicts between continent-spanning human cultures would provide convenient excuses for oppressing and manipulating the masses. Finally, he foresaw how collecting vast information on everyone would allow government and the elite to control individuals by less crude means than killing or jailing them.

Like Malthus, Orwell erred in detail. We don’t use modern biology to tailor-make individuals for different societal roles, at least not yet. And we certainly don’t do it in test tubes as he imagined. But the science of genetic engineering is just in its infancy.

There’s as yet no analogue to “soma”, the drug Orwell imagined rulers using to keep even skeptical citizens happy and docile. But don’t look too closely at today’s vast overprescription of ritalin for ADHD—an ailment whose recent “epidemic” seems to have occurred mainly among minorities and the poor. You might discern a similarity.

On continental conflict, Orwell’s prediction wasn’t bad at all. After a couple of decades attempting to cooperate, we Yanks, Russia and China seem to be resolving into continent-wide conflicting cultures much as Orwell predicted. The resulting conflicts “justify” all sorts of expenditures on spying and weaponry and all sorts of infringement of civil liberties. For all we know today, these depressing trends are just now hitting their stride.

Orwell didn’t foresee the rise of Islamic terrorism, which provides the most direct and powerful excuse for spying, secrecy and oppression, in all three conflicting realms. But, hey, no prophet is perfect.

Anyway, it’s in his last prediction that Orwell really shines. He foretold that information about individuals would become an instrument of power and control. In so predicting, he was spot on.

Who would ever have imagined, back in 1949, that mundane information about all of our daily lives—our youthful experimentation and indiscretions, likes and dislikes, failed job performance, unsuccessful business ventures, extramarital affairs, and political communications and contributions—would become part of a permanent “cloud,” available forever, to persuade, blackmail, manipulate, intimidate and coerce us? Only Orwell, apparently.

Why I was wrong

About seven years ago, I published a post entitled “Search-and-Seizure Heresy.” In it, I argued that our Fourth Amendment was being misconstrued in the electronic age. Its aim, I wrote, was not to protect information, but to protect people from the coercion, disruption and intimidation that arises from general or unauthorized searches of houses and offices by armed police or military forces.

That essay still has some useful insights and an interesting practical comparison of our age with Colonial times, when our Founders drafted our Fourth Amendment. But its most basic point was wrong, and I hereby recant it. Here’s why.

In that essay, I argued that the evil of general search and seizure—i.e., dragnets—was not acquisition of information or invasion of privacy, but the search or seizure itself. In our electronic age, when the government vacuums up vast reams of data about us, it does so secretly and silently. The targets don’t even know or suspect that they are being surveilled. So there’s no coercion, disruption, or intimidation, at least not immediately. The target of surveillance doesn’t even know what’s going on.

Under these circumstances, I reasoned, the evil of search and seizure is not the mere fact of surveillance, but the use of the information once obtained. If it’s used to prevent a terrorist attack, no harm, no foul. If it’s used for illegitimate or improper purposes, such as political intimidation, blackmail, or prosecuting crimes without due process, then the courts can avoid it, or sort it out later. Aggrieved individuals can, among other things, later sue for violation of their rights.

But in reaching these conclusions, I did what I often use these pages to accuse others of doing. I didn’t follow the likely chain of causation and consequences far enough. So now I must eat humble pie.

What I failed to do was to follow my heresy to its logical and practical conclusions. Two are most important.

First, if authorities (or anyone else) can collect any information at will, they will. They will collect it all and store it all, without limit, for possible future use. Information is too valuable a commodity, and to cheap to gather, to let it go.

The technical means of vacuuming up big data today are extraordinarily cheap and simple. And they are getting cheaper, simpler and smaller by the year, in accordance with Moore’s Law. So once officials—or our businesses—incur the expense and trouble of building the collecting infrastructure, all their natural incentives are to collect everything they can and store it indefinitely, against possible future need.

They will collect big data on everyone and everything for the same reason that Hillary first climbed Everest: because it is there. The data vacuum-cleaner will become a voracious tornado that never forgets, because clever people can always think of new uses for old big data later.

Second, both government officials and business people who collect big data have every incentive to lie about what they are doing. If they want good information, they don’t want people to know they are collecting it. If their subjects know, then at least some will object. Some will hack. Some will encrypt. More than a few will whine and pout. Many will conceal, mislead and prevaricate. Some will provide disinformation, just for spite. Some will even sue.

But if you are quiet as a mouse and let no one know what you are doing, you can vacuum up good information as long and as much as you like, and you can store it and comb through it forever. There is absolutely no incentive for moderation or restraint, or for telling the truth about what you are doing.

Knowledge is power. Knowing things about people that they don’t know you know can provide near-absolute power. And we all know what Lord Acton said about that.

Lest you think these consequences are abstract theory, watch the recent PBS Frontline Feature, entitled “The United States of Secrets,” both parts.

Not only our government, but also private business firms, big and small, have already slid down the slippery slope toward vacuuming up everything, simply because they could, and because doing so is cheap and simple in our modern digital age. More to the point, government officials at the highest levels, and the CEOs of “household name” US Internet firms, lied profusely and repeatedly about what they were doing. They didn’t want us subjects to know.

Perhaps some of the lying was justified. NSA understandably doesn’t want terrorists to know what it’s collecting and how. For similar reasons, Google and other “targeted ad” companies don’t want consumers to know how much they are watching us as we live, love, work and shop, because knowing might cause us to hide or change our behavior.

It’s all a bit like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle for subatomic particles. The very act of observing a particle, requiring interaction with a photon, can change the particle’s behavior. So generally speaking, those who run data vacuum cleaners don’t want the rugs to know they’re being vacuumed. Consequently, they lie and mislead, even to Congress and the American people. All this does not conduce to a transparent, open and honest society.

And when you think more deeply about it, even the “aiding terrorists” claim doesn’t seem to go very far. Don’t we want would-be terrorists to think their every phone call and e-mail is monitored?

If they’re smart, they probably suspect as much anyway. And if they’re really smart, they might find ways to encrypt their real communications, and/or to feed us disinformation on more easily monitored lines.

But every encryption can be broken. And who has the better technology: Islamic extremists crouching in caves, or the nation that developed the Internet, routine encryption of financial transactions, and all the mathematical, electronic and engineering infrastructure to support them?

If terrorists are smart and well informed, their best option is not to try to best the Yankee technological juggernaut, but simply to avoid using cells phones, e-mail and the Internet generally, except for decoys and deception. In other words, they must resort to passing important messages by secure personal courier. Doesn’t that necessity put them at a substantial disadvantage in the digital age?

Why collecting big data is a problem

Despite all the charges and countercharges, there are no villains in this story, only misunderstood heroes. Edward Snowden gave up an easy life, let alone a free one, for a sordid existence of exile and unceasing risk and uncertainty, all in order to remind us of Orwell’s prophecy. The NSA folks are dedicated public servants with a single paramount job in their minds: averting the next 9/11.

Each has given us a vision of real and serious risks. The NSA’s warnings are easy to visualize: another 9/11-scale terrorist attack. Snowden’s warnings are less so: a society in which there are no secrets, in which all the sordid details of our private and public lives remain open visible and potentially accessible in the cloud forever, and gossip and propaganda replace wisdom, sound judgment and wise public policy.

With our twenty-four hour news cycle and our increasingly intrusive and twittering media, we are already well on our way to Snowden’s (and Orwell’s!) dark vision. To an astounding and rapidly increasing degree, we already have a polity based in large measure on gossip, i.e., on titillating details about current events and prominent people’s lives and acts that have no substantial or logical relationship to rational decision making or sound public policy.

How much more can we build a culture and a public life based on random but titillating facts, without knowledge or wisdom, repeated endlessly by advocates with agendas, and expect to succeed in an extraordinarily competitive, globalized world? How can we hope to compete with societies like China and Germany which, for all their faults, keep their eyes on the ball and don’t confuse raw data and gossip with rational thinking?

This is just one of the hard questions that Edward Snowden has asked us. He has given up any semblance of a normal life, at least as an American, to put this question before us. His warning is perhaps harder to understand than the risk of a new terrorist attack, but it is none the less real and important.

Orwell would have understood. Can we?

The spooks’ desire to vacuum up everything has a sound practical justification. Connecting the dots of terrorist plots usually involves hindsight.

Remember the 9/11 hijackers taking flying lessons but not wanting to learn how to land? The significance of that dot didn’t appear until after the Twin Towers came down. But computers and a large enough data base might have revealed its significance beforehand.

That’s a perfectly plausible assumption and a worthy project for protecting all of us. Computers can apply hindsight a lot faster, and can handle a lot more data, than the best intelligence analysts. They can work so fast that their hindsight approaches foresight. And if properly programmed, computers don’t fail because of siloing data in inter-service rivalry, like that between the CIA and FBI.

So the rub is not the counter-terrorism operation. Every clear-thinking Yank wants it to continue unimpeded as long as a credible terrorist threat persists. The rub is the vast temptation that unlimited databases create for other, less noble or necessary uses.

Here Orwell provides a glimpse into a possible dark future.

Although it may not seem so when you look at Syria or Donetsk today, we humans became considerably less crude, savage and brutal during the last century. Stalin was one of the most brutal tyrants in human history, responsible for tens of millions of premature deaths. Mao was perhaps less brutal on a per-capita basis, but he, too, was responsible for a least millions of unnecessary, premature deaths. And his capricious economic policies in his dotage were responsible for millions more.

