The Trump Enigma

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and I am starting to wonder if “they” are on to something. In my novel “Dreams Defiled”, one part of the plot involved one of the protagonists put into one of the most powerful governing positions on the planet, and of course part of the story involves how she fell from that position. One of her problems was she wanted to get things done, but she did not bother too deeply about building the necessary political links to get things done. She was her own woman. Sound familiar, other than the gender? There were two major differences, though, between her and Trump: she had no ego, and she restricted herself to simply doing. One of the criticisms of her was she did not pay enough attention to her public image.

Which gets me to the James Comey sacking. Look at the uproar, especially from the Democrat politicians that not so long ago were baying for Comey’s blood. Now as far as I am aware, there was nothing illegal about Comey’s sacking. As far as I can make out, major appointments in government agencies in the US are political. However, in my view, Trump showed serious failings in the way he presented this accomplishment. In my opinion, this is an example of when less is more. My recommendation is that Trump should have announced something like this: “I recently sacked General Flynn because he made statements that he admitted misled the Vice-President. James Comey admitted giving misleading evidence to Congress, even though under oath, and the Director of the FBI, above all else, must follow the highest standards of legal procedure. Therefore I have no option but to also sack James Comey. If Flynn does not get the benefit of any mistake, neither does Comey.” After that, say nothing. But instead, Trump and associates gave out a strange mixture of various explanations. What Trump needs more than anything else, in my opinion, is a strong disciplinarian as Chief of Staff, who will tell people, including Trump, when to shut up, and when they are speaking, make sure what they are saying is self-consistent.

So, what follows? People are claiming Trump did that to shut down the investigations into his Russian connections. I doubt that, but if he did he was wasting political power. One of the pieces of advice my fictional protagonist was given is that when put into a very high position you are given a bag of power. The more you use it yourself, the more that power gets depleted. The more you can get others to do what you want done, the fuller that bag becomes. I think that is good advice for Trump. (If you take it, Donald, an acknowledgement would be gratefully received.) As for the investigation, surely nobody thinks Comey was investigating personally? At the Director level, his job would be to ensure that his immediate underlings were ensuring major projects were being carried out, and making sure the political reporting was appropriate. The actual investigation would be done several levels lower, and that will not stop. In fact it is probably out of the hands of the FBI now that an ex-director of the FBI has been appointed as a special Counsel toinvestigate whether there was cololusion.

Following that, there was the tweet where Trump seemingly threatened Comey if he went public. That was appalling, and, for that matter, stupid. Much better would have been for Trump to have reminded Comey (publicly) that his employment contract included confidentiality clauses, and he would expect those to be honoured. Yep, more advice: stop tweeting. It does you no good at all.

Not that it stops there. As expected, Comey took hand-written notes of a discussion with Trump, and these have been leaked to the NY Times. In this, Comey was apparently “asked” if he could put the investigation into Flynn to bed. The significance of that depends on what “asked” actually means. Trump would be out of bounds to order the investigation to stop, but it is not necessarily wrong to ask Comey to hurry up and get to a conclusion. The FBI must only investigate crime, not political “appropriateness”. Meanwhile, how come the FBI is leaking a Director’s confidential notes? That itself is a crime, so who is investigating?

Then, even more bizarrely, the Washington Post, using an anonymous source, claims Trump gave the Russian Sergei Lavrov classified information about ISIS, specifically about ISIS preparing to attack aviation using laptop computers, presumably modified to contain explosive. National Security Advisor General H R McMaster denied anything classified was discussed. My first response to this is that Trump has recently banned laptop computers from being taken on board aircraft destined for the US, so that is hardly secret. But wait, there’s more! Seemingly the Democrats have finally realized that maybe the information was not that confidential, so Nancy Pelosi went on the attack and said Trump had no right to give the Russians information, even if it were in the public domain. I suppose there is something in that; the news media is so full of fake news and political speculation, why give the Russians clues as to what is true? Of course it may have eluded the baying horde that Russia and the US are supposed to be fighting ISIS, not each other. However, now there is more still: the information was not Trump’s to give – it belonged to Israel. Presumably it is better to kill some Russians than get the ownership rights wrong.

