Belmont Club

Who's the Fake?

Who's the Fake?
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The fight for the control of Washington, after a ton of preliminaries and battlespace preparation, is now underway in earnest.  As Robert Mueller seeks a path toward linking Donald Trump to collusion with the Russian government, the president is trying to frame the investigation as a conspiracy hatched by the former administration’s intelligence bosses and secret policemen.  It’s a clash between the irresistible force and the immovable object.

The start of this war can be dated to January 5, 2017 according to Andrew McCarthy’s research.  At this meeting the outgoing president made key decisions on how to investigate his successor without letting him know.  “During the meeting, Rice’s memo said, then-President Barack Obama suggested intelligence officials be cautious about sharing information about the Russia investigation with the Trump transition team, ‘particularly’ incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn. By that time, multiple senior members of the campaign had been in contact with high-ranking Russians, including Flynn, incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and senior adviser Jared Kushner.” McCarthy describes the fatal moment when, rightly or wrongly, Obama moved against Trump.

Now, you can believe that the Obama administration’s motives were political, that the Trump-Russia collusion narrative was mainly a Democratic-party concoction to rationalize Hillary Clinton’s defeat and cripple Trump’s fledgling administration. Or you can believe that Obama officials, altruistically motivated to protect national security, were convinced that Trump was in cahoots with the Kremlin, and they were desperately trying to prove it. Either way, though, the challenge for Obama’s team was to keep the investigation going even after Trump took office.

The solution was to lie to Trump, who nevertheless discovered that despite soothing assurances that he was not the target of the investigation, he was in fact the primary subject of the investigation.  From that moment the battle was joined. The struggle, which can only grow in intensity, will undoubtedly leave a trail of institutional destruction affecting the press, the presidency and the FBI to name only some.  While the political war is sure to thin out the “swamp” creatures on both sides it will also impair or paralyze government agencies whose quick response may be needed in an emergency.

But more importantly the crisis is taking Washington into terra incognita.  The imputation of the current scandals is that either the current POTUS or his predecessor might be a traitor or a criminal.  It is danger from the very top where a malevolent predecessor could use his holdover appointees to frame the new incumbent or a malicious incumbent could pack the agencies with new operatives to gradually gain authoritarian control of government.  In both cases a conspirator has a path to success.

While there are well established procedures for dealing with lower-ranking traitors like Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen, there is no easy bureaucratic method of resolving a scenario where the malefactors are so highly placed. However Constitution is able to solve such a problem in theory.  To understand this feaature consider the the Byzantine General’s Scenario, a thought experiment first formulated in 1982 by Lamport, Shostak and Pease of Microsoft to examine the problem of reaching a valid consensus in a system where one more possible traitors may be present. It was designed to resolve a situation in which distributed computing systems received conflicting or faulty signals recommending contradictory actions.  But it works equally well at illuminating the problem of political treachery.

The key result was that “no solution with fewer than 3m + 1 generals can cope with m traitors”. This is another way of saying that a deadlock will occur (“he’s the traitor … no he’s the traitor”) absent a minimum number of actors, a certain sample size of actions and a logical rule that identifies the deceits.   He said, she said won’t work.

This implies that the struggle in Washington is unlikely to find a resolution while is confined to the executive branch alone.  Before it can be resolved it must expand to include more actors.  The Constitution’s separation of powers design anticipates this expansion by ensuring at least 3m actors will be involved in reaching consensus.  Amazingly for a document written in the pre-computer age, the Constitution is designed to resolve deadlocks.

This suggests the Mueller investigation will not be the final word, just the primer to the main charge.  The conflict in Washington may have started but it is a long way from ended.

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The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. This book reveals the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy. As the full impact of digital technologies is felt, we will realize immense bounty but also experience wrenching change. Professions of all kinds – from lawyers to truck drivers – will be forever upended. Companies will be forced to transform or die. Recent economic indicators reflect this shift: fewer people are working, and wages are falling even as productivity and profits soar. Drawing on years of research and up-to-the-minute trends, MIT’s Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify the best strategies for survival and a new path to prosperity.

Open Curtains: What if Privacy were Property not only a Right, by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. This book is a proposal for bringing privacy to the internet by assigning monetary value to data. The image of “open curtains” is meant to suggest a system that allows different degrees of privacy, controlled by the owner. The “curtains” may be open, shut, or open to various degrees depending on which piece of data is being dealt with. Ultimately, what is at stake is governance. We are en route to control of society by and for the few rather than by and for the many, because currently the handful of mega tech companies are siphoning up everyone’s data, for nothing, and selling it. Under the open curtains proposal, government would also pay for its surveillance in the form of tax rebates, providing at least some incentive for government to minimize its intrusions … (from a review by E. Greenwood).

Skin in the Game, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In his new work, Taleb uses the phrase “skin in the game” to introduce a complex worldview that applies to literally all aspects of our lives. “Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game. Without it, fools and crooks will profit and their mistakes will never come back to haunt them,” he says. In his inimitable style, he pulls on everything from Antaeus the Giant to Hammurabi to Donald Trump to Seneca to the ethics of disagreement to create a jaw-dropping tapestry for understanding our world in a brand new way.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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