In contrast, today Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping rule their respective nations pretty firmly, with but a tiny fraction of the killing and bloodshed that their predecessors used. How do they do it, and how do they do it so peacefully? By controlling information.

Both authoritarian societies—Russia and China—strictly control the flow of information to their people. Although both governments permit some freedom on the Internet and in the printed media, both control television almost absolutely, and both attempt to control the Internet. China does a far more effective job than Russia, as China has the edge in practical software technology and (according to some estimates) over 30,000 Internet “censors” monitoring the Web every day.

And lest you think we Yanks are far from those paragons of propaganda, consider Fox. That alleged “news” source is one of the most effective propaganda machines in human history. It succeeds, among other ways, by endless repetition to a captive audience (a tactic familiar from Hitler’s “big lies”), and by making propaganda seem like entertainment. The pill goes down so easily, as Fox’s jokers play on sarcasm, rant and rave.

But controlling the information people receive is only half the story. Knowing real information about them is the other. Without accurate information, you can’t make propaganda plausible and credible. With it, you can demolish the character, reputation and credibility of anyone you choose.

Take our Yankee 2008 presidential election, for example. An highly educated, moderate, restrained, soft-spoken, thoughtful man ran against an aging, intemperate, irascible pol who, in the midst of the worst economic crisis in eighty years, honestly confessed he knew nothing about economics. By all rights, Obama should have beaten McCain by a landslide. But he won by only a few percentage points in the popular vote.

So although the GOP ultimately lost, the closeness of its loss was an impressive propaganda coup. How did it achieve that coup? By using the raw material of fact to manufacture effective propaganda.

How did the birther movement grow such long legs? Because Obama was born in Hawaii, a racially mixed state that, to most Americans, is impossibly remote and exotic—not really a part of America. (Having lived there for eleven years, I know this from personal experience. Large numbers of Yankee tourists, while boarding planes in Honolulu to return home, say they are “going back to the States”—an expression that makes Hawaii’s Yankees wince.)

How did the “extremist” charge against the President gain traction? Because Obama’s preacher, the notable Reverend Wright, actually said some edgy things.

How did the “terrorist” charge gain credence? Because Obama actually did socialize briefly with a man who, decades before, had been part of the then-extreme “Weather Underground.” In the end, this dysfunctional group did little but kill and injure its own members, but it scared a whole lot of Americans.

Of course the GOP propaganda also relied in large part on the President’s race, if only indirectly. Despite all our progress since the Civil War, there are still a whole lot of Americans who are ready to believe the worst of anyone with black African genes. Having a few solid and accurate facts able to raise doubt was all clever propagandists needed to incite their suspicion, distrust and dislike.

From the GOP side, that’s what the 2008 presidential campaign was all about. If McCain had any clever and non-obvious plans and policies, they got lost in a blizzard of gossip, innuendo, and propaganda based on real but largely irrelevant factoids. Perhaps for failure to grasp the needs of a national campaign, McCain ran one of the worst in American history.

The twisted consultants and “political operatives” who gave us that horrible campaign lost, but they are far from defeated. Nor is their kind of dark sorcery limited to the 2008 presidential campaign. It’s endemic in our society, our politics and even in our courts.

Trial lawyers now make a practice of digging up real dirt on hostile witnesses. They destroy witnesses’ credibility before juries not by evoking contradictions in their testimony, or any rational doubt relevant to the case at hand, but by sheer character assassination. They have become demagogues and propagandists in what you might think are the last bastions of pure reason in our twittering society: our courts.

There are even CLE courses in which experienced lawyers teach young ones these dark practices. Judges shouldn’t, of course, permit these tactics in the courtroom. But they often do, if only because they fear being reversed on appeal for evidentiary rulings with little relevance to the heart of the case. So they let the character assassination proceed, hoping it will not distort the result of the trial. Of course the lawyers doing the character assassination hope exactly the opposite, often with good reason.

And need I mention non-presidential politics? All those Citizens United ads, for which the 1% pay billions and which the rest of us pay as much as we can afford to counteract, are nothing more than propaganda based, as much as possible, on real dirt.

In our courtrooms, our political arenas, and our business competition, we have entire, well-paid industries whose job is to vacuum up real dirt from which to manufacture plausible and therefore effective propaganda. In a real sense, “character assassination ‘R us”—in our courts, in our states, in our national politics and in our businesses.

It is in this context that the social peril of vast, uncontrolled databases on everyone becomes apparent. Big things in an important person’s past are often public knowledge. As a freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela reportedly gave some orders that caused people to be killed. Some say he was a terrorist. But he later grew in wisdom. Then he united and brought racial peace to South Africa as no one else could.

Jose Mujica, the current president of Uruguay, once was a rebel guerrilla. He was shot several times and spent nearly two decades in prison. Much later, he formed a progressive government so marvelously effective that it led The Economist to name Uruguay country of the year in 2013 for its “recipe for human happiness.” Our own President, during his high-school years, had been a member of an informal club that smoked marijuana (although after Bill Clinton’s not inhaling, no one seemed to care much in 2008).

The point is not that propaganda based on dirt is always effective, or that dirt always needs big data to extract it. The points are that digging up dirt is effective far too often, that data vacuum-cleaners bring it to a whole new level, and that digging for dirt distracts us from people’s real character, and the real merits of products and services, let alone wise policy.

When you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys, or the competent from the incompetent, through the blizzard of negative ads based on big-data dirt, you’re going to get bad government. At very least, you’re going to get government by the 1%, who have the cash to dig up the dirt, to borrow or steal it from government if necessary, and to hire the people who know how to use it in skillful propaganda. Government becomes an exercise in dirt-digging and propaganda, financed by people who have money to spare and who believe their dirt-based propaganda will get them more.

Everyone has something in his or her past that could be used for character assassination. The best of us have more than most. Mandela and Mujica, for example, each morphed from ruthless and perhaps brutal freedom fighters into wise and effective political leaders.

Having huge databases of everything about everyone, including dirt, will only give propagandists additional fodder, tempt us to waste energy, attention and societal resources on digging up dirt on each other, corrupt our politics and our judicial process, and put more power in the hands of the 1%, who have the money to waste on all of this and few scruples about doing so.

And lest you think the NSA’s and private-Internet-firm databases are immune from such sordid use, remember the NSA’s code name for one of its data vacuum-cleaning programs: “PRISM.” The name derives from a simple, non-electronic optical device familiar to everyone from high-school science classes: a triangular piece of glass called a “prism.”

In science classes, a prism splits the colors of white light, producing an attractive multi-colored spectrum. In the NSA’s use, prisms split fiber-optic beams in the Internet’s backbone into two parts. One goes on its normal way, making the Internet work. The other goes into NSA’s data-vacuuming equipment.

So simple, so cheap, so effective. A five-dollar optical device, which doesn’t even require electrical power, does it all. Do you begin to see why only effective legal restraint and political oversight can impede Orwell’s dark vision?

Using a simple prism from a high-school physics class, crooked pols who once burglarized the Democratic Party’s headquarters in the Watergate Building can, much more easily and unobtrusively, siphon off a substantial portion of Internet traffic and bend it to nefarious ends. So can bent business, petty criminals everywhere on the Internet, and globally organized crime. Where there’s such potent temptation, devious minds will surely find a way.

Why storing big data is even more so

Of course the longevity of storage makes a difference, too. Once you conceive of storing data on individuals for a decade or more, you can vacuum up their whole lives.

It’ll all be there: youthful hijinks and indiscretions, embarrassing but ultimately harmless sexual adventures, cured venereal diseases and disabilities, early experiments and failures in employment and business, regrettable statements and conclusions in a person’s formative years, failed relationships, the minor crimes that everyone commits through negligence or oversight, the risky and unfortunate associations that more mature reflection might have shunned, and sometimes even evidence of major crimes.

Government and business will get distracted from their primary jobs of making our lives better. Instead, they will dig up dirt on people they don’t like, including political rivals and business competitors. We will have Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List” on steroids.

Do we really want to collect this stuff and have it available for stealing and illicit use for a person’s entire life, and even for their offspring’s? Should the sins of fathers and mothers be visited on their sons and daughters? Should the mistakes of youth dog a good person for his or her entire life?

Only if we want to become a culture based on character assassination, which is where our political campaigns and civil trials are now demonstrably headed. No wonder the good Spanish judge recently said “no” and ordered Google to let ordinary people, after a suitable interval, purge their dirt from the cloud. His decision, although no doubt costly for Google to implement, was little more than common sense and humanity.

Conclusion: will we live in an Orwellian world?

No matter how proper is big-data collection’s original or “primary” purpose—and counter-terrorism is a good one!—the more data we collect on more people, and the longer we store it, the more likely we will live in George Orwell’s world. The data’s mere existence will tempt the ambitious, weak and unscrupulous among us to improper use, whether formal or informal, legal or illegal, authorized or not. When splitting the fiber-optic beam requires only a five-dollar glass prism, we can’t count on keeping the genie in the bottle.

So there’s a real and palpable tension here. We can never, of course, have complete security in the face of ardent terrorism. We can approach it, perhaps, but only at the cost of bringing Orwell’s dark vision to life in our own time.