Meanwhile, I am somewhat critical of the activities of US agencies. As most will be aware, there has been a major outburst of cybercrime in the form of ransomware. I suspect anyone unaware of this has been living under a flat rock and won’t be reading this, but the point I want to make is that critical pieces of code for this attack were apparently stolen from the NSA. Stealing from the National Security Agency? How secure! After that, it was apparently sold on the web. Did the NSA not know about the theft? Are they not monitoring the web? Exactly what are they surveilling? Perfectly legal (or questionably illegal) discussions between Americans and Russians? Meanwhile, their code helps create the tools to bring havoc to hospitals, etc, around the world. If they are watching all the web why can’t they detect who was using their code and bring the miscreants to justice? This is not one of the highlights of NSA activity.

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Hack and be Hacked

Much has been made of hacking over the last few months, so for two reasons I cannot resist commenting. The first is obvious, while the second will become clearer later. However, the issue for me is that while there has been a lot of noise, we are strangely short of light, i.e. evidence. So what can we accept? Obviously, everyone will have their own criteria, but here is my view. The first thing to accept is that spying has been going on from time immemorial. Hacking is simply a more recent addition to the spying (if they are doing it) or intelligence gathering (if you are doing it) toolkit.

The first accusation was that the Russians hacked the Democrats and swung the election, thus appointing Trump instead of Clinton. Apparently there is a document around produced by various intelligence agencies, including the FBI, that says they have high confidence this occurred, although interestingly, the NSA gave it only moderate confidence. Given the political status and the positions of the other agencies, that probably means the NSA doubts it, and the NSA is probably the agency most capable of assessing hacking.

Do you see what is wrong with the accusation? Basically it is a multiple statement, and the simplest error is that if one part is believed, people believe it all. The first statement is, “The Democrats were hacked”. Strangely, there is very little real evidence that this happened, but I am reasonably convinced it probably did. One fact that swings me this way is that an accusation came that their security was so lax that a child could have hacked them. How did the accuser know if he did not try? The second statement is, “Some Russians did it.” Some hacker’s IDs have been published, and while this is hardly proof, I can accept it as quite possible. Another implied statement is, “Putin ordered it.” There is absolutely no evidence for that at all. Maybe he did, although two of the named hackers were more like private individuals, and why would he use them?

However, then we get to the really crunch bit: “the Russians then swung the election.” To me, this is highly implausible, and the only evidence produced is that some unknown hacker provided information to Wikileaks. My question is, even if the Russians hacked the Democrats, how did that affect the election? Is the average American voter a devoted fan of Wikileaks? What did the Wikileaks document say? I don’t know, and if I don’t know and I am reasonably interested, why does the average voter who probably does not care a toss over hacked emails care? My guess is, the Russians are busy collecting whatever intelligence they can, as are the US agencies. They are not trying to influence internal politics, because they will backfire in a big way; instead they simply want to know what to expect. I could be wrong on that.

The next accusation we have is that those dastardly Russians hacked Angela Merkel. Probably true, but then again, the main evidence we have is an admission the NSA did that some time before. Sounds like life in government. Following that, we have Trump accusing Obama of having hacked, or spied, on him during the election campaign. Again, not a shred of evidence has been produced. And again, we have the problem, did it happen, and if so, who did it? My personal view is it is highly unlikely President Obama did that.

The latest accusation is that the Russians hacked Yahoo. Here we at least have evidence of part of the multiple statement: Yahoo confirms it was hacked. The Americans have accused four Russians, two of whom are private sector criminals, and two were part of the FSB, the Russian state security service. This is where it gets interesting. The Russian government had apparently arrested at least one of the FSB men for illegal hacking of Putin. This sounds to me that the accused Russians may well have done that, but they were not acting on behalf of the Russian government, other than that two of them were drawing FSB pay.

The following is a good example why you need firm facts. For those who know nothing about rugby, admittedly a minor sport, the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national team, recently played the Australian national team. The All Blacks arrived at the site of their next game in Australia about 6 days ahead of the game, and apparently they found that the room allocated for team talks was bugged. Most people would jump to the conclusion that the Australians did this, because the Australians would seem to be those with the obvious motive, but seemingly they are wrong. The Australian police, after some serious investigation, found that the perpetrator was the man the All Blacks had hired to monitor security. So you see, jumping to conclusions can lead to quite erroneous conclusions. That is why I argue we need evidence.

