I know I’ve said this before, but you can get a pretty decent overview of how government works by watching the BBC sitcom Yes, Minister. The series is premised on the conflict between the naïve, attention-seeking British Cabinet minister James Hacker and the cynical, experienced civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby. Most episodes follow this formula:

  1. Hacker comes up with some well-meaning but often-ill-considered policy reform to fix a problem.
  2. Sir Humphrey uses cunning, bureaucratic jargon, and his connections in the Civil Service to prevent any changes being made to government policy.
  3. Sir Humphrey explains to Hacker why things are better off staying as they are.

Because it was a sitcom, Hacker sometimes wins—usually by using Sir Humphrey’s own tactics against him. But the basic dynamic is what’s key here: the approval-seeking politician who wants to change everything vs. the entrenched bureaucracy that wants to keep things as they are until they can retire and collect a pension.

The thing is, it’s possible to cast either side’s motivations as good or bad: the politicians could be called heroes trying to do the work of the people, or attention-craving narcissists trying to get famous. The bureaucrats could be called lazy do-nothings stubbornly resisting change, or intelligent and competent administrators unwilling to bow to the fashions of the moment.

This is the same dynamic that’s at work when you hear people talk about the “Deep State”. It gets dismissed as a conspiracy theory, but that’s largely because of the terminology:  “Deep State” sounds a lot more sinister and intimidating than the more accurate label, “the permanent bureaucracy”. The former makes you think of shadowy figures in Deus Ex-style Illuminati conference rooms holding secret meetings. The latter evokes some balding pencil-pushers.

We citizens tend to think of “government” as the politicians we elect every couple of years. But they are only the tip of the iceberg—the real government consists of people working in various agencies to carry out policy. These people are, for the most part, not politicians at all, but simply technicians trying to keep the machine of bureaucracy running. And they don’t run for office.

Technically, these people work for the politicians. But that’s only in a nominal sense—in practice, someone who has decades of experience working at a Federal agency knows a lot more about the nitty-gritty details of governance than a newly-elected politician. 

Canny politicians know how to work the system to their advantage. For example, in the book Angler, Barton Gellman describes how then-Vice-President Dick Cheney contacted a relatively low-ranking official in the Department of the Interior in order to implement a change to government environmental policy.

Cheney had worked in government since 1969, and had a thorough knowledge of who did what, and which strings to pull in order to advance his agenda. Love him or hate him, he was an excellent example of someone who thoroughly understood the bureaucracy.

But most politicians aren’t like Cheney.  For one thing, he started out as a congressman from uncompetitive and tiny Wyoming, and didn’t have to spend a lot of time campaigning. Other politicians don’t have that luxury. They rely on other people to handle the bureaucracy for them. Besides, many of the politicians are in it because they love crowds and applause and power and prestige. The bit where you iron out the policy details is boring. 

This creates a disconnect: the people nominally in charge of governing are on a track that’s entirely separate from those who actually handle the day-to-day business of implementing government policies. So it’s true: there are people in government who ignore what the elected officials say, and keep doing what they’ve been doing. Whether you think these people are heroes or villains depends largely on your opinion of the government’s overall performance over the long-term—say, the last half-decade.

The creator of the paranormal/conspiracy theory-themed radio show Coast to Coast AM passed away yesterday.

I enjoyed listening to Coast to Coast when Bell hosted. I hear the show has become politicized now, but in Bell’s time, it was focused on weird and otherworldly subjects instead of political ones. The government was always covering things up, but it was always assumed to be the whole government.

Needless to say, the show was great for a lover of weird fiction. Nothing gets the imagination going like listening to people telling ghost stories late at night, especially on or around Halloween.

The guests and callers seemed to be largely a mix of crazy people and hucksters. Maybe some of them really had seen unexplained phenomena, but it was never easy to tell who was who.

But Bell didn’t judge. He let his guests and callers speak their minds, and unless they were obviously lying as a prank, he wouldn’t silence them. I don’t know what Bell’s beliefs were, beyond the fact that he obviously had some general belief or interest in the paranormal and the supernatural. He would accept his guests and callers on their terms, and let them speak their minds.

I really admired Bell’s interviewing style–he wouldn’t talk over his guests or try to impose his own views on the subject at hand. He would just ask and let them have their say, even if he didn’t agree.

