The Deep State

One of the first things that Trump did as President was to sign an executive order barring immigration from certain majority Muslim countries, as well as reducing the number of refugees admitted to the US, among other things.
The actual text of the order said nothing about denying entry to permanent resident (ie, green card holders).    (you can read the text here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/27/executive-order-protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states ).  Yet, with its initial roll out on January 27, green card holders were denied entry to the US.  On January 28, DHS clarified that green card holders were included in the ban.  Two days later, they reversed their position, deciding that the ban did not apply to green card holders after all.  (https://www.propublica.org/article/trump-executive-order-could-block-legal-residents-from-returning-to-america).  (eventually, the ban was blocked by a federal judge, and the Trump administration replaced it with another order which specifically exempted permanent residents.  That order was also blocked by a federal judge, partially reversed by the supreme court, which will presumably make a more complete ruling soon).
In executing the order, there was apparently no clear direction who was and wasn’t actually banned.  The necessary training, review and explanation to the DHS and Customs agents who would make the actual decisions was inadequate.  What I imagine happened is that some agent didn’t know what to do with a green card holder, so they asked their manager, who asked theirs… and at some point somebody made the decision that it would be better for their career to keep somebody out than to let somebody in.  This decision soon became the law of the land, for at least two days, until the higher ups reversed these decisions.  I am of course speculating, for all I know it was the President who decided in the first place, and then reversed his own decision two or three days later.
Yet this has all the hallmarks of bad management and bad communication.  An order was issued, and it was up to the department to figure out what that order actually meant.
All this could be chalked up to a rookie administration within the first few weeks of its administration.
***

On July 26, Donald Trump tweeted ( https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/890193981585444864 https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/890196164313833472  https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/890197095151546369  ) that Transgender individuals would be barred from military service.  While he made the decision “After consultation with Generals and military experts” he apparently did not inform the DoD; as they were reported caught off guard (http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/pentagon-says-trumps-transgender-tweet-was-not-an-order/article/2630201 ), and are awaiting more formalized instruction to begin implementing the policy.  Now, there may be some distinction between orders on the one hand and announcements on the other.  There may be reasons to ask clarifications during or before executing those orders.  Finally  there may be good reasons not to obey orders posted on twitter (or other social media sites), as they may be vulnerable to hacking or spoofing.
Yet despite this, it seems that the military is, in the smallest possible way, disobeying an order from the President.  Civilian control of the military is one of the hallmarks of a free society.  The awesome power of the military must be subordinate to our elected officials; doing otherwise invites military dictatorship.
Of course, I’m engaging in a little hyperbole.  Delaying implementation of an order until clarification is worlds away, in degree and in kind, from placing a favored candidate in office, or placing political opponents under military arrest.  The military’s actions are in many ways reasonable and may in fact be the best course of action.

***
One of the things that the alt-right wing of the conservative movement complains about is the deep state.  In essense, the theory goes, the true source of power in the US government isn’t the top, but the middle.  Middle to upper level government officials and employees are a type of rogue government within the government, acting not based on the will of the people but based on their own ends, enacting their own policies, working towards their own agendas.  The deep state is of course, totally liberal.  It is the deep state which is holding back Trump from truly making America Great Again.  The deep state is the source of the leaks plaguing the administration, it is really the source of the Independant Counsel investigation.
Moderate Conservative David Frum’s rebuttle of this is too good to pass up.  “‘deep state’ is code for ‘the rule of law,'”  ( https://twitter.com/davidfrum/status/865542966814818305 )
However, while most of the details of this stance of the alt-right (or most stances of the alt-right, for that matter) is somewhere between idiocy and totalitarian wish fulfillment, there is a kernel of truth in the theory.   The government should be accountable to the people; and within a representative democracy the accountability flows through our elected officials, especially the President.  While we may want environmental policy heavily influenced by environmental scientists, military policy influenced by generals, economic policy influenced by economists, et cetera, at each point we want one thing to be true: that the ultimate authority on any policy should be the citizenry.
***
Any time a person pushes some boundary or crosses some line, it becomes easier to do.  Stealing something small makes it easier to steal something big.  When you get used to something, it can be hard to stop doing. Delaying an implementation of a order until clarification doesn’t end civilian control of the military.  But it will take a small chip, a tiny sliver from that social norm.  With vigilance, intelligence, or even good luck, it will be replenished, and it will be as if nothing ever happened.  Yet if this continues; if we have orders announced but not formally given; then we’re essentially training our generals to decide on a case by case basis which orders to ignore and which to follow.
***