So where does that leave me? Actually enthused. After I published ‘Bot War, I needed another project, and I decided to write about espionage and hacking. The trouble was, I didn’t really know much about it, and some time after I started I was seriously questioning whether this was a sensible project. After all the disclosure over these hacking activities, I have been provided with a whole lot of free research. Of course I don’t know the techniques of hacking, but there is enough information out there to at least make the background sort of plausible. So there is some good that comes out of this, at least for me.

Are there solutions to the Syrian conflict?

In my last post, I commented that there was a problem for ceasefires without a solution potentially acceptable to both sides: ” they solve nothing, as both sides try to strengthen their positions, and when one side cannot do much more, it is in their interest to restart as quickly as possible.” Since writing that, the ceasefire has disintegrated and the Russians and Assad-loyal troops are resuming operations against the rebels in Aleppo with more vigour than before. The West accuses the Russians of barbarism, but then again, what war is not barbaric? A number of politicians have attacked the UN for doing nothing to stop this, but in my opinion, that is just simply grandstanding unless the politician also comes up with a possible solution. That raises the question, what are the options to end this violence? Since I write novels with political/economic backgrounds, what can I come up with?

Any option must comply with the major rules of strategy. These include that any strategy chosen must be feasible, and have a realistic chance of success. For the latter, there must be an operational route that can be managed with the resources at hand, and could in principle lead to success. It seems to me there are limited possibilities: one side wins; all sides agree to stop fighting and agree on a common peaceful way the country can continue; one side gives way. Maybe I am too unimaginative to think of other ones, but that list is not very promising.

Suppose one side wins, either though the other side having had enough, or having run out of supply, or through being eliminated. While that would stop the fighting, is it plausible? There is no sign that either side will lay down their arms, and there is no sign that either side will run out of supply, other than through supply not being able to get through. The rebels seem to have unlimited supply through pro-Sunni governments around the Gulf, and from US supplies, much of which probably comes through Turkey. Accordingly, it is in the interests of Russian and Assad-loyal air forces to destroy such convoys. For this option to work, one side has to prevail militarily. If the West does nothing different from what it is doing now, Assad has the best chances of winning, and his chances are better the quicker and more vigorously he can get on with it. The West may not like that, but that is the logic of it.

One option is that the various factions agree to stop fighting, and . . . The problem is, what follows “and”? Someone has to form a government. The rebels could accept Assad, but my betting is, they won’t. The rebels themselves have only one thing in common, and that is a hatred of Assad and his men. They range from soldiers who thought they could dislodge Assad through to al Qaeda, and the West would find the latter even worse. If the rebels were to try to form a government, it probably would not take long before it became an ISIS dominated government. The Alawites would have no option other than to resume fighting, or die because ISIS has shown very little tolerance for any other than those who follow its extreme form of radical Islam. So, if the factions did agree to stop, it would not be long before the Alawites had to resume, except that now they would be far worse off strategically. The UN could claim to guarantee the peace, but the fact of the matter is, the UN are only useful if both sides genuinely want peace, and the UN can sort out minor differences. I would have no faith in them if things got really bad.

Suppose someone “gives way”. Civil wars tend to generate very intense hatred, and the various parties want “justice”. “Justice” means those on the losing side, or the other side, are appropriately punished. The rebels will not trust Assad, and if Assad were to stand down, the rebels, and probably the West, would want Assad either in jail or more likely, his head. So this is not practical for Assad, because if he stepped back, he is a dead man. Further, all his senior aides, and the senior members of the Syrian military would also be dead men, so even if Assad stepped back, the rest would not and the fighting would continue.