Perhaps we can reduce the risk of realizing that vision with some simple, practical means. First, all collected data, without exception, should have a shelf life, after which the storage equipment purges it automatically and completely. Maybe the shelf life should depend upon the reason, if any, to believe that the subject is involved with terrorist activity or might be a valuable witness to terrorism. The ordinary shelf life should be somewhere between two and five years—ample time to get a judicial warrant to keep it stored longer, if necessary.

Second, data on persons with no known or suspected connection to terrorism should be purged periodically and automatically, perhaps within a year. For example, if no qualified analyst has accessed the data within a year, the storage program could automatically purge it, keeping a record of the purging, the subject and the date, but not the content.

Third, we should think hard about doing with big data what the Fair Credit Reporting Act did with financial databases: allowing data targets to review and correct false information about them. Of course the problem with anti-terrorism data is much more difficult: we don’t want terrorists or their sympathizers rummaging around in the secret data that might expose and thwart their plots. But we all know that mistakes are made, and sometimes innocent people suffer terribly, as in the case of mistaken identity casting people irrevocably onto the “no fly” list. We ought to provide some way for people to purge their inaccurate dirt, even if we have to set up special, secret courts like FISA to do so.

In curbing unnecessary big-data vacuuming and abuse of the information it gathers, we would do well to recall a phrase attributed to Larry Lessig: “the code is the law.” Collecting terabytes of data on 307 million Americans, and on a substantial fraction of over 6 billion foreigners, is not something anyone can monitor and control effectively in real time. If nothing else, the recent history of government lies and misinformation about what data it gathers and how it uses it is instructive.

Perhaps the law can manage, with appropriate judicial orders, to reveal, correct and unwind a particularly egregious misuse of the data after the fact. But doing so will take years of effort on the part of investigators, lawyers, judges and jurors. Only the most egregious and important violations of privacy and misuse of dirt will ever rise to that level.

So if we are to have safeguards against an Orwellian world, we will have to design and build them into the big-data-vacuuming system itself. They will have to be part of the programming that runs the system. They will have to be part of the code that, in large-scale computer systems, is the only practical law. And we will have to appoint a savvy Big Data Coding Inspector General to make sure that the coded protections are appropriate, adequate, in place, and operational. This is not a case in which individual legislators, or even legislative committees or staff, can have any real and direct oversight over vital detail.

So whatever his faults, Edward Snowden has raised a real and important issue. Are we going to remain a free country, where individuals are free to experiment and make mistakes without knowing or believing that that what they do will haunt them and their progeny forever? Or are we going to become a society of spooks and character assassins, ruled by gossip and clever propaganda, in which nothing is private and our individual mistakes and pasts are open to misuse and abuse by government, business, self-interested propagandists and criminal minds, which have every incentive to vacuum up as much data about us as possible, to hoard it forever against possible future need, and to deny vociferously that they are doing so?

The nature of our society and the future quality of our lives depend upon thoughtful, nuanced answers to these questions. Ultimately, they depend on practical measures to avoid excessive data collection and its improper use or release.

So far, all we have gotten for answers is caricatures. NSA has argued that everything is fair game for collection and indefinite storage because the goal (avoiding terrorist attacks) is just. That’s a self-evident non-sequitur. So is the view of some privacy advocates that nothing is fair game unless approved in advance by a judge. The whole rationale for massive data collection is that you can’t connect the dots until you have them, and you don’t know what dots are important until you have lined them up for a while. So you can’t have anything persuasive to present to a judge until you’ve started up the vacuum cleaner and have begun to connect the dots.

Surely well-meaning pols and public servants came come up with a better way to reconcile safety and privacy than these two extreme and simplistic positions. The other alternatives are to abandon a useful tool to combat terrorism or to take a giant step down the dark road toward Orwell’s vision of an intrusive, controlling, inhumane and dysfunctional society.


19 May 2014

Coercive Capitalism

Introduction: why I’m a capitalist
Capitalism’s fundamental flaw, and why it’s fundamental
Capitalism and workers
The evolution of American capitalism
Where we Yanks stand today
Conclusion: raising the minimum wage

Introduction: why I’m a capitalist

Let me be clear at the outset. I’m a capitalist, both by upbringing and inclination.

I’m hardly a captain of industry. But I’ve spent my entire adult life working within the American capitalist system. I’ve managed to accumulate modest wealth, sufficient for a comfortable retirement. Nearly all of it I’ve invested in “the markets,” i.e., directly or indirectly in capitalist industry. (I don’t invest in finance because, as explained elsewhere in depth (1 and 2), I think it’s the single sector in which capitalism has gone most awry.)

This is not just a marriage of convenience. I approach my investments with enthusiasm. As I invest in firms like Apple, First Solar and Tesla, I marvel at the cleverness and adroitness with which they are addressing our common human problems of communication, energy, pollution and global warming, at the same time as they offer consumers more choices and shareholders more opportunities.

I also follow and admire great firms like Amazon and Google, although I’m still waiting for their shares to reach realistic price-earnings ratios. (I wasn’t smart enough to get in on the ground floor.) I think these firms, as well as other, older excellent ones, like Boeing, Caterpillar, and GE, represent the best of our common species and reveal some of the characteristics that will take us to the stars.

My admiration for capitalism is not just financially self-interested. It’s philosophical, too. Capitalism, at least it its best days and smartest guises, is the system of economic order that least relies on coercion. And as a hearty small-d democrat, I don’t like coercion in any form.

Capitalism requires and depends on free markets and free trade. And free markets and free trade, at least in their pure forms, are the antithesis of coercion. They depend upon purely voluntary transactions between buyers and sellers, on the one hand, and among trading partners on the other. Free trade has largely replaced the last century’s terrible wars over natural resources with bargaining and free exchanges. It has also encouraged rapid development of resources through foreign and joint investment—subjects to which I’ve already devoted a whole essay.

When people do things together eagerly, of their own free will, there is little they cannot accomplish. Properly managed and construed, capitalism seems to promote their doing so.

So I’m more than a lukewarm supporter of capitalism. I like it because it seems to offer a life freer from coercion, war, oppression, and tyranny than any other form of political/economic order that our species has developed so far.

Capitalism’s fundamental flaw, and why it’s fundamental

This doesn’t mean that capitalism can’t be improved. Anything can. Like all good things, capitalism has a flaw. You might say it contains the seeds of its own destruction. Or maybe there’s a flaw in our human nature, which capitalism has not (yet?) been able to overcome.

The flaw is that, in practice if not in theory, coercion usually creeps back in. This is especially so as capitalism is practiced today.

Sometimes individual capitalists acquire too much power and no longer compete fairly. They use the money and power they accumulated through innovation and past successful competition to undermine future competition, coerce or distort free markets, abuse consumers and slant foreign trade. Examples are the railroads in the nineteenth century, American car makers in the mid-twentieth century, Microsoft in the last two decades of the last century, Comcast today, and banks, at times, in almost every era, especially during last ten years.

Our Yankee antitrust laws, and competition law in Europe and Japan, were designed to reverse these trends. But they are increasingly ineffective. Discussing why that is so would require a whole book, not just a short essay. But it is indeed so.

Although authorities have sometimes stopped anticompetitive mergers recently, they have not, in recent years, broken up any coercive monopolistic foe of competition as they did the Standard Oil trusts over a century ago (in 1911). Europe’s competition law is a bit more robust than ours now, but both are wimps compared our antitrust law in its first few decades.

Somehow, our legislators and jurists have forgotten the basic lessons taught by Senator Sherman and Teddy Roosevelt: that private capitalists can be just as coercive as any tyrant (albeit a bit more subtle) if given the chance. These lessons have a strong pedigree. Here’s what Adam Smith wrote about the time we Yanks were declaring our independence from Britain:
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
So far, in our new century, our Yankee antitrust wimps have ignored this sage advice almost entirely. In particular, they have done nothing at all to whittle down the abusive power of the gigantic banking combinations that destroyed the global economy six years ago. All they and the banking regulators have done is to marginally reduce the risk of big banks taking down the whole economic system again in the immediate future.

Sometimes coercion comes from an unholy alliance between capitalism and government, which corrupts both. China’s new president, Xi Jinping, is fighting that sort of unholy alliance at two levels: state-owned enterprises and regional governments that favor local business cronies. We Yanks are fighting “soft” political corruption against the tide of the Supreme Court’s catastrophically unwise decisions on campaign finance.

Of course the saddest recent example of government-capitalist collusion came just a few years ago, when our Yankee government and several European ones bailed out big private banks that were deemed “too big to fail.” Their excuse may have been sound: without bailouts, the global economy might have collapsed. But the result was terrible, and hardly consistent with the personal responsibility that capitalism usually implies. It was a case of pay to let others play: innocent taxpayers worldwide paid so that bankers could play, and the latters’ stupidity and greed went entirely unpunished and (in the future) undeterred.

So capitalism, at times, can be partly or even wholly coercive. Just think of taxpayers working extra hard, for the next decade or so, to pay off losses caused by the stupidity and greed of banking capitalists, none of whom ever went to jail for his misdeeds, and none of whom even suffered significant personal financial loss.

Unfortunately, none of these battles is one that we, the people, will ever “win.” They are perpetual Manichaean struggles within the human soul. In every decade and every age, men (seldom women!) build empires that get too powerful, grossly exceed their original aims (and any public benefit of size or power), and become coercive. The way this happens—and the best way to counteract it—vary from time to time. But the phenomenon is a human constant that will be with us as long as our species survives.