There are other norms in government as well.  The justice department should report to the citizenry via the President.  Yet there is an important counterbalance, a social norm which is more important.  And that is that the Justice Department should not be used for the personal aims of the President.  At the beginning of Trump term, I may have been a little worried that this may happen, that Trump would stack the department with his cronies, and it would be used to persecute Trump’s political opponents.

I am not worried about that anymore.  Trump, it seems, does not have the cunning to actually accomplish much nefariously.  When he laments that acting FBI director Andrew McCabe is somehow in league with Hillary Clinton and openly calls for his firing; (https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/890207082926022656 https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/890208319566229504 ), there is no action taken.  No one will rid Trump of this meddlesome director.  Far from obeying him, Attorney General Sessions, one of Trump’s first major supporters, just kind of ignores him.  There is simply no way the actual rank and file of the department would go along with prosecuting the President’s enemies on his orders.
But imagine what four years of openly and almost brazenly ignoring your superiors will do to you.  Sure, whoever replaces Trump will garner more respect.  And sure, the rank and file may not consciously decide to rebel or disobey or ignore.  But they may get used to it, and old habits die hard.
The deep state is a problem.  A government of the people, for the people, needs to be run by the people.  Far from attacking it however, Trump has only made it stronger, and the circus atmosphere which has pervaded the

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A Skeptical Audience

So Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey, as everybody knows by now. This immediately drew parallels to the Saturday Night Massacre, where Nixon ordered his Attorney General to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

At the heart of the matter are three questions. First, whether Comey was the best person for the job. The second question is whether this will hinder any ongoing investigations, specifically the investigation into Russian involvement in the Presidential election; and what if anything will be done to safeguard these investigations.

The third question is the most important, and is simply; which of the first two questions did Trump answer when firing Comey? That is, did he fire Comey because he felt Comey wasn’t a good director? Or did he fire Comey specifically to stop the Russian investigation (or any other)?

If it’s the first, and Comey wasn’t the best fit for the job (or even if Trump just honestly thinks so), then there’s no real problem. If it’s the second, then basically Trump is abusing the office to enact a personal agenda, using the department of justice as a political tool, and obstructing justice. Essentially, what Trump did is either a standard (if somewhat unusual) way of acting as President, or an impeachable offense; either it was as bland as Bill Clinton dismissing FBI director William Sessions, or as corrupt as Nixon firing Cox.

* * *

Having just finished a class on negotiation; I was struck by an study by Huthwaite inc, called “The Behaviors of Successful Negotiators” which looked at (no surprise here) the behaviors of successful negotiators. It was one of those truly great readings, the point of which seems obvious to me after reading it, but never once occurred to me beforehand. There were some behaviors which were kind of boring, (such as skilled negotiators talking more about long term topics), some which were somewhat reasonable but not much use elsewhere (skilled negotiators don’t have a predetermined sequence of when they wish to discuss which issue), but some which were meaningful and profound.

The fact I was most impressed with were the fact that skilled negotiators rarely used words like “generous,” “fair,” or “reasonable” to describe their own offers. Within a negotiation, calling something “fair” which you present, even if you think it is fair, is unlikely to convince your counterparty; it will only serve to aggrevate him or her if they don’t think its fair.

The second fact which I thought was really valuable was that skilled negotiators often made fewer arguments in their favor; but those were typically better quality. That is, if you’re trying to convince a hostile (or even skeptical) audience of a fact, and you present 5 arguments, they’re naturally going to latch on to the weakest argument you make. People are not rational Bayesian calculation machines, 2 strong arguments in favor are greater at convincing humans than 3 strong and 3 weak arguments in favor.

In both cases, the lesson is similar, in convincing a skeptical audience less is often more. Using more neutral language is more persuasive than persuasive language, and using fewer arguments is more persuasive than using many. The stronger you believe something (or come across as believing that thing), the less persuasive you can be to a skeptical audience.