The rebels could give way. They would know they could never trust the Assad government either, so they could not remain in Syria. Therefore one option for peace that could work would be for the West to guarantee them asylum, and assist in rebuilding Syria if Assad allows the UN to guarantee the process of extricating the rebels who wish to be extricated. You could argue that the same could be applied in reverse to Assad, but we know that the West would try to get Assad for war crimes the minute Assad is not President of Syria. Accordingly, on questions of trust, only the rebels could be guaranteed believable asylum. That now begs the question, is any country prepared to offer such asylum to a few million Sunni Muslims, many of whom are fairly radical? My guess is, no.

Unless someone can see a flaw in this analysis, the only workable solution appears to be to leave the various parties to slug it out. Yes, that is a terrible option, but it seems to be all that we have left ourselves with. I suppose in principle, an external force could send in an overwhelming military force that removes one of the sides, but I cannot see that as happening either, because that force has to take sides. If the West sent in such a force, either Russia goes away and leaves its ally to its own devices, or it stays, with the risk of WW III. For the West to do that, it would need to commit about three quarters of a million men for at least ten years, and it would have to govern. Practically, the US would have to provide about two thirds of those, or maybe the lot. I cannot see that as either possible or desirable.

So my conclusion is there are no obvious solutions that could reasonably work.

Russian athletes and the Rio Olympics

The Olympic Games in Rio are approaching, and despite a number of protests, some Russians may be present. The International Olympic Committee has been heavily criticized for not issuing a blanket ban on Russian athletes because of widespread doping there. Let me say at once that I cannot condone doping, but there is also a question of natural justice. Basically, the logic says:

Some Russian athletes doped

Doped athletes should be banned from competing.

So, what is the logic conclusion? Mine is, some athletes, and specifically the ones who doped, should be banned, and that includes athletes from any country who have doped. As it happens, the initial call for a total banning of Russian sportspeople has been rejected, instead relying on a dubious procedure in which various sports federations will be required to produce a list of Russian athletes they believe to be clean, which will be checked by an arbitrator from the IOC and a court of arbitration. Any Russian with a doping conviction will automatically be banned, including Stepanova, who has finished her punishment for previous doping. Fair? Then why will there be many athletes in Rio who have previously doped but have completed their punishment. We have uneven rules here.

At one point, the Russian athletes were given an “out”. All they had to do was to prove they had been clean through a sequence of tests in non-Russian laboratories that were run during the last few months. That is impossible to comply with, because nobody can go back in the past and do what has to be done. So why put in such a silly rule? My guess is quite simply there are a number of Russian athletes who have been residing or training in the US, and to include them in the ban would leave whoever issued the ban open to a serious law suit in US courts, and my guess is that there would be a number of major law firms just queuing up to take on the contingency case. That sort of ban could easily cost tens of millions of dollars at a minimum. So the rule was not there to be helpful; it was there to cover backsides. Whatever you think about that, the IOC, by passing the buck down to various sports organizations, has opened those up to the same lawsuits.

There is a further interesting thing about the Russian doping allegation: the criticism is the dopees (if that is a word) escaped notice because the second samples got “lost”. Sure, that stinks, but what is of interest here is that nobody has questioned the laboratories’ analyses (as far as I know). What that means is that Russian athletes that have always had clean first analyses should be in the clear. This is of relevance because the IOC has argued that it must make sure all athletes play on a level playing field. Well, the level playing field means that everyone else should have to go through the same vetting process. That is not happening.

Exactly what went on in Russia is unclear. The fact that a Canadian Professor produced a report, commissioned by an antidoping agency, which accused Russia of state sponsored doping does not mean that the report is accurate. The losing of second samples is indicative of something going wrong, but that does not mean the state ordered it, nor is it obvious that the state had the power to do so. Serious corruption would suffice. The problem is evidence, and what is remarkable about this report is that the details do not seem to have made a significant public appearance. We are told what it concluded, but that does not make it so. I seem to recall high level government “reports” that Saddam Hussein had huge numbers of weapons of mass destruction, and could attack London with a fifteen-minute warning. The existence of a report is irrelevant; it is the evidence backing up the conclusions that is important.

Another point that I would like to see is that if Russians are banned, nobody else can take their place. The reason I say this is that the most vociferous calls for all Russian athletes to be banned appear to have come from callers who could reasonably be considered to have friends, acquaintances, or athletes from their own country on the verge of qualifying. If there were a blanket ban on replacements, other than for clear sickness or something unavoidable, then that would mean that any potential conflict of interest would be removed from those calling for the ban, and even more importantly, from those voting.