Now, you might argue that all of it was insane, and that Bell shouldn’t have given airtime to such outlandish claims in the first place. But part of what made his show great was the feeling of being able to kick around weird ideas. If you want to try to think of novel ideas, you have to be willing to think of things that sound crazy. And most of them are crazy, but a few might actually be useful.

You would think this sort of attitude would be more common now that we have social media, but in fact the opposite seems to be true. You generally don’t want to try discussing new ideas on Twitter, for example, because it can very quickly devolve into a back-and-forth of argument and ridicule. Instead of being liberating, the censorious nature of social media makes people more careful about what they say. (Unless of course they are a troll. Which creates the problem that thoughtful people are afraid to speak, and thoughtless people aren’t.)

When it was great, Coast to Coast reflected Bell’s personality: eccentric, but very independent and open-minded. Actually, these last two are probably the most important traits for a talk show host or interviewer: a willingness to admit that you don’t have all the answers, and to listen to things that most other people would automatically dismiss. It’s bound to take you to some pretty weird places, but it’s also a good way of learning new things.

More media personalities and hosts should study Bell’s style. If mainstream talk-shows were willing to approach politics and current events as thoughtfully as Bell approached subjects like cryptids and ghosts, they might be more informative.

We know that Russian Intelligence worked to increase Donald Trump’s election chances by spreading propaganda. And we now know that they also attempted to tamper with US voting systems. And we know that President Trump has long spoken approvingly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And we know that Trump campaign personnel met with various Russian officials during the campaign.

All of this looks highly suspicious, and suggests that something was going on between Trump and Russia.

However, there is one thing about the “Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to steal the election” theory that doesn’t add up.  Namely, if Russia was covertly influencing the election, why would they bother to tell the Trump campaign about it?

Think about it: there’s no reason for them to have any contact beyond perhaps an initial meeting to lay out the plan.  Why keep having these meetings between Trump’s people and Russia’s people?  All it did was increase the likelihood of the plot getting exposed.

This is actually the best argument the Trump people have in their favor, as far as I can see.  If they were committing such a serious crime, why leave such incriminating evidence?

The “Trump’s campaign is innocent” scenario could be something like the following: sure, they met with Russian people, but it was nothing to do with election-hacking. Trump’s platform and Russia’s interests in promoting a new nationalistic world order just happened to align, and they were hashing out details of what they would do in the event that Trump won. Russia independently carried out their manipulation of the election without the knowledge of the Trump campaign.

Which would be the way to do it, if you were running a remotely competent espionage operation.  You don’t tell people stuff they don’t need to know, and from Russia’s perspective, the Trump campaign wouldn’t have needed to know that Russia was attempting to influence the election.

But this leads to the question: why did the Russians meet with them at all?  Presumably, Russian officials knew about the plan, even if the Trump people didn’t. And they would therefore know how bad the meetings would look if word of the Russian interference ever came out.

This points strongly to the conclusion that the Russians suckered Trump, or at least Trump’s people. They knew it would make them look bad when these meetings came to light, and so would undermine the American people’s faith in the entire government and the electoral process.

If this is the case, Trump and his personnel, rather than being willing pawns of a Russian plot, are actually naïve victims who fell into a Russian trap.

Personally, I find it hard to imagine the people working for Trump were that unbelievably easy to trick.  But it’s hard to see any other explanation.

I was right there with you, watching that disaster unfold on the Rachel Maddow show last night. Not to brag, but I had a sneaking suspicion it wasn’t going to live up to the hype even before the show started:

In general, if something is truly-earth shattering news, they will tell you about it right away, not tease it out with a countdown clock. That’s why election night coverage isn’t: “You’ll be shocked when you see who won the Presidency! Details at 11.”

David Cay Johnston, the journalist who says he received the tax forms in the mail, allowed that it was possible that Trump himself might have leaked them. However, the fact that Trump has tweeted angrily about it afterwards has led people to think that he probably didn’t leak them after all:

People, in my opinion, are way too gullible.  The wording of Trump’s tweet is highly suspicious. For one thing, he phrases it in the form of a question–he doesn’t say it didn’t happen; he just asks if people believe it.