A third dangerous aspect of capitalist coercion is tribalism, including racism and nationalism. It can arise wherever modern people revert to tribal grouping or thinking and their tribalism finds expression in capitalist activity.

It’s happening today with China’s and Japan’s rival claims over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Their conflicting desires to have those tiny islands derive not from need for habitation or agriculture, but from the oil and mineral resources surrounding the islands. The result is mutual provocations, which may yet become war. Similar things are happening in Ukraine, where Russia is trying to acquire territory and businesses (principally those involving Russian speakers) for reasons of both economics and national pride.

The smart, capitalist things to do would be: (1) for China and Japan to cooperate in developing the Islands’ resources and share the resources or the proceeds of their wider sale; and (2) for Russia to let Ukrainians decide their government and obtain the business resources and products through free investment and trade. But these things aren’t happening because of tribalism and bad memories. Thus do past wars cast their dark shadows into our species’ future and its capitalist development.

Capitalism and workers

And so we come to the fourth and final aspect of coercive capitalism, which is by far the most important. It’s the one that affects the human condition—and the vast majority of people—most directly: coercion of workers.

This sort of coercion is always economic. Yet at times it rises to the level of military force. For example, police, national guard, and the army broke many strikes in the last century, injuring and killing workers in the process. They did so even in our own country. They also did so just recently in breaking a miners’ strike in South Africa. Although we Yanks don’t do it much any more, both secret and not-so-secret police abroad imprison and/or execute workers’ champions, or (especially in Latin America) just make them “disappear.”

The struggle between owners and workers is not a temporary or transient thing. It’s also a basic part of the human condition. (Marx’ and Engels’ most fundamental error was thinking that any mere theory could make it go away.)

We humans are individuals. Yet whatever our puny bodies and minds have achieved derives solely from our cooperation. We succeed as a species, and we have come to dominate our small planet, only collectively.

So we are perpetually at war within ourselves. Our inner dictator is at war with our inner committee, as each tries to dominate and control the other. The problem becomes especially acute when we sit down to decide who gets the proceeds of our cooperative success, and in what shares.

Marx and Engels almost put their finger on this problem but missed the point entirely. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” is not an answer, but the question. How does a “dictator” accommodate the majority’s needs without coercion? Or how does a diverse and non-coercive majority make decisions and select leaders without resembling a dictator?

In other words, how can we split the proceeds of our species’ cooperative labor fairly and wisely, without coercion? We are not much closer to answering that question than we were when Marx and Engels thought they had an answer.

The implicit contradiction is not just semantic. It lies deep in our humanity. These questions reflect our dual evolutionary nature as a species of individuals which succeeds, prospers and triumphs only insofar as it cooperates socially, working together.

Our evolution gave us no celestial guideline for how to share the proceeds of that cooperation. For a while, the owner class argued that God meant them to have the lion’s share. Yet both God and His use as a mask for selfishness are going out of style today. Each of us, with individual needs, wants the best of the proceeds of our mutual labor for his or her own. The rest is mostly post-facto rationalization.

So you can’t square the circle. You have to accept us as we evolved and as we are. You have to understand the tension and the contradiction between individual desires and needs and our species’ imperative of working together and sharing the results. And you must manage all this as best you can. There is no simple or permanent solution, far less an overarching theory. The contradiction is one that every nation, culture and age must manage on its own terms.

Our Yankee right wing disparages sharing with a scornful term: “redistribution.” But there’s nothing “re” about systems that share the proceeds of common effort more widely. The least “redistributive” economic system, after all, is slavery. And we Yanks fought our bloodiest war ever to get rid of it.

The evolution of American capitalism

The way we Yanks face this fundamental problem has changed dramatically in just our own short history as a nation. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, capitalists throughout the world took the same one-sided approach as as Marx and Engels, but from the other side. They accepted class warfare and held that that the owner class ought to win.

Business owners, they pontificated, were smarter, more capable and better educated than workers and so should determine what workers get paid and how well they live. Their temporary victory made workers’ lives miserable, with appalling conditions, child labor, long hours, and little if any protection of health and safety. That was not America’s finest hour, nor England’s.

Two things changed this sordid picture. First came Russia’s bloody Bolshevik Revolution and its attraction for oppressed workers worldwide. Like the hangman’s noose, these things focused capitalists’ attention. Second came FDR, the notorious “traitor to his class,” who tried to make workers’ lives less miserable, in the depths of the Great Depression no less.

The solution FDR and his brain trust arrived at was brilliant. Let the workers organize and represent themselves. Aren’t voluntary bargaining and free markets the essence of capitalism? Then why not let workers bargain collectively to fix the market value of their labor in the only way that ever makes sense in any free market: a voluntary, consensual trade?

FDR also imposed regulation to limit the worst harms to workers. With Congress’ aid, he abolished child labor, set maximum hours with overtime pay, and began the long process of cleaning up unhealthy and dangerous workplaces. Without collective bargaining and these new regulations, we might still have killer workplaces like Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza death trap here at home.

The dual system of collective bargaining and regulation that FDR put in place was a stunning success. It preserved our Yankee consumer society, which Henry Ford’s (then unique) five-dollar-a-day wage had jump started. It made an end run around global Communism and saved American capitalism from itself. In the process, it created the highest general standard of living and the biggest middle class that our species has ever known.

From the end of World War II until some time in the late eighties, the United States was the economic envy of the world. Productivity kept increasing, year after year, not just because of technological innovation but because workers, having taken a hand in fixing their own fate, worked willingly and hard. Class warfare faded into the background. Workers, at least in the big unionized factories and mines, were proud and happy. Even in a still-imperfect society, we Yanks had the greatest social cohesion of any society in human history.

Then, like many good things, it all began to unravel. The primary cause was globalization. Once capitalists began to source their labor worldwide, American workers simply couldn’t compete with foreign workers in China, Mexico, Vietnam and elsewhere. Foreign workers were (and are) quite happy to work longer hours, for less money, under conditions that American workers had grown to consider unacceptable.

The secondary cause of the great unraveling was a renewal of class warfare by capitalists. Owners began a furious campaign of propaganda to convince workers, against their interests, that the government that had protected them from unrestrained exploitation, and had given them the right to bargain collectively, was “the problem, not the solution.”

The slow withering of collective bargaining and regulation motivated a shift in owners’ political argument. They—or most of them—stopped arguing that they, as workers’ “betters” and owners of their own property (productive plants), had some sort of divine right to set workers’ wages, prices and working conditions.

Instead, they began to make economic arguments. As consumers, they said, workers want low prices. But they can only get them by letting owners fix low wages. Low pay, they argued, is an economic condition for consumer welfare, which workers as consumers should accept. In a competitive, globalized world, they also said, low wages are a condition of businesses’ economic survival and therefore of having any job at all.

At first, workers didn’t know what to make of these arguments. The relationship between labor prices (wages) and the prices of goods and services of course depends on several other variables, including the prices of land, materials and money. But it’s self-evident, in general, that as long as wages are at least a substantial component of the prices of goods and services, they will exert a substantial effect on prices. And the threat of losing jobs to China or other low-cost producers was both terrifying and historically real.

Workers’ first resort was to pine for the economic protectionism that made the last century a living hell. If we could just return to economic isolationism, and jettison globalization, they reasoned, we could stop the outsourcing labor drain, raise wages and prices, keep our clean environment and workplace safety, save our jobs, and return to our nation’s golden years.

But, the owners replied, you can’t do that. Closing our borders, whether to foreign labor or foreign imports, would destroy the entire postwar economic system, leading to economic cataclysm and maybe even to war. Isn’t that what happened in the last century, with the Smoot-Hawley tariffs?

Want to fight the most terrible war in history again, this time with nuclear weapons? That’s not going to help workers or their families. Isn’t it workers who end up being soldiers and fighting and dying in all wars?

Although workers didn’t quite understand or believe these arguments, they proved decisive, at least among the elite. I credit them, too, as I’ve outlined in another essay. The global economic system has, for the most part, replaced wars over resources with peaceful trade. And anyway, it’s far too late to unscramble the egg of the global, postwar economic system without unforeseeable, and probably disastrous, consequences.

The second thing that slowly killed FDR’s solution was the owners’ brilliant propaganda coup. Government, they told the workers, is not your friend but your enemy. Its complex and unwieldy regulations keep you from gainful employment, or at least from the wages and opportunities you would like. In the words of master propagandist John Boehner, government, like taxes, is a “job killer.”

This propaganda started to work in the “Reagan Revolution” but didn’t get much real traction until the Crash of 2008. With tens of millions unemployed or underemployed, it started to work for real. Desperate would-be workers, with little or no educational basis (or good data!) for assessing conflicting abstract political and economic claims, began to believe that their lives would be better if they regressed to the old nineteenth-century regime, under which they depended on owners’ enlightened self-interest and largesse. The result may have been one of the most successful propaganda coups in the history of class warfare.

Where we Yanks stand today

Now we are pretty much up to date. FDR’s brilliant solution no longer works. Three decades of consistent and relentless propaganda, repeated endlessly by Fox, has discredited government as a regulator, manager and protector of workers.

Collective bargaining is all but dead. Globalized labor outsourcing nearly killed it all by itself.