* * *

Today, while packing up my apartment, I was listening to a several months old episode  of Bill Simmons’ podcast, the BS report. Simmons’ guest was one of my favorite essayists, Chuck Klosterman. In it, they were discussing who the NBA MVP will be, Russell Westbrook or James Harden. Klosterman had a very intriguing argument, which essentially went like this (I am of course paraphrasing):

1: The people who favor Westbrook think its obvious that the MVP should be Westbrook and there’s no other choice. (Westbrook averaged a triple double over the season, something that hasn’t been done since the legendary Oscar Robinson).

2: The people who favor Harden think its an interesting question and there are arguments for multiple candidates, but Harden is overall their favorite.

3: The people who are undecided will see the above two arguments, and almost tautologically will relate to 2nd one more. Because (by definition) they haven’t made up their mind, they can relate to those who think its a close race, who favor Harden.

Its an almost brilliant idea, and I have no idea if it will be correct or not, but it has a certain logic to it. Underlying it all is the same lesson, your ability to convince a skeptical party of something can be inversely related to the strength of your own belief.

* * *

Trump’s approval rating is low, but its not historically low. 538.com has him at 41%; Gallup had Obama at the low 40’s for much of 2011 and 2014 (of course this time in 2009 Obama was in the low 60’s, 20 points better than Trump is now.) Gallup had W Bush’s low at 25%, HW Bush at 30%, Clinton at 40%, Reagan at the mid 30’s, Carter at 30%, and Ford at 40%. (the counterclaim is that none of these Presidents were this unpopular this soon in their Presidency, but that’s kind of beside the point).

I’m not a Trump fan, and I certainly don’t think I will be. I see a number of things which Trump has done as being bad, corrupt, or incompetent, and the demeanor in which he has conducted himself has at times seemed unhinged and almost crazy. This to go with his numerous scandals, problems, gaffes, and remarks he made while campaigning and as a public figure.

Yet as much as 41% of American voters still approve of Trump. Why is this?

* * *

All this brings us back to President Trump and James Comey. If you’re already inclined to believe that Trump is a despot you will probably see the Comey situation as analogous to the Saturday Night Massacre, and Trump as obstructing justice. If you’re a fan of Trump you’re much more likely to see the situation as nuanced, or as analogous to Bill Clinton dismissing Director Sessions. And if you’re in between? Well, articles like this probably won’t convince you.

I think that those people who either support Trump or at least still giving him the benefit of the doubt just see all the criticism blending together, drowning itself out. They see Trump detractors reacting to firing Comey in the same way the reacted to Trump’s February 16 press conference. As long as they see the tone and not the substance of their opponents’ arguments, they’ll get no new information, and of course won’t change their minds.

Take an article like this, very anti-Trump, which purports to list all the bad things Trump has done. Yet it seems like half the things listed aren’t things Trump has done, but rather things he’s said or tweeted. Going back to the fact about skilled negotiators, how they will use fewer stronger arguments. Then compare that to the list in the nymag article. For many of the “Trump said this” arguments, if you’re not convinced now, you may not be ever. And if that argument won’t convince a skeptic, then making it will probably make better arguments less convincing.

With a skeptical audience, the strength of your beliefs can often work against you. There’s no shortage of liberal antipathy towards the Trump administration, yet I wonder if the strength of the left’s beliefs is actually hindering its ability to make a convincing argument.

Abimelech and Ben Carson

The Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” – Judges 8:23

“I would love us to bring back our Judeo-Christian values and begin to teach those things and emphasize them at a time other than a political election. Let’s do that. But right now, the train is going off the cliff.” – Ben Carson

In the book of Judges, we see the Gideon and 300 men defeat the Midianites (Gideon originally had 32,000, but the Lord would only act with fewer men, so that Israel would know that it was His doing). After Gideon saved the Israelites, they wished to make him king, as they were getting kind of tired of the whole having faith in God to raise up a judge needed. Gideon wisely refused, but after he died, the Israelites made his son Abimelech rule over Israel. Abimelech was a horrible ruler, instituting Baal worship, murdering his brothers to consolidate power, and waging war against his own cities until he was eventually killed by a woman throwing a rock on him.