To summarize, I have a simple view. All athletes should play by the same rules. Guilt should be personal, and based on the evidence against that person. The judges should be independent of the outcome. Rules should not be backdated. If testing organizations are found to be corrupt, then they should be disqualified and from that point, other independent organizations should be used.

A Turkish Coup

As if the Middle East was not complicated enough as it was. While a lot of things have happened there recently, probably the biggest one was the coup attempt in Turkey, and interestingly enough, it was probably starting at the same time I was watching an interview with the Turkish Prime Minister on TV. The interview was almost certainly recorded, but nevertheless it was somewhat ironic that he was talking about the stability of democracy in Turkey, amongst other things.

There is one thing about this coup attempt that interested me, and that was the way it happened. In my ebook novel, “Miranda’s Demons”, I had a prescription for what should be in a coup. I am not saying that this prescription is sufficient, but I thought at the time it was at least necessary, and it appears that the Turkish generals who organized the coup broke all the items in this prescription. They should have bought my book J. Cheap at the price, the alternative being either the death penalty or a very long time in a Turkish jail.

In any coup attempt, the incumbents have many advantages, including being there, and having a significant machinery to enforce the law. Recall, coups are generally considered illegal, at least until they are successful. So, how to succeed? Obviously, the first requirement is to prevent the incumbents from organizing a response. The one big advantage to the plotter is, as long as they can maintain secrecy, surprise. They have to achieve as much as they can before a response can be started. That means taking and controlling the centres from which a response might be organized, and in particular, controlling communications. As far as we can make out, these plotters failed to appreciate the importance of communications, and so Erdogan was able to call out the population onto the streets and organize other responses.

Erdogan happened to be out of the country at the time. Accordingly, a prime requirement was to keep him there. That meant an important first strike had to be on airports, and if possible, keep the fact that you now controlled them secret. If Erdogan wanted to return, have a welcoming party awaiting him. But the plotters seemingly had overlooked this as well.

Suppose they had achieved that, there was a very important next step that was overlooked: why should people accept the coup? Just saying they don’t like the government is not good enough; at times I don’t like my government, but a coup is hardly an answer. What they need is a cause, and as soon as they control the communications, it is important that that cause is announced, and it is most desirable that the cause is one the population will appreciate. We don’t know why they tried to carry out this coup, but it is unlikely that they would have had a strong following because the coup collapsed through people power. Not good for the plotters.

The next thing they needed was enough men to do this quickly and discreetly, and oddly enough, they failed here too. Driving tanks through a city merely irritates the population, and begs the question, what are the tanks going to do about opposition? Unless the tankers are prepared to machine gun down opposition, a tank is counterproductive, and these soldiers were not prepared to do that. If you want to do it by sheer power, you actually have to demonstrate the willingness to use it. Either you have to get the population behind you, or you have to make them too afraid to oppose you. Since the two are mutually exclusive, you have to choose early, and follow through with vigour.

So, democracy is restored? I am not so sure. What I think this may have done is to cement in the authoritarian rule of Erdogan. I gather that over 2,000 judges have been arrested or dismissed. Why? Presumably because they might give judgments that Erdogan does not like. It is most unlikely that many judges could be part of a military plot. This will be giving Erdogan a chance to clean out those who oppose him personally, and the last I heard was that over 50,000 government employees, including teachers, have been fired and are under investigation. They could not be part of the coup, otherwise the secrecy would have been lost. Fifty thousand people can’t keep a secret, or if they can, there were easily enough people available to take all the key positions. Interestingly, in Turkey the power is supposed to reside with parliament, not the President, but in the interview I saw the Prime Minister effectively stated he was going to hand over power to Erdogan because Turkey needed a strong leader who could get things done, and this was before the coup attempt. For me, that is not very encouraging.