Then there’s the practical impossibility of organizing workers globally, as they face not only numerous different employers, but also different exchange rates, standards of living, working and environmental conditions and—not the least—wildly different cultures and attitudes toward authority and work. Today collective bargaining is vestigial in the private sector and robust only in state and local government services, which can’t (yet) be outsourced. And even there it’s under relentless political assault, or struggling with the realities of bankruptcy, as in Detroit.

As a result, America today is not the same nation I was born into 69 years ago. Gone is the social cohesion that made us the strongest society in human history. Gone is any pretense to egalitarianism. The 1% control business and government, and the 0.1% control them. Workers, for the most part, take what they can get and try to be happy with it, even if a couple has to work three jobs to raise a family.

Workers’ real wages have been stagnating for four decades, while the elite return to the Gilded Age. The “American dream” lies dead. Most parents’ lives are a constant, unrelenting struggle with time, which often forces them to let their children be brought up by strangers or grandparents, as in the last century. Our democracy itself is wounded, stabbed by persistent minority rule and two of the most spectacularly unwise decisions on campaign finance ever made by a supposedly rational and enlightened Supreme Court.

None of this, by the way, is the fault of capitalism per se. Nothing in the theory of capitalism requires that winners take all, especially by inheritance. And nothing in capitalism requires extreme inequality that surpasses our Gilded Age.

Conclusion: raising the minimum wage

And so, with collective bargaining beaten and subdued, at least for a while, and with government regulation of business discredited, we have the push for a higher minimum wage.

Don’t get me wrong. I support it. After three careers of hard work, my life is economically easy. I’d be happy to pay more for the goods and services I buy, just as I’d be happy to pay more taxes (as long as others did, too), in order to give today’s youth the very same opportunities I had, and to restore the socially cohesive nation, perceived by everyone as imperfect but fair, that I was born into.

But raising the minimum wage is an inelegant solution, especially compared to collective bargaining. It replaces economic coercion of workers with government coercion of owners. In contrast, collective bargaining imposed a regime of voluntary transactions on both sides.

So raising the minimum wage just replaces one type of coercive capitalism with another. What’s worse, it makes government, which must impose the minimum wage, the presumed culprit, opening up whole new vistas for the vapid anti-government propaganda that has all but brought our nation to its knees.

Unfortunately, at this point I don’t think we have any other choice. Coherent international collective bargaining is at least a generation away. A lot more economic leveling of the playing field, and a lot more political liberalization (especially in China), will have to occur before it makes sense. So the current practical choices are to return to the trade protectionism that motivated our species’ most horrible war, to continue the culling and impoverishment of our middle class, or to accept higher minimum wages as a temporary expedient. (If you can discover a brand new, more viable solution, you may have a Nobel Prize in economics and maybe a presidency waiting for you.)

At least higher minimum wages will keep the vast majority of our population, who work for a living, thinking that there’s a future in this country for them and their children. Without that optimism, what incentive would they have to educate their children well, let alone to work hard? Already many voices shout that a college education is a bad “investment.” They are not, I hope, the future of the nation that became a superpower and an unmatched innovator by investing in free, universal public education for all citizens.

At this point in our species’ history, collective bargaining is the gold standard for non-coercive capitalism. There is undoubtedly some tradeoff between wages and prices, as well as between wages and full employment. But economists differ widely on exactly how those tradeoffs work and how significant they are. And the people most eager to fund their studies and publish their results all have axes to grind—serious, longstanding axes.

Collective bargaining worked because it allowed workers themselves to decide how to make the tradeoffs that affect them. Isn’t that the essence of avoiding coercion, aka democracy? Yet the impracticability of including outsourced work in collective bargaining precludes that solution for the foreseeable future. In its absence, higher minimum wages are the only reasonable alternative to avoid a relapse into a Dickensian economy.

Imposing them as proposed (but recently defeated by GOP filibuster, i.e., minority rule) is even better. The $10.10 per hour wage that the President proposes is not going to upset any economic apple carts. Compared to the current hodgepodge of state and local minimum wages, it’s only (on average) about a ten percent increase. That size of increase is not going to destroy our economy, businesses, or employment in any segment of it. It will just do barely more than keep minimum wages up with inflation; our economy hardly succumbed years ago, when real minimum wages were much higher than today.

As for the $15 per hour minimum wage proposed in Seattle, consider it an experiment. It’s a trial run for a much more empowering minimum wage in a progressive, rather rich community. Business owners and right-leaning economists predict economic Armageddon: businesses moving out of Seattle, employment plummeting, and restaurant prices rising precipitously.

Nothing of the kind is terribly likely to happen. A few restaurants may move across city lines. A few marginal ones may go under. Some workers may lose their jobs. Seattle’s residents will have to pay more for restaurant meals, but it’s a wealthy community, in which meals out hardly constitute a huge share of most people’s income.

Life will go on, and people and businesses will adapt. If things go seriously wrong, Seattle can make adjustments. It’s a close-knit community of intelligent people used to reviewing evidence, making decisions based on facts, not ideology, and modifying them as needed.

In other words, Seattle’s plan is a grand social experiment, of the kind for which we Yanks used to be rightly renowned. And Seattle in particular is one of the best possible places for it. It should go forward. The President’s much more modest proposal should go forward, too. Likely, it will make few noticeable waves, while providing full employment for a generation of empirical economists seeking to prove one ideology or another.

Theory is great. But we Yanks are renowned (and strong!) for being practical. There is no practical way to restore collective bargaining to its former place in our economy, and there probably won’t be for at least a generation (although labor organizers of course should try). In the meantime, it makes good sense to experiment with higher minimum wages and shift the burden of coercive capitalism, temporarily and cautiously, off the shoulders of workers and our lower middle class. A nation that prides itself on a common dream, equality of opportunity, and a fair shake for the working stiff can do no less.

And none of this, by the way, will do much to disturb the 1% or the 0.1%, who supposedly bring us our jobs. Even the 1% receive nearly as much in a day as minimum-wage workers receive in a year. The 0.1% make that much in an hour. But saving the victims of injustice is always a more urgent task than punishing perpetrators or societal parasites, or bringing the favored and self-righteous down to earth.


09 May 2014

Iran and Saudi Arabia: A Poor Choice of Friends

[This essay is a companion and conclusion to a recent essay on the House of Saud.]

Introduction: a lack of introspection
Comparing Iran with Saudi Arabia
Terrorism and responsibility for it
The heavy hand of history
Conclusion: hope in Geneva
Recent confirmation
Priorities, priorities!

Introduction: a lack of introspection

We Yanks have a few big failings. Perhaps the worst is a failure to introspect—a failure to come to terms with our failures, to understand them, and to correct them, or at least to avoid repeating them. In failing to examine our failures, we fail to improve ourselves.

In individuals, that habit can subvert an entire life. In nations—especially ones as influential and powerful as ours—it can spell catastrophe and/or lead to decline.

The golden example of introspection today is Germany. No nation on Earth has done more to admit, confess, accept, examine, remember, and atone for its sins. Modern Germany teaches its schoolchildren and foreign tourists about them and maintains somber monuments to them.

There is nothing modern Germany can do to erase its terrible Nazi aggression or undo the Holocaust. But it can do better now, and it is. And because part of the impetus for its aggression came from a quest for energy, it is doing more, on a per-capita basis, than any other nation to get the energy it needs from inexhaustible and universally available resources: sun and wind.

We Yanks have done some introspection, although still far too little, about Vietnam. As a military adventure, our war there was a total disaster. We got nothing; we lost. In the process, we despoiled large parts of Southeast Asia with Agent Orange (a defoliant), mines, and unexploded ordnance. We killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians. Continuing that senseless war for over a decade (after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that made it officially a “war”) was perhaps the biggest sin in our national history beyond slavery at home.

Outside our Catholic Churches and synagogues, we Yanks have practically abolished shame and guilt. But if we still feel any, we should spare some for Vietnam. With force of every horrible weapon save nuclear ones, we tried to occupy and control that nation on a premise, the so-called “domino effect,” that proved to be not only false, but a paranoid fantasy.

As a nation that presumes to high moral achievement, we ought to seek other opportunities for introspection as well. And we ought to focus, in particular, on current global trouble spots.

Comparing Iran with Saudi Arabia

And so we come to Iran and Saudi Arabia. We Yanks are sworn enemies to one but close friends with the other.

You can still find videos of Dubya walking hand in hand with the late Saudi King Abdullah. In contrast, you don’t need a Google search to find evidence of our enmity toward Iran. It’s all around us, in the propaganda that bombards us every day. It’s in the air we breathe.

Does this choice of friends make sense? Let’s ignore history for a moment and just analyze the two nations today.

Iran is a modern nation. Just last summer, it had free elections, among the most impressive (in both process and result) ever to occur in the Middle East, at least outside Israel. The results of those elections—the moderates now in elective office—have been sitting across the negotiating table from us trying to end our senseless Little Cold War.

In contrast, anything resembling democracy under the House of Saud remains half-hearted or a sham. The royal family still rules absolutely, with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Other ethnic Saudis, however talented, are but hired hands and second-class citizens. The vast majority of the work force, mostly Indian and Filipino immigrants, labors under conditions of indentured servitude approaching slavery. Most women can’t drive and can’t work. They can’t even leave their homes without a male relative.

So much for politics and liberty. Now let’s look at business and commerce.

