Recently on this blog I posted The Syrian Private Sector: A Socioeconomic Farce. It did not impress me then as one of my more controversial pieces of writing. After all, I reckoned, I am merely stating the obvious; what everyone in Syria is already aware of and what the majority of the people believe to be very close to the truth. I had no idea that in doing so I had stomped over every modern economic theory out there. My unassuming yet commonsensical post was stripped naked, analyzed and criticised by the expert hands (and mind) of one of Syria’s leading online economists, Ehsani on Syria Comment and to tell you the truth I was not offended in the least. Although he cleverly stated that he found my amateurish wading in the realm of economics entertaining it must’ve touched a raw nerve. As a matter of fact, I was flattered that my simple essay had inspired him to compose such a replete article.
My only squabble with Ehsani concerns two points in his critique. First, he discounted the social grievances as somehow frivolous in the grand scheme of economic reform. Second, and despite his very poignant title “The Sin in Syria is Low Wages" he absolved the private sector from this sin in the same manner a priest gives the Sacrament of Penance to a serial rapist.
The primary contention of my post was that the private sector is not only cheap and by cheap I mean greedy, base, mediocre, rotten and meretricious but that it is brutal, heartless, destructive, parasitic and hugely culpable for the rapid deterioration in the standard of living of most Syrians and for the further erosion and eventual disappearance of the middle class. I will not go any further in a game of numbers. I’d rather leave that to the experts since they themselves cannot justify it except by stating that the stakeholders would not pay anyone more than he or she is worth (to them). If there is a consensus among economists about the human validity of the above argument then the field of economics is the only social science that is openly void of any moral values.
Since the debate veered into private banking in Syria, shouldn’t I ask what did these banks contribute to the country and its economy. I could care less about the voraciously bovine shareholders being happy. Emperor Nero was happy too while Rome burned to the ground after he set it on fire. Besides channelling money back and forth between Syria and Lebanon and funnelling untraceable and untaxed cash profits to foreign accounts for the “big” clients what added value (a service that was not and is not already offered by the state owned banks) did these banks bring to the average Syrian?
“Fulfill your dream and buy an LCD screen with 24 easy instalments.”
“Now you too can have a laptop.”
Yes I know I’m punching below the belt but what is the real motivation behind these grand services? Are they provided in good faith to the millions of Syrian consumers with petty dreams of big screen television sets and portable computers or to the VIP clients, the importers of these consumer products? Let’s not kid ourselves, Syrian private banks are segregated institutions with long lines of lowly customers waiting for the next available teller and posh offices for the distingué clientele. The lines and the tellers are a front, a money-making one for sure, but it takes too much valuable real estate. Make the waiting area as small and intimidating as possible, populate the desks with unsmiling and unfriendly faces, hire a security prick with a bullying stare and here you have it ladies and gentlemen, the proverbial Syrian private bank. The LCD screens and laptops, in addition to fattening the bank accounts of the monopolist importers, are useful PR gimmicks too. Oh, give me a break and stop whining, an erudite reader might interject, banks are like this all over the world and not only in Syria. Well they are, but the point is that in Syria the private banks are serving the top 1% (in term of wealth) of the population. For all the rest, for the remnants of a once thriving and formidable middle class and for the poor masses, private banks are nothing but groveling and corrupt business outfits. That being said and out of the way, a few private bank managers are among my good friends. My verbal barrage was never against any person or persons employed in the banking industry but rather against the conceptual framework behind their debauched economic raison d'être in a country like Syria or anywhere else where the “social” price behind the board members’ profits is unacceptably too high.
From private banks to private schools the picture remains as bleak as ever. The mere fact that government owned banks and schools offered inferior services and education is not a license for these private institutions to be mediocre and ineffectual. Since free market economists are trying to convince us that highly-paid bankers are as hard to find as rocket scientists or brain surgeons what about school teachers? There are plenty of those around, aren’t there? From Algeria to Oman Syrian teachers have always been on the forefront of education in the Arab world. There are private schools and universities popping up everywhere in Syria now and charging premium tuitions (let’s not talk numbers). They could, if they wanted to, recruit and hire these highly skilled teachers and professors. They could lure them into leaving high schools in Saudi Arabia and colleges in the United States and bring them back to their own country to teach in style and dignity. Private schools are offering obscenely low wages, lower still than the government, and hiring inexperienced green teachers to save money and increase their profits. Private universities continue to enlist the part-time services of local PhD’s already employed by the state universities because they are required to have them on their faculty roster by the Ministry of Higher Education while throwing the bulk of the actual instruction on Master’s degree holders because they cost even less.
Once we realize that the board members of private banks in Syria, the founders of private schools, the board of trustees of private universities, the importers of consumer products, the sole agents for various brands of automobiles and the filthy rich merchants (new and old) are the same people we begin to understand the Syrian economic reform’s failings in a crystal clear way. The Syrian economy is driven by an avaricious elite, say the top three or four hundreds big names of the private sector. All the government can ever do is attempt to impose a speed limit in order to reduce the number of casualties. I leave it to the experts to evaluate government performance but for one who has been living in Syria for the last 24 years I can only state the obvious. We moved from bad to worse socially and economically. The poor are poorer and more numerous. The rich are richer and fewer. The Syrian private sector is indeed a socioeconomic farce.