Now, I admit: I myself am a bit skeptical of Johnston’s story. He says he got a package in the mail that contained these tax returns.  Apparently, he doesn’t know who sent it to him or how they obtained it.  Which would raise questions as to its veracity, except that the White House almost immediately verified it last night!

Either Johnston is an idiot who didn’t think it was worth looking into why he got the President’s tax returns in the mail–very unlikely, since he’s a Pulitzer-winning journalist–or he’s lying to protect a source.

So, Trump (a) knew immediately that it really was his 2005 1040 form and (b) questioned Johnston’s story as to how he got it. This strongly suggests that Trump knows perfectly well how Johnston got it–which in turn suggests that some agent acting on orders from Trump gave it to him.

As Johnston himself admitted, the tax forms are actually favorable to Trump. They prove he did pay taxes for at least that one year, and show little evidence of nefarious dealings.

The end result is that Rachel Maddow got humiliated. (I’m sorry; I usually like Maddow’s work a lot, but she really screwed up here.) More importantly, though, Trump can now use this episode as an excuse to brush off all further questions about his taxes. Journalists won’t ask about it because they don’t want to screw up like Maddow did.

And what’s worse is that if anyone does somehow get hold of more of his taxes, people will be less inclined to pay attention to it. “It’s another publicity stunt,” they’ll say.

It’s true: I’ve always found the whole Trump-won’t-release-his-taxes story to be a bit overhyped. Yes, it was bad and a violation of historical precedent that he didn’t release them. But, on the list of “things that are bad and violate historical precedent” that Trump has done, it’s far from the worst.

And then there’s fact that there can’t be anything that damning in them.  They are taxes. They go to the Federal government. Logically, Trump is not going to put down anything illegal that he might be doing in his taxes.

As a thought experiment, let’s say the absolute worst conspiracy theories about Trump are true, and he’s actually colluding with the Russian government.  He’s not going to put that in his taxes.  There is no box that asks “Are you a spy for Russia?” on tax forms.

Furthermore, any circumstantial evidence that would suggest illegal activity by Trump, he would also not put in his taxes. If someone is already willing to commit crimes, he’s not going to hesitate to commit tax fraud to cover them up.

I’m not saying Trump has done any of this, but even if he has, there won’t be hard evidence of it in his taxes. At best, there might be circumstantial evidence, which Trump can dismiss with a simple “FAKE NEWS. Sad!” tweet.

boris-grishenko-20090224055451786-000

Here’s a little conspiracy theory for you to mull over…

During the Republican primaries, Trump tended to perform much better in states that held primaries vs. those that held caucuses. Trump only won two of the eight Republican caucus states (Nevada and Hawaii).

A caucus is a meeting of party members where they discuss which candidate to support, as opposed to simply casting a ballot in a voting booth.  Ted Cruz won most of the Republican caucus states in 2016.  Most analysts assumed this was because the Cruz campaign spent more time and money organizing at the local level. A few others suggested that people were ashamed to openly admit that they supported Trump.

These explanations seem logical. And Occam’s Razor suggests these factors explain what happened.

But, it’s also worth considering that it would far easier to hack or otherwise manipulate primary elections than caucuses. To interfere in a primary, you would just have to be able to tamper with some machines. It’s much harder to do with caucuses.

I’m not saying I think this happened. I’m just saying it’s worth asking about.

I love conspiracy theories. I wrote a novella centered on the conspiracy theories and political machinations.  (Not to spoil it, but it involves a takeover of the United States government by an insane dictator.  But that’s another story.) The point is, I’ve spent a lot of time reading popular conspiracy theories.

Lately, a lot of attention has been paid to so-called “fake news” on social media, and the role they played in the recent U.S. Election.

I’m not sure why they are calling these stories “fake news”–they appear to be similar to the old conspiracy theories that flourished, beginning in the late 1990s.  It’s part and parcel of what Warren Spector, the creator of the great conspiracy-theory video game Deus Ex, called “millennial weirdness”.

People who listen to the radio frequently are familiar with these things.  A lot of strange ideas have been floated over the air on shows like Coast to Coast AM for decades now. It’s not new.