Iran has a dynamic, innovative, commercial society, much like ours. It has enough technical talent to presume to build nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons, despite our and Israeli sabotage and hacking. It has developed its own guided missiles. Think what Iran could accomplish by devoting all that scientific and engineering talent to peaceful, commercial ends.

In contrast, have you ever heard of anything in industry, science or engineering that any Saudi ever developed? Without our Yankee and some European engineering, the House of Saud’s oil industry would be like Venezuela’s. Iran has developed its own oil industry without such extensive Western help.

Then there’s the question of cultural exchange. Back in the sixties and seventies, before the Shah got nasty and Iranians threw him out, we had Iranian students studying here in droves. They were smart, diligent and successful. Their generation of students is now reaching positions in power of in Iran.

Today Iranian immigrants, nearly all Jewish, populate large parts of Los Angeles. They are well educated and well off. Although Jewish, they are also still Iranian; they still speak Farsi.

In the early nineties, I once saw an Iranian doctor in Beverly Hills, while seeking antibiotics to cure what turned out to be strep throat. His office was open on Sunday, so I thought at first he was a Muslim. But he had Hebrew credentials and religious icons on his office walls. His last name, if memory serves, was Mossadegh, the same as that of the duly-elected Iranian prime minister that our CIA and the Brits’ spooks deposed in 1953, but no relation (more on this point below).

The point here is not just that we’ve got lots of peaceful Iranian refugees. For all our faults, we Yanks still accept war-weary, huddled masses from all over the world. The point is that, despite all our enmity, there are American-trained Iranians in increasingly high positions in Iran, and many well-educated and prosperous Iranians here at home. This massive and natural cultural exchange could, and should, serve as a basis for quick rapprochement.

In contrast, have you ever seen, known or even read about a Saudi here in the US who wasn’t a Prince, a Prince’s hireling or apologist, an extremist or a terrorist? I haven’t, and I read widely.

One last point on cultural exchange. Back when we and Iran were friends, Iranian students came here to learn from us Yanks. They came to be educated in engineering, math, science, business and medicine: the arts of living practically.

In contrast, the proud Saudi Princes came here to teach us. It was Prince Bandar who gave Dubya his crash course in foreign policy during his first presidential election campaign. The results of that instruction are plain to see, in rubble, suffering and destruction all around the Middle East and South Asia.

Terrorism and responsibility for it

And so we come to the nub of the matter: terrorism.

For all the angst and worry about terrorism in the West, we Yanks have neglected a stark, simple and highly significant fact. Virtually all major acts of Islamist terrorism have been acts of Sunnis, not Shiites.

This has been true throughout the history of modern Islamist terrorism. It was true of the very first airline hijackings in the 1970s, committed by Sunni Palestinian terrorists. It was true of the attack on the Cole, and the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Tanzania in 1998. It was true of the 9/11 catastrophe. And it has been true, to my knowledge, of every major terrorist attack throughout the world, ever since, including the attacks in Russia at Beslan and Moscow’s Nord-Ost Theater and the Boston Marathon bombing.

There is only one possible exception: Hezbollah. This organization, labeled terrorists by us Yanks, is based in Lebanon. It gets funding and weapons from Iran. It’s a Shiite group, which is why it is fighting so heavily, and so successfully, against Al Qaeda and other Sunni terrorist groups in Syria.

But if you look beyond labels, and beyond Lebanon, Hezbollah is different. It’s much more a political and military organization, in the traditional sense of those terms, than an ungovernable band of terrorists.

Watch what they do, not what they say. Hezbollah’s legions don’t lob rockets into Israel, at random, to terrorize civilians. Rockets like that come from Sunni Gaza, not Shiite Hezbollah territory.

Rockets from Hezbollah-controlled territory come at times when Israel and Hezbollah are in a virtual state of war, as in 2008-09. Then they come in droves. They still kill civilians, but they are more like the German dirigible bombings of London in World War I, or the V-2 bombings in World War II, or our Yankee firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo or nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are part of warfare, throwbacks to the last century’s catastrophic notion of “total war,” not random attacks with no apparent reason but sowing terror.

If you’re the Israeli parent of a child killed by a Hezbollah rocket, should you care? Probably not. But if you’re a pol in Israel or the West, you should care very much.

Why is this so? Because Hezbollah is both a political party and a disciplined military organization. It’s the only enemy that ever fought Israel’s army to a standstill, as it did in 2006. Together with Assad’s forces, it defeated the Al Qaeda forces fighting Assad near the Lebanese border last year. It’s not an amorphous collection of fanatics, but a state within a state. As such, it can be dealt with, by political and, if necessary, military means.

If you accept this distinction between Hezbollah, which Iran supports, and the random acts of terrorism that have troubled large parts of the world for four decades, you come to a surprising and interesting conclusion. The vast bulk of Islamist terrorism, if not its totality (in both magnitude and impact), comes from Sunnis, not Shiites.

Iran, the great Shiite power, is little at fault. What fault it has is minor and incidental.

So who or what is responsible? Do you have to ask?

For decades now, the House of Saud has sponsored, funded and encouraged Sunni terrorists all around the world. It does so indirectly, but openly, by funding the numerous madrassas that teach young Muslim boys only the Qur’an, extremism and hate, and no useful skills. (This was the subject of my most recent essay.) It does so covertly and indirectly by funding various Islamic “charities” that funnel money into Sunni terrorist groups.

Why do the Saudi Princes do this? If you are supremely cynical, you might say they do it for revenge against the West, which has occupied, brutalized and dictated to their part of the world for a over century, all in the name of oil. Maybe the Saudi Princes, every time a terrorist blows up a Western monument or icon, killing innocent people, raise glasses of illicit un-Islamic Western whisky in a furtive toast.

But I can’t square this dark vision with reality. I don’t think the Saudi Princes are that diabolical.

The problem, at base, is much simpler. Saudi Arabia is not a modern nation. It’s a medieval hereditary monarchy like North Korea’s. The Saudi Princes have had to learn a bit of modern economics in order to survive and prosper in the Age of Oil, and they have done that well.

They’ve agreed to make their huge oil reserves available to the world, on the free global market. They let Western engineers bring Western technology in to extract the oil efficiently and well. Then they sit back and revel in Yanukovych-like luxury, using a small part of their obscene wealth to buy off their dissatisfied subjects. They don’t think much beyond keeping the oil flowing, the income coming, and their many enemies at bay.

At base, they are nothing more than primitive princes, driven by raw self-interest and tribalism. Behind the closed doors of their palaces and European mansions, they wear Western clothes, drink Western booze, scoff at Islam and ignore its customs. In public, in their homeland, they wear tribal garb and support Islam and its “charities,” many of which funnel money to terrorists. They are the epitome of many-faced autocrats, a type of leader that the West left behind not long after Shakespeare’s time, and that even China is purging now. (Bo Xilai is one.)

These are the folks from whom Dubya got his brief instruction in foreign policy. No wonder his response to 9/11 was so inept!

But a reckoning is coming. Although the vast Saudi oil reserves are not running out quite yet, production is leveling off and soon may start declining. We Yanks have shale oil, which we are teaching others how to get. Germany and China are making Herculean efforts to exploit alternative sources of energy. We Yanks, Europe, Russia, and China are competing mightily to find all the oil that hasn’t been found yet, especially in the Artic and Africa.

Soon Saudi oil will be less important. The Saudis’ economic clout is falling and doomed to fall further yet.

At the same time, the world is slowly becoming aware of how much trouble the House of Saud has caused, and how much damage it has done, throughout the Middle East and South Asia. If you were to rank the big Middle-Eastern powers as trouble-makers, Saudi Arabia would lead the pack by a large margin. Iran would come in second, and Israel third. Turkey and Egypt would come in last, as nations properly focused on their own internal development (and Turkey on joining the EU), rather than controlling or injuring others, or grabbing their land.

So if we had to choose between Iran and Saudi Arabia for a friend today, we would pick Iran. Or we might keep a respectful distance from both. The only possible rational basis for doing otherwise would be the relative sizes of oil reserves.

Yet today every oil producer—even sorry Venezuela—has every incentive to sell whatever oil it has on the global market at a market price. What other rational choice is there? So picking the less capable and modern nation as a friend and partner for oil alone would be a bad choice. If would be particularly bad to agree to defend a backward nation in whose government, policies and culture we have little faith; that would just be asking for trouble.

The Heavy Hand of History

So why, oh why, are we Yanks such close friends with this backward, medieval monarchy—by far the leading (but most subtle) troublemaker in a delicate and troublesome part of the world? Why are we not friends, instead, with an ancient nation, a once great and rising power, increasingly modern, well-educated and capable, with what is now the region’s third most advanced democracy, after Israel’s and Turkey’s?

To find answers beyond oil, we must turn to history. We Yanks are not friends with Iran because of a terrible mistake we made almost exactly half a century ago. It’s a mistake that we have kept hidden and unacknowledged, even among ourselves. But it’s one we must face now. Introspection is useful even when it comes late.

I’ve devoted much ink on this blog to that history, and I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to state the bare, salient facts.

In 1953, Iran was a parliamentary democracy, the most advanced in the Middle East. (Israel was barely a nation.) Its duly elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, decided to nationalize Western oil companies. Our CIA, together with the Brits’ spooks, managed to incite a coup, depose him, and install the Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) as Iran’s ruler.