Throughout the old testament, whether it’s the Israelites building a golden calf, or Saul attacking the Philistines before commanded by the Lord, there is a pattern of behavior for the Israelites: if they did not abandon the Lord altogether, they at least hedged their bets. The idea of having a King was simple, a powerful ruler could rally the Israelites, have a standing army, plan military strategy, and protect Israel from her enemies; and in so doing keep the alters to Baal and the Asherah poles from Israel. But of course, the Lord saves by many or by few, and the might of Gideon and his 300, or of Jonathan and his armor-bearer, or of David and his sling, are greater than any King or army. The kings the Israelites wanted so badly ended up worshiping Baal and building Asherah poles.

Today, we see that many in the Evangelical Christian community have a great need for a King, or at least a President. Ben Carson wished that we would return to “Judeo-Christian” values, but, “at a time other than a political election.”

Jerry Falwell Jr. supported Trump, arguing that the power of the Supreme court justices which Trump will appoint are of far greater importance than allegations of Sexual misconduct hurled at Trump.

Franklin Graham supported Trump’s travel ban, saying “Some people seem to have forgotten that the priority of the president of the United States is protecting the Constitution and the safety of Americans. That’s exactly what President Trump is trying to do. Taking action to secure our borders had to start somewhere. Is it perfect? Maybe not, but it is a first step.” Yes, Abimelech will may not be a perfect ruler of Israel, but we have to start somewhere.

Graham has also said “We want to love people, we want to be kind to people, we want to be considerate, but we have a country and a country should have order and there are laws that relate to immigration and I think we should follow those laws.” (as an aside, can we notice the horrible bait and switch presented, debating whether a law is good or not by declaring it the law is absurd in democracy, the whole point of a democracy is that laws are up for debate). He also said that the debate over refugees is “not a Bible issue.”

There are many Christians who are concerned about the supreme court, about religious liberty, about abortion, or about the Johnson amendment. But being a Christian doesn’t just mean working on behalf of God; it means working according to His rule. Many in the Evangelical movement have allied themselves with a man who has become rich beyond belief by building towers which he put his name one. A man who has fleeced his customers, who cheated on multiple wives, a man who used to wealth to buy beauty pageants in order to go back stage and watch the contestants undress. The power of the Supreme court, with its awesome power, is worth allying with such a man, so it is thought. As Abimelech would protect the Israelistes from the Midianites, so too will Donald Trump protect us from ISIS and the democrats.

Solomon, when he became King of Israel, sought to forge alliances with the neighboring countries, and he did that mainly through royal marriages. Yet is was these marriages which brought destruction to Israel, as his wives caused him to stop following the Lord and begin following foreign Gods. Today, many on the religious right are metaphorically in bed with the Trump administration, perhaps because they believe they can change him or bring out the best in him, perhaps because they believe that however imperfect, he is better than any alternative. Yet they should be very careful, lest the Trump administration change them.

As Christians, we’re called to transform our world, to speak out against injustice, to fight iniquity, to provide homes and jobs, protect the innocent. Taking part in politics is part of this; I’m not suggesting we eschew politics altogether (if I was, I wouldn’t be writing this essay in the first place). But politics is inherently dangerous. If we become too focused on the power of this world, we lose sight of who we are, we ally ourselves with evil people and fall not only to the evil we sought to fight, but to the evil within ourselves as well.

Elementary…

Watson, as I’m sure that everyone has heard of, is the name of IBMs jeopardy winning computer. normally, there’d be some sort of adjective before computer like “super,” but I don’t know what it would be, perhaps smart is the best word for it? I recently read that IBM was attempting to use this in Oncology, to help doctors treat cancer. This is, for many, perhaps myself included, a scary thought. We all know that computers are capable of doing amazing things, but they are also capable of doing incredibly dumb things. I would almost go so far as to offer a definition of common sense as the thing that computers lack. So I think it is important not to remove humans from the decision making process, but of course nobody is arguing to remove humans from the process. (interestingly, while the best computers have been able to consistently beat the best humans at chess for about 10 years now, which is always the first example given in regards to “oh the humans are losing”  to computers nonsense. What is interesting though is that, in chess, computers almost never make stupid mistakes. However, the best players in chess are “centaurs” or combined human/computer teams, but in this case its the humans, instead of protecting against computer stupidity, providing human creativity).