I think what is new is the politicization of conspiracy theories. In the old days, conspiracies were about the Illuminati or Extraterrestrial life, and those are never on the ballot. But now, the conspiracy theories are deliberately meant to certain political factions.

It may have started with the 9/11 conspiracy theories, which were inevitably explicitly political in nature.  Or it might have just been that political strategists realized they could take advantage of people’s love for conspiracies in order to advance their aims.  (Good strategists are always looking for any edge they can get.)

But I’m curious about is why the term “fake news” (which evokes something more like satirical sites on the order of The Onion) seems to have supplanted the term “conspiracy theory”. What reasons could there be for this?

In my previous post, I wrote something that I’d like to enlarge on a bit.  I mentioned how the alleged Bob Dylan conspiracy required a bunch of people to be involved in a conspiracy that would not come to fruition until long after they were dead.  I realized this might be a good rule of thumb for determining how likely a conspiracy is to be true: “are the alleged conspirators going to be around to reap the success of their conspiracy?”

In a lot of these Illuminati/Freemasons/CIA/Assorted Other Shadowy Group conspiracy theories, there is at least a strong insinuation, if it is  not outright stated, that it is all part of some centuries-old plot.  And that has always struck me as really unlikely because it requires these conspirators to not only know which actions will have which consequences centuries later, but also care enough about how it develops after they’re dead.

Most real conspiracies (here are some) are conspiracies that generate immediate results for the conspirators. They’re not doing it to achieve some long-run goal decades later.  And while I’m not saying that all conspirators care only about themselves–ideologues of any type will often justify whatever they are doing by saying “it’s for future generations”–I am saying that it’s one measure of assessing a theory’s plausibility.  There needs to be something in it for the conspirators, not just for future generations of conspirators.

Conspiracy theories like the Dylan one, which are supposedly about making money, strike me as especially unlikely, since people generally have a preference to have money sooner rather than later, and especially have a preference to have money before they are dead rather than after.  This is one of the finer points of decision theory.

Via Thingy, a hilarious and bizarre conspiracy theory about how famous singer and songwriter Bob Dylan was a puppet of U.S. intelligence. Thingy doesn’t know if it was written as satire or not.  My hunch is that it wasn’t, because clearly the author, one Miles Mathis, spent a lot of time either researching or making up a bunch of random things to string together.  I don’t think even Jonathan Swift had enough patience to write a satire that long.

What’s funny about this is that there is a tiny, tiny, infinitesimally small kernel of truth behind all this nonsense:

We know Intelligence was running all sorts of secret operations in the 1960’s. Many of them have since been partially de-classified, like Operation Mockingbird, Operation Bluebird, Operation Chaos, MKULTRA, and many many more. But there appears to have been an even larger, more fundamental Operation beneath all of them. This was Operation Rolling Stone. It was the promotion of change in all forms. To what end? The promotion of trade.

He’s right that it’s not a coincidence that the 1960s social upheaval and the work of liberals, like Dylan, did lead to the promotion of trade. It’s ironic because many of the liberals were not in favor of capitalism, yet they ended up promoting it.  Both the Democrats and Republicans have become way more amenable to the idea of free trade post-’60s.

But it wasn’t a conspiracy by U.S. intelligence, or the Illuminati, or the Elders of Zion, or the Freemasons, or the Esoteric Order of Dagon. It just happened.  I think it’s because the social values of ’60s liberals are quite compatible with laissez-faire trade–values like not discriminating against people based on skin color, or gender, or religion etc. It doesn’t require an elaborate conspiracy where Bob secretly sets the stage for Jim who twenty years down the road will secretly say something to Dan that will motivate him conspire with Harry to fundamentally alter the culture of the United States.

So, I guess, he did identify a correlation between to phenomena.  I think it’s even true that there is a causal relationship there.  Where he goes completely off track is in attributing it to some conscious conspiracy by a bunch of people, most whom would be dead long before any of their efforts came to anything.

That said, he does go a little overboard in asserting how much trade has accelerated in the last half-century, saying:

Gentlemen in the early 19th century looked down on trade, as we see from reading Dickens or Austen, or watching Downton Abbey. The English aristocracy mocked American wealth, since it came from trade.

Where does he think the English aristocracy’s wealth came from? Ever heard of the East India Company?

Is it a joke, or is it for real?  The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.