We Yanks did not stop with that clear and needless injury to Iran’s nascent democracy. We followed it with insult. Some eight years later, when the House of Saud nationalized their own foreign oil companies, we did nothing. We let them. And to twist the knife, we let the nation with the bigger oil reserves nationalize them with impunity.

Even that’s not all. We made a Faustian bargain with the medieval Saudi monarchy: you keep the oil flowing, to free international markets, and you can keep your throne. We’ll even support you with money and weapons. And so we turned a blind eye as the House of Saud continued to repress its people and began fostering extremism and terrorism throughout the Islamic world, everywhere but at home.

At first, the Shah wasn’t such a bad dictator. But soon he followed Lord Acton’s prescription. He became increasingly arbitrary and brutal. His secret police, the dreaded Savak, began to mimic their counterparts behind the Iron Curtain. We Yanks acquiesced and supported the Shah with money, weapons and military training. He had become a cruel tyrant, but he was our tyrant.

The next mistake was Iran’s. Its people overthrew the Shah, which they had every right and reason to do. The 1979 Islamic Revolution wasn’t bloodless, but it was nearly so. Unfortunately, Islam was the only political power in Iran strong enough to depose the Shah, so Islamic extremists came to power as the Shah departed. They took our and Canada’s diplomats hostage and held them for 444 days.

Although Iran eventually released the hostages unharmed, this act of Islamic effrontery did not sit well with us Yanks. So we incited Iraq’s Saddam to attack Iran, for no other apparent reason. We gave Saddam, whom we later invaded Iraq to depose, money and weapons to support his invasion.

Eight years later, an estimated million Iranians and Iraqis lay dead, but the borders of the two nations had not changed. Our national pride had succeeding in helping kill off the flower of a generation of Iranian (and Iraqi!) youth, while accomplishing nothing else. What we did accomplish was to make Iranians hate us and give them millions of battle-hardened combat veterans.

This terrible move of ours was motivated by pride and malice, without a hint of intelligent policy. Our inciting and supporting this catastrophic war against Iran may have been the second-greatest foreign-policy sin in our national history, after Vietnam.

Conclusion: hope in Geneva

The rest is recent history. Iran started working toward nuclear weapons, and Israel got terrified. We Yanks led an oil boycott, which has ruined Iran’s economy. Miraculously, in spite of (or perhaps because of) consistent foreign oppression, Iranians elected moderates last summer, in a free and fair election, and the process of bargaining has begun.

After our costly and wearing efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, with at best ambiguous results, the whole world knows that we Yanks are in no mood to support another impulsive and needless invasion. So Iran doesn’t need nuclear weapons to deter us Yanks from invading Iran. Our own recent, sad experience deters us.

As for the Israelis, despite all their bravado and their capable weapons, they are living afraid inside their fortress. They are in no mood to invade anyone; they are just waiting and hoping that their neighbors will see reason and make peace, occasionally making furtive land grabs.

So there’s lot more at stake, in the Geneva talks that resume next month, than Israel’s paranoia and Iranian and our Yankee pride. There’s the chance for us Yanks to begin to rectify a horrible sin, which we have prolonged and deepened for half a century. There’s a chance for Iran to bring its proud and ancient culture and its capable people back from the darkness of ostracism into the light of global civilization, where they belong.

Friendship will take time, perhaps decades. But it must begin by reducing hostility, halting mutual demonization, and lowering the level of bellicose propaganda on both sides. The present harsh enmity between Iran and the US was a ghastly mistake from the very beginning, for which we Yanks must take chief blame.

We must begin to end it now. And we must begin while there are still numerous people in both Iran and the US who remember how it was when our two nations were friends.

Ukraine’s current situation reminds us of the darkness. It shows how pride, suspicion, paranoia and demonization can combine with stupidity to make our species its own worst enemy. But there is still hope, at least for us vis-á-vis Iran.

Iran has risen like a phoenix to become a democracy again, after half a century of foreign-imposed tyranny and resulting turmoil. Its current elected leaders are moderate, and the Ayatollah (perhaps begrudgingly) approves. We Yanks have a moderate and thoughtful president who, toward the end of his second and last term, has great leeway to do what is right.

We also have an indefatigable Secretary of State who not only knows what is right but knows the cost of war and doing wrong from personal experience (in Vietnam). The Iranian negotiators, too, have seen the cost of needless war; they are all of the right age. A chance like this may never come again.

Together, in Geneva, the diplomats can turn the tide of history. Like King Midas, they can convert the lead of pointless and destructive enmity into the gold of reluctant cooperation and eventual friendship. They can point the way to a century that, if they succeed, could be our species’ most promising yet. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

Recent Confirmation

After forty years of Sunni terrorism sponsored directly or indirectly by the House of Saud, confirmation of the foregoing view is hardly necessary. But recent confirmation there is. In a review of a recent book (The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, by Carlotta Gall, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2014), The Economist describes, among other things, how Pakistan’s security service (ISI) used madrassas as training bases for suicide bombers in its tribal struggles with Pakistan’s neighbors.

Here, in The Economist’s summary of the author’s analysis (based on a decade of reporting from the region), is how the system worked:
“The author shows how the ISI provides havens for the Taliban and directs them to attack Western forces. In Pakistan they develop suicide-bombing techniques and raise soldiers from madrassas. Each school has a talent-spotter paid to recruit students for militant outfits, who are referred to derisively by Pakistan’s army as ‘potato soldiers.’”
Who finances these schools for terrorists, the cannon fodder of our “ally” Pakistan? Do you have to ask?

Pakistan is a poor country, largely dependent for military strength on our Yankee largesse. Presumably our green-eyeshade folk have done at least a minimally competent job of seeing that the billions we give Pakistan don’t get funneled into schools for hate. So where else could the money come from but Saudi Arabia?

Priorities, Priorities!

The President just made a week-long trip to kick off his “pivot” to Asia and, in the process, help ward off hostilities between China and its neighbors. Ukraine has morphed from a low simmer to a seething cauldron of inter-ethnic hate, as Russophiles in Odessa were locked in a building and then immolated inside it, apparently by neo-Nazi extremists, using atrocious tactics familiar from a century ago. Assad is winning in Syria, so much so that we’re starting to give vetted rebels shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons. Netanyahu is in a huff about the latest “accord” between Hamas and the PLO, so the Israeli-Palestianian peace talks are dead in the water, at least for now. Myanmar has ethnic troubles, and Nigeria can’t seem to protect its girls from bands of roving thugs.

So what’s an harassed and overtired diplomat like Kerry to do? The answer is simple. Begin rapprochement with Iran, and some other things could fall into place. Iran might push Assad to the bargaining table, with a little help our from shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons in rebel hands. Further down the line, Iran might help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, rather than impede any solution.

Iran’s leaders have said some pretty nasty things about Israel. But watch what they do, not what they say. They just want to be safe. In Syria and Lebanon, they are building buffers against the turmoil to their south and west. In Iraq, they are fighting to keep Al Qaeda and the Sunni terrorism that is destroying that nation at bay. Their national interest in Iraq coincides substantially with ours.

Solve the nuclear puzzle and begin to cooperate with Iran, and a whole lot of heretofore impossible things become possible. Nowhere else on Earth does diplomacy have such promising prospects so close at hand. So Kerry and his crew should get some sleep, read their briefing papers twice or three times, and prepare for the resumption of talks with Iran next month. Driving yourself crazy trying to do everything at once, and accomplishing little or nothing, are earmarks of amateurs.


05 May 2014

How the House of Saud Kills Sunnis

No, that’s not a typo. Nor is it an over-fifty moment. I’m hardly confusing Sunnis with Shiites.

For several decades now, the Saudi Princes have been systematically exterminating their own people. Not only that. They have been systematically exterminating young Sunni men, and occasionally a young Sunni woman, in the flower of their youth.

In the twenty-first century, it’s hard to know which is the greater crime: genocide, or exterminating your own people. The Nazis did both, but for a relatively short period of time. The House of Saud has been doing the latter for decades.

Of course it would deny all this. If you asked a Saudi Prince, he would say the untimely deaths are unfortunate unintended consequences, what we Yanks call “collateral damage.”

But as our great Yankee jurist Oliver Wendell Homes once said, people are presumed to intend the natural consequences of their acts. And one natural consequence of the House of Saud’s longstanding acts and policies is killing Sunnis, lots of them.

In fact, the House of Saud has developed a whole system of institutions, policies and practices that turn innocent Sunni youth into instruments of death, others’ and their own. Here’s how it works.

It all begins with Saudi Arabia’s anachronistic system of government. Although it appears to be a “soft” tyranny, the House of Saud has built one of the most successful totalitarian states in the twentieth century, a tyranny to rival North Korea’s.

If you were to rank it on a scale of modernity, self-determination and compassion for its people, it would rank far below China. Even were you to grade it generously, it would barely outrank North Korea and Zimbabwe.

It would do so only because Saudi Arabia has a pseudo-modern economy and a much higher standard of living than these political basket cases. It manages to maintain its people’s relative wealth with oil money: the money that our species pays to drive its cars has become the Sauds’ principal instrument of oppression.

Saudi Arabia also has a few more noticeable deficiencies. It relegates most everyone not of royal blood to second-class citizenship. It forces its masses of hard-working immigrants (including Filipinos and Indians) into conditions of indentured servitude that often resemble slavery. And it relegates women—one half our human species—to a status not much higher than we Yanks and our European counterparts reserve for dogs and cats.