There’s a story about a teacher trying to teach kids something about knowledge, so she gives her students three numbers: 2,4,8. Then she tells the students that these numbers follow a certain pattern, and that they can give her other sets of numbers, and she will tell her student if it follows the pattern she has in mind or not. (There’s a video of that right here, in case you don’t want to read). The students very quickly notice a pattern, that each number is twice the previous number, and then give her similar sets: 3, 6, 12 or 4, 8, 16. For those of these, the teacher says yes, these fit my pattern.

However, the pattern is just that the numbers are in increasing order, not that they are double the previous number. This pattern necessarily includes all sequences where each number is twice the previous one (for positive numbers). But once we get a certain theory in our heads, its hard to get it out. So what should the students have done? Simple, not only give sequences which they think will yield positive results, but sequences which they think will yield negative results. Now, you may be thinking that this is simply confirmation bias, but you’re wrong. The students were never given any information which contradicted their hypothesis, so it’s not that they were ignoring or minimizing inconvenient information. Furthermore, they weren’t above testing their hypothesis, oh no, they were ready to put their theory to the test. The problem is that they didn’t know where to look, or which questions to ask.

For better or for worse, this is how humans think. They make observations, come up with a theory or pattern, which causes them to make further observations, which leads them to ask certain questions, which may or may not lead them to a decision. This is totally different from how a computer can make these same distinctions. Instead of looking for the “big” evidence which points in one direction, the computer can look at many small items, compare it to some type of database, and can take a bunch of pieces of “small” evidence and turn it into a guess.

The best way that I can describe this is to use the game 20 questions. When humans play it, they typically go through some sort of decision tree, asking a question, then based on the answer pose a new question within that tree. For animal, it might even go through kingdom/phylum etc. (it is a vertebrae? Yes, is it warm-blooded? Yes. Is it a mammal? No. Is it a flightless bird? Yes. Is it an ostrich? No. is it a Penguin? Yes)

Compare that tree of questions to the below, courtesy of 20q.net. (if you’d like to play, for some weird reason select the “think in British” option, it seems to be smarter than the American Version).

1. It is classified as Animal.
2. Can you buy it? No.
3. Can it jump? Yes.
4. Is it ferocious? No.
5. Is it multicoloured? Yes.
6. Is it a type of mineral? No.
7. Is it fluffy? Yes
8. Is it originally from Africa? Sometimes.
9. Does it live in the jungle? No.
10. Is it black? Sometimes.
11. Does it live in trees? No.
12. Would you give it as a gift? No.
13. Does it live in groups (gregarious)? Yes.
14. Does it have a bushy tail? No.
15. Can it be tamed? No.
16. Can it climb? No.
17. Are there many different sorts of it? Yes.

Q18. I am guessing that it is a penguin?
Right

None of those questions seem to follow any sort of pattern (after the initial animal question)- but somehow, taken together, they indicate penguin. None of those seem to hone in on Penguin at all; no question about living in the arctic, swimming, eating fish, or for that matter, even being a bird. Yet based only only those 17 questions (one of which seems like complete nonsense – is it a type of mineral!), the computer somehow knows that I was thinking of Penguin. Note also that most of the questions are completely unlike the children in my story, the computer must be getting a lot of information from the “no” answers.

A long time ago, when 20q first came out on the internet and AOL Instant Messenger was still a thing, used to on, get my friends to play 20 questions with me, only I’d be using 20q. So they’d be given a long string of what they think were nonsense questions, only to be told the correct answer. My friends thought I was doing magic, I suppose I was cheating but it was fun.

Take the question, “is it multicoloured” Penguins are, because they are black and white. But when we hear that, we suddenly think of peacocks, or baboons, or things that are not just multicolored, but extravagantly colored. We infer more from the answer than can be truly stated.

Which all brings me back to our friend Watson. A computer which can help diagnose conditions based on a bunch of diverse, mundane data is something that will almost certainly prove useful. Humans are, on the whole, much more creative than computers, but there are certain circumstances in which computers appear more creative. Considering penguin as an answer to my above set of questions, for instance. It’s not real creativity, it’s just that the computer can consider every animal at once, we are limited in our considerations. While I’m not quite ready for medicine to be taken over by computers entirely, I’m looking forward to seeing Watson help out in the ER.