Justice, or Authorities being Self-important

This week, there were two news items that I found to be somewhat disquieting for the reason that they do not reflect justice. The first was the banning of Russian athletes from the Olympics, and as far as I can make out, from other sporting events. The reason was that there was a lot of doping amongst Russian athletes. Now, to ban those who were found to have taken drugs is fine by me. They were guilty of breaking the rules so they should pay. However, a blanket ban seems to go against natural justice: guilt by association. Notice that during the time of Lance Armstrong, it turned out all his cycling associates were also doing that, but did anyone suggest banning all American cyclists? Of course not. Banning the guilty is fine, but blanket banning as a punishment for the nation was never considered. So why the Russians? Has it got anything to do with a general anti-Russian sentiment? We shall never know, but punishment by association is, in my view, wrong. More to the point, if it were that prevalent, why weren’t the authorities doing something about it when it was more important to do it, even though the publicity value would be much less? Why don’t they simply test all athletes at the Olympics?

Seemingly, the powers that be decided that, yes, this procedure was either bad, or, more importantly to them, it could be seen to be bad. So something had to be done to give the impression of fairness. So, what did they come up with? Why, each athlete would be given the opportunity to prove they had not doped. How? Hmmmm! That is yet to be decided, but the athletes should start proceedings. Yeah, right! With two months to go to the biggest sporting event, instead of training, they should engage in some undefined bureaucratic procedure. Sorry, but in my opinion, the role of these authorities is to be fair and enforce the rules. It is not to make themselves feel good, and thwart criticism by mounting publicity charades.

The next item involved the trial of the 94 year-old Reinhold Hanning. Again, Hanning was guilty by association, although in this case he was associated with mass genocide. Hanning joined the Hitler youth in 1935, and that was not considered a criminal organization at the time. In 1940 he joined the Waffen SS, and fought on the eastern Front until he was severely wounded by grenade splinters. He was deemed unfit for further combat duties, and ordered to go to Auschwitz, where he was first assigned to register work details, and later for duty in a guard tower. No evidence was provided that Hanning had any part personally in killing, or in selection for killing.

My first problem with this is, suppose you were in Hanning’s shoes, and ordered to Auschwitz, what would you do? Disobey any order, or start protesting, and you would be on the other side of the fence. How many of you would take that stance? Is it even a sensible stance? You get killed and you achieve nothing. Think about this, and if you are so confident you would throw away your life, please add a comment and explain why.

My next problem with this procedure is that following the war, it was estimated that about 10% of the German population had been members of the Nazi party. After all, that was the way to get ahead. In 1963 – 1965, trials of second and third tier personnel at Auschwitz led to convictions of only the worst sadists being convicted for murder, and defendants argued successfully that they had only been following orders. If the justice system could not be bothered prosecuting someone like Hanning then, then why now? Basically, about 50 people have been convicted of crimes at Auschwitz, and up to 7000 people worked there.

In 2011, there was an alleged “breakthrough”. Legally, they decided that if you worked at a factory of death, that made you an accessory to murder because without the likes of you, the place could not have run. That is true, but the question then is, were you a voluntary participant? I am not so sure that the desire to stay alive yourself makes you an accessory.

A related problem with the trial is the argument is made that seventy years ago the German courts “made a mistake” and now is the time to correct it. As one legal scholar put it, this trial is symbolically important for the German legal system, and it helps the survivors. I am afraid I do not agree, and the issue is the same as for the Russian athletes. Justice should reflect guilt. The desire by authorities to feel good, or to wipe out traces of their own useless performance, has no place.

And just to clarify my position, I have walked through Auschwitz before there were many tourists. It was an awful place. I remember the fertile mounds that were the remains of the crematoria. I also remember the chalk drawings where the victims tried to record the horrors in a way that the SS would not erase. I also had an uncle in Dachau so I have no sympathy at all for those guilty of creating those places. But I would never put a 94 year-old on trial for “guilt by association” merely to make myself look as if I were doing something.

Free enterprise at work: the vulture fund.

We have all heard of financial goings on in Russia that turn up some toes in disgust. There is no doubt that huge amounts of wealth have been accrued there by a very limited number of favoured people for no good reason. The wealth was accrued through political favours/gifts on a huge scale. Everyone blames Putin, and while I feel he has hardly shone in cleaning this mess up, I still put the majority of the blame on Yeltsin. Nevertheless, there are many who seem to think that is a sign of the general immorality of Russians. That could not happen in the West. If you think that, think again. A recent item on the Huffington Post introduces the reader to the vulture fund. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2016/05/12/vulture-fund-lobbying_n_9954612.html

A vulture fund is one that picks up for hardly anything some debt-ridden entity that everyone else has written off, and perforce, they get it for very little. The vulture part comes from the fact they are feeding off what is generally recognized as expired. You may think that is fair enough; they are taking a huge risk, and they get them cheap because they are worth essentially nothing. If that were all there is to it, I would agree wholeheartedly, but it is not. What these funds do is to buy the scrip up extremely cheaply, and then spend very large amounts of money to make the scrip valuable, in which case they sell at a huge profit. Nothing wrong with that if the money was spent on the entity, to sort it out, stop aberrant behaviour, etc. An example of such virtuous vulturing is what Steve Jobs did for Apple. Apple was heading for disaster at an astonishing rate before he returned, and with considerable effort he turned the carcass into one of the most valuable companies in the world. That is great.

But that is not what I am referring to. The bad vultures do not spend their money on making the entity work well again. They spend their money on influencing the decisions that will be made as to its future, and in particular to bailouts. So when a bailout comes, the vultures pass go and bank a huge profit by selling. The bailouts tend to be direct gifts to the vultures.

How well this will work will depend on the nature of the asset. If the asset is inherently healthy, they may present publicity that disses it, which may lead the market to get out of the asset, and their short position rolls in the loot. This particular method presents an interesting position for me, because I am currently writing a thriller type of novel in which something similar happens, and here I read an article that shows what I was thinking actually is happening. (Except my method of “dissing” is a bit more criminal. If you are writing a thriller, there is no point in everybody being legal.) So much for my imagining that you can be original when the objective is to gather loot. I an afraid I must consign myself to the barely amateur class.

Now, suppose the vultures somehow access an asset, directly or indirectly, that the public does not want to die, such as something related to health that in the end cannot be left to rot? The vultures then lobby for political action to prevent death, and then, for the politicians to come out of it without egg on face, they have the debts cleared, to the fund, of course. Paid for by, you guessed, the tax payer. At least that is the plan. According to that article, billions in profits have been made. The pressure will vary, but the key element in most such transactions is they would not work unless the government helped them.

Also of interest is the fact that hedge funds and their like appear to get special tax privileges. This has the effect of giving them a huge advantage over others who might compete with them, which raises two questions. The first is, why the special privileges? What do they do for society that is so valuable? Sucking up money and making a few very very rich is not an adequate answer for me. The second question is, how did they get these tremendous tax advantages? Now, surely you do not suspect this to have arisen as a consequence of political lobbying do you? That would be, well, up there with what you are accusing Putin of doing, and that could not happen in the West, could it?

Of course the hedge funds do not always get their own way. The article cited has an interesting few sentences on the Puerto Rican debt issue. Now Puerto Rico is a US territory, so you might think that being a territory of the richest country on the planet might mean a good infrastructure. The article cites the Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School, a good solid US name, in which the electricity supply is such that they cannot run two computers at the same time and there are no lights when it rains. You don’t want to hear about the major trauma centre. Nevertheless, some hedge funds will probably take a bath. Why? What has happened is that two groups of hedge funds have apparently taken opposite bets, and thanks to all the lobbying and counter-lobbying, nothing is happening. The situation for the Puerto Ricans is not helped by the fact that the issue is tied down by a Constitutional argument in the Republican majority Congress. Paul Ryan apparently wants to help Puerto Rico, on the basis that Article IV of the Constitution stipulates Congress has power “to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory.” Those on the right argue the financial problems are their own, and, moreover, what is “the territory”? They argue there is nothing in the Constitution that specifies Puerto Rico, so don’t do anything. Presumably the argument is, leave it to the market, i.e. the hedge funds, and all will be, if not well, at least elsewhere.

This is a clear reason why you cannot leave everything to the market: too much power gets concentrated in few hands, and those few hands have only one objective: to make more money. That does not mean Communism is the answer. What it does mean is the government ought to act as a counter balance and stop excessive misuse of money.