How does the House of Saud get away with all this in the twenty-first century?

Three ways. First, it has the largest oil reserves of any single nation, regardless of size. It was those reserves, and little else, that led Dubya to walk literally hand in hand with the late King Abdullah. Oil is getting scarcer, and the world is looking hard for alternatives, but oil still makes the world go ’round. And, by a fluke of geography and a cruel joke of Nature, one of the most backward regimes on the planet still controls more oil than any other single nation.

Second, after some flirtation with oil politics in the seventies, the House of Saud follows our Yankee gospel of free oil trade, reducing the incentive for major powers to wage war over scarce natural resources, as they did in the last century. Third—and most important to our theme here—it doesn’t permit terrorism or even dissent within its borders. It exports them.

The killing of Sunnis flows from this third point. For decades now, the House of Saud has made a Faustian bargain with Sunni extremists. Preach only mildly within our borders, it told them, and support our absolute royal rule, and you can preach whatever you want elsewhere. You can proselytize and even kill whomever you want, as long as you do it elsewhere. And we will support and finance you as you do.

So the House of Saud has used its oil money to found, build, finance, and operate a widespread system of madrassas, all outside of Saudi Arabia. These so-called “schools” teach Sunni boys (seldom girls!) the Qur’an, extremism, and hate, but no useful skills.

Not only do these schools turn young, innocent minds into jihadis and terrorists. They give them no alternative. What else can you do if you don’t know math, science, engineering or history, or even how to read anything other than religious tracts in Arabic? Extremists flow naturally from this gigantic system of schools that teach bellicose propaganda more effectively, and more relentlessly, than ever the Nazis or Soviets did.

And so the massacre of innocents began. From the very first airline hijacking in the 1970s, through the bombing of our barracks in Lebanon during the Reagan Era, through the embassy bombings and 9/11, and including virtually every act of terrorism against Israel, Sunni extremists, encouraged and sometimes funded by the House of Saud, have wreaked terror worldwide for four decades. It is absolutely no coincidence that majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis.

Not only does the House of Saud permit and (indirectly) encourage all this. It finances it. The system is not quite global: there aren’t many Saudi-financed madrassas, for example, in the US, the EU or Latin America. But go where the carnage is—for example, in South Asia or the Middle East—and you will find them dotting the landscape like pustules on a smallpox victim.

Occasionally, when it can avoid getting its fingerprints on the carnage, the House of Saud finances the actual terrorism, or the organizations that perpetrate or finance it. It calls this “Islamic charity.”

What is the natural consequence of these acts? Well, look around the Islamic world. Where are Sunnis dying, and in large numbers, and why? For the last decade, they have been dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, which we Yanks invaded (misguidedly) solely because of 9/11. More recently, after we Yanks elected a better leader, they have been dying at retail, not wholesale, at the hands of our drones and ninjas. Now they are dying in droves in Syria at Assad’s hands, with the aid of Russian and Iranian weapons.

So let’s review the chain of causation. The Saudi Princes stamp out any chance for change or social progress in their medieval monarchy by exporting terrorism abroad. They cultivate, grow and finance extremists and terrorists as farmers grow vegetables, but only outside their monarchy.

The terrorists are virtually all Sunnis—the very people the House of Saud so disingenuously claims to protect and defend. They mostly kill innocent Shiites and Westerners. Then the Shiites and Westerners, who don’t like their compatriots and loved ones being killed for what strikes them as no good reason, kill Sunnis in return.

And so the Saudis preserve their anachronistic tyranny by causing Sunnis to kill and be killed. It is the most effective, insidious and persistent sui-genocide since the Nazi death camps, albeit more subtle and working at a lower rate.

We Yanks are far from the only ones caught up in this unfortunate chain of causation. Nor is Western Europe.

Think of Syria. Assad and his minority Alawites are busy slaughtering, displacing and oppressing majority Sunnis with advanced Russian weapons. Why is Russia supplying the weapons? Does Putin really admire Assad?

Russia provides those weapons for two reasons. First, it has become a long-time friend of Iran, ever since we Yanks overthrew Iran’s duly elected prime minister and later incited Saddam to wage an eight-year devastating war with Iran. Second, and more important lately, Russia remembers Chechnya, Beslan and the Nord-Ost Theater in Moscow—all examples of Sunni terrorism against Russia itself.

Virtually all Islamic terrorism directed against Russia has been perpetrated by Sunnis, as it has against us and Europe. Shiite Iran supports and arms Sunni terrorists against Israel, primarily, in my view, to have a safe place to test its weapons development at others’ suffering and expense. But, to my knowledge, there has not been a single notable instance of terrorism perpetrated against the West, Russia or Israel by Shiites. And Iran is far too smart to sponsor or perpetrate terrorism against so powerful and friendly a neighbor as Russia.

So Russia not only picked up our once Cold-War friend Iran after we jilted it for Saudi oil and incited Saddam to attack it. Russia supports Iran in Syria because Iran is the great Shiite power and a millennial enemy of Sunnis, and because (according to Middle Eastern logic) the enemy of Russia’s enemy is its friend.

Lately, the cooperation between Russia and Iran has become even more diabolical, from a Sunni point of view. Why are Russia and Iran helping Assad reduce his own country to rubble, to bomb and shell it back to the Stone Age? Why haven’t they been forcing Assad to the bargaining table to make peace?

The answer appears after only a moment’s reflection. Syria has become a killing field for Sunni terrorists in general, and for Al Qaeda in particular. Assad’s secular tyranny and unequal slaughter attracts jihadis from all over the world. So do Saudi propaganda and money. Once they get to Syria, Assad’s forces slaughter them, using advanced Russian weapons.

The House of Saud of course would claim that it is using the jihadis it sponsors to fight Assad. But the Saudi Princes are not stupid men. They have controlled the global oil economy with intelligence and subtlety for four decades, ever since they stopped using oil for religious politics and started using it to maintain their medieval monarchy and get rich. Think they don’t know full well what is really going on in Syria today?

With one exception, no band of Sunni terrorists manufactured by the House of Saud has ever succeeded in overthrowing a single real government, let alone establishing the elusive and anachronistic “Islamic Caliphate” that extremist imams claim to promise. The sole exception is in Afghanistan, where the Taliban ruled briefly, and then only because they allied themselves with more secular and cynical warlords.

The reason is obvious now, in Egypt, among other places. Even devout Islamic majorities don’t want the extremism that the Saudi Princes have exported to save their skins and their Yanukovych-like luxury.

All the Saudi-manufactured terrorists have done so far is kill a lot of innocent people and wreak a lot of havoc. The House of Saud knows this. Apparently it is content, if not happy, that none of the havoc it has created has touched it, at least not yet.

And so we may have the “final solution” to the problem of Sunni terrorism. The Saudi death machine, having manufactured jihadis and terrorists in its network of madrassas, is sponsoring and encouraging sending them to Syria, where Assad systematically exterminates them, with advanced weapons supplied by Russia and Iran that they can never hope to match.

Russia and Iran supply the means to dispose of the House of Saud’s most dangerous enemies in an effective but utterly cynical way. And it all started with the House of Saud exporting terror to preserve its twisted monarchy in a medieval time warp.

And who’s to say the Saudi Princes are not, in private, laughing over their un-Islamic booze, as they watch the good money they spend on supporting jihad in Syria create this “final solution,” after all the bad money they wasted on exporting terrorism to Russia and their best customers, the West.

The late bin Laden knew the score. He knew that the House of Saud was and is Sunni Islam’s worst enemy. He wanted to overthrow it, but he thought he had to beat us Yanks first. He believed that only our might as a superpower sustained the Saudi regime.

But bin Laden was wrong on two counts. First, as the leader of a ragtag band of fanatics, he was in no position to bring down the world’s greatest superpower, although he did succeed in bringing down the Twin Towers and making us Yanks very, very angry. Now bin Laden has paid the ultimate price, but the Saudi Princes still live, laugh and prosper.

Second, bin Laden was wrong about the source of Sunni misery and weakness. It wasn’t us Yanks. It was Saudi duplicity, guile, selfishness and stupidity. We Yanks just went along for the oil.

With friends like the Saudis, who needs enemies? We Yanks certainly don’t, not with shale oil getting us closer and closer to true energy independence. Nor do Sunnis.

Some day the parts of the world that the Saudi Princes now manipulate so successfully—and so tragically—will come to appreciate the depths of their duplicity, and the House of Saud will vanish from this Earth. If Saudi Arabia didn’t hold Islam’s holiest shrines—Mecca, Medina and the Kaaba—it would have happened a long time ago. But even geography can’t restrain common sense, or righteous vengeance, forever.

[In my next essay on this general theme, I’ll explore whether Iran might make a better friend than Saudi Arabia, and the chances for our ending our Little Cold War with Iran and making it so.]

Footnote: For a more complete explanation of this rationale, click here. An alternative explanation of Iran’s support for terrorism against Israel is Iran’s desire to maintain its Islamic credentials in the Arab “street,” and thereby to tamp down the impetus for a Shiite/Sunni Armageddon. But as Sunni extremists come into armed conflict with Shiites in Syria and Lebanon, and with secularists in Egypt, the notion of appeasing them by financing and aiding Palestinian terrorism becomes increasingly quixotic. Sooner or later, Iranian leaders, who are among the smartest and subtlest in the Middle East, will